In Search of Amrit Kaur: A Lost Princess and Her Vanished World by Livia Manera Sambuy

The East as a source of romantic replenishment: Livia Manera Sambuy begins her story along hackneyed lines.

In the aftermath of a breakup 15 years ago, Sambuy, an Italian journalist, had traveled to Bombay—never “Mumbai,” not for those of us who know that the city’s name was changed by a violent and xenophobic local government in 1995—where she spotted a “full-length portrait” of a Sikh princess in a museum: “A slender young woman, whose grace … shone like a ray of light.”

The princess had posed for the portrait wearing a diamond necklace and two long strings of pearls, “an act of modesty” in Sambuy’s eyes. The accompanying note suggested that Amrit Kaur, the “Rani of Mandi,” had apparently sold her jewelry to help Jews escape occupied Paris, and that she’d later been arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

The story turns out to be false, among the many apocryphal tales told about the princess. Sambuy has a hard time separating fiction from fact all through In Search of Amrit Kaur. In a quest spanning three continents, she forages through library archives in London and Paris, becomes friends with Kaur’s daughter, Bubbles, in Pune, and even tracks down a briefcase with the princess’s initials in San Diego.

She finds out that Kaur was indeed among the many British subjects residing in France who were imprisoned by the Germans during the Second World War, but she was released after six months. Sambuy finds no evidence of Kaur’s risking her safety to aid anyone else—although her father, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, was good friends with the French Jewish banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn, who died a poor man inside his house in Boulogne during the occupation—and, in any case, Kaur died just a few years after the war, in London in 1948.

Indeed, the entire book turns out to be a sequence of wild-goose chases, compounded by galling bouts of projections and fantasies on Sambuy’s part. We get only the faintest outline of Kaur’s life: painstaking descriptions of regal weddings and parties in colonial India, the palaces and mansions of profligate subcontinental rajas, the exotic jewelry they gave to their wives and mistresses.

At one point, Sambuy is persuaded that the princess was “determined to fight for the poorest and most marginalised women” on the basis of a few remarks Kaur made during an interview with the New York Herald Tribune. But across more than 350 pages, Sambuy fails to unearth a single instance of Kaur’s interacting with anyone who isn’t a fellow royal descendant or an heiress. Sambuy’s point of view is consistently top-down and, while recalling historical events, incredibly generalized.

Versailles, with a Hint of Balmoral

Kapurthala, in North India, was among the 600-odd provincial kingdoms allowed some control over their territories so long as they pledged allegiance to the British Crown. Famously decadent, these royal clans more or less spent the colonial period carousing and shopping all over the world, while their erstwhile subjects strained under the excesses of a global empire.

By the time Kaur was born there, in 1904, her father had married thrice—he would go on to wed a total of six wives—and was more worried about ingratiating himself with Queen Victoria at her castle in Balmoral and remodeling his palace, in Kapurthala, after Versailles, complete with Louis XVI furniture and French-speaking servants, than with the plight of the poorest Indian women.

Kaur with her two children.

Kaur was sent to an all-girls boarding school in Sussex. Not long after she returned to India following graduation, her family married her off to Raja Joginder Sen, a prince in the adjoining state of Mandi. Sometime in the early 1930s, Sen brought home a second wife, Kusum. Sambuy suggests that this may have been one of the reasons that compelled Kaur to abandon her two children in Mandi and run away to Paris.

She spent the years leading up to the war traveling around the United States, shacking up in expensive hotels with Louise Hermesch, apparently a carefree “socialite of Washington, D.C.” and Mayflower descendant. Sambuy speculates that Hermesch might have been responsible for Kaur’s early release from the concentration camp in France.

Sambuy is seldom able to tap into intimations of Kaur’s experiences in India as well as overseas. Her research, which she dumps artlessly on the reader, struggles to convey the significance of the princess’s life. After a while you shudder at another paragraph about the luxurious lives of Indian rulers, their walls “embossed dull silver lacquer,” their Rolls-Royces and Cartier diamonds.

Then there are the freshman briefings on the history of occupied France and the Indian subcontinent, clearly intended as padding material. Must the reader partake in Sambuy’s astonishment on learning that many privileged Indians kept up with European mores in the early 20th century, or the catastrophic consequences of the partition of the subcontinent?

You hear Kaur’s voice only once throughout the book—a couple of excerpts from her interview with the New York Herald Tribune—but there is an entire chapter on the Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil because she might have been friends with the princess, and another on Nicholas Roerich, a Russian artist who settled in the Himalayas, presumably because he once bought a chalet from Kaur’s husband. Sambuy lacks the sensibility to make these digressions add up to a pointillist portrait. I ended up yearning for something less distracted, something less romantic.

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a New Delhi–based writer and critic