The Curse of Beauty
The world will never know what the legendary beauty Gayatri Devi felt when she saw herself in the mirror – sixty years ago, when she had the world swooning at her feet…. and a few months ago, when she still had the world swooning at… at…. the memory. Gayatri Devi spent her adult life frozen in a single frame – that one defining image which was imprinted in our imagination. Like a lot of Living Legends, she too may have been tragically trapped in a construct she could never ever shed - “ The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” This label became her claim to fame – regardless of what else she may have achieved in her rich and varied public life. Gayatri Devi was the Ultimate Maharani – the lady who personified ‘Royalty’. It was her special burden. Maybe it was also her secret joke. Every chhota-mota ‘princess’, whether from ‘Kadkanagar’ or some other rival ‘State’, strenuously tried to imitate the elegance of Gayatri Devi’s trademark chiffon sarees combined with a string of pearls. But nobody matched up. Nobody!
It must have been pretty tiring for her to live up to people’s expectations of her – but if the whole Beauty Talk bored her to tears, she didn’t reveal it, choosing to laugh it off, instead. The people of Jaipur adored her - most of them, at any rate. Given the complex politics of the Pink City, Gayatri Devi negotiated her way past those deadly landmines with admirable dexterity. She had her enemies, within and outside her family. But unlike other warring Royals, she handled her life with supreme dignity and grace. Palace politics were cleverly contained, her personal griefs (several!) rarely revealed, and her private misgivings, shared with but a few close confidantes.
I had met Gayatri Devi a few times over the years, and found her unbelievably down to earth, far from aloof and disarmingly ‘real’. Most people were awestruck, even dumbstruck in her presence. If she noticed their discomfort, she instantly reached out and put them at ease without patronizing anybody. She showed her true class and impeccable upbringing dealing with ‘her people’ – simple villagers who continued to flock to their Rajmata, confident she’d help them if she could. Her smokey, throaty voice added to the allure and mystique still further. Talking to her, it was easy to tell she was a woman who had LIVED. A woman who had experienced life in all its complexities. This Cinderella story was not without its warts.In her book, “ A Princess Remembers,” she had recalled with rare poignancy and candour that at the end of the day, even the World’s Most Beautiful Woman places her head on a pillow…. and silently weeps. Today, we mourn the death of Eternal Beauty. May her soul rest in peace.
The flight from Bhuvaneshwar had barely touched down when the phone calls started. Gayatri Devi had slipped away.... and with her an entire era had also ended. Two days earlier, another legendary beauty, Leela Naidu, had died a lonely death in her Colaba flat. Sometimes, only a cliche says it best - they don't make them like that anymore.
As was expected, my whirlwind trip to Orissa went by in a flash and a blur of lovely memories. What does an award -winning writer do on a loooong flight?? Two guesses. Both will be wrong! Amitav Ghosh spent most of his time swatting flies! It must have been acutely frustrating for him, since he was also trying to write ( no laptop, yellow writing pads, fountain pen, much scratching, chopping , changing - I was openly spying!!). But when the Indian Airlines plane landed at Raipur (hopping flight), we picked up monster flies which swarmed the cabin and buzzed over Amitav's tousled, silver grey crop of hair. Poor guy battled the menace through the next hour, before finally giving up.
I wasn't sure I was ready to listen to a local guide taking Arundhati and moi through the 'meaning' of those explicit and highly erotic Konarak sculptures. But the person turned out to be a really discreet gentleman, who rushed us past the more kinky ones and concentrated on the harmless dance panels. Earlier, we had watched the angry sea outside our bay windows. The Mayfair Hotel is right on the beach at Puri, and very interestingly designed using local material.
Our darshan at the Jagannath Mandir took place late at night. It was a hair-raisingly sublime experience. Especially the time spent in the Mahalakshmi temple just after the bhog ceremony. I feel so very blessed....