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Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha



Title: Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me

Author: MA Sreenivasan

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

This is a delightful book for two reasons: One, it is a reminiscence of a civil service official with the princely state of Mysore and Gwalior, and later with the government of British India. Secondly, the stream of language and the lucidness with which the author has penned his recollections is remarkable. What is more, it reflects on the administrative practices of the former princely states of India.

M.A. Sreenivasan (1897-1998) lived through almost the entire 20th century and was among the very few people who witnessed at close quarters the enormous changes that took place in India during this period. Born in Madras, he belonged to a family that traced his subsequent generations of Pradhans (ministers) of successive kings of Mysore for 150 years. Sreenivasan joined the Mysore Civil Service in 1918 and, after a varied career both with the Mysore Government and the Government of British India. He became a Pradhan of the Maharaja of Mysore in 1943. In 1947, he was invited by the Maharaja of Gwalior to become the Dewan of that State. During that momentous year, he was a member of the Constituent Assembly of India and in regular touch with many of the leading figures (including Mountbatten) involved in the transfer of power from British to Indian hands.

Much more than an autobiography, the book is a rare portrait of India during and immediately after the British Raj. The princely States of India have been neglected by scholars, many of whom have tended to be unfairly critical. There is much in this book on the effectiveness of administration in two major princely States. It redresses the balance and makes the book a valuable document on the subject. Further, Sreenivasan provides sharp insights into the negotiations that led to the end of the Raj, and into the new polity that emerged after Independence. 

Writes Sreenivasan about Louis Mountbatten: “I had seen and talked to Mountbatten at lunch parties in Viceroy’s House and meetings of the Chamber of Princes. Tall of stature, with an enviable reputation as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the War, he impressed everyone with his fine personality and pleasing manner. Standing on the dais that day, wearing his bright, white naval uniform, festooned with medals and decorations, he addressed the gathering as Crown Representative of His Majesty, the King of Great Britain, his cousin, and spoke of the King’s concern for the Princes of India with whom the Crown’s long-standing associations and obligations were soon to come to an end.”

Elsewhere in the book he writes about Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer: “He was a remarkable man. Endowed with a fine personality and a keen intellect, he was learned and brilliant, an eloquent speaker, and a brave and dynamic administrator. In his early years, he was a much sought-after lawyer and one of the first, most ardent, champions of Home Rule for India. CP, as he was called by friends, was among the leaders and statesmen whose views were sought by successive British missions. He did not, however, take part in the Constituent Assembly or its committees. I knew he had plans of making Travancore an independent maritime State. I had always held him in esteem as a distinguished elder statesman and called on him at Travancore House in New Delhi, asking him why he had not agreed to the accession of Travancore.”

Write Shashi Tharoor in the foreword: “This book is simultaneously an exploration of the region’s glorious past and present and a memorable personal history, tracing Sreenivasan’s life and career, which was as challenging as it was deeply interesting. From the ups and downs of local politics to navigating the bureaucracy of nascent independent India, not to mention moving forays into Sreenivasan’s home life particularly relating to his beloved and constantly supportive wife, Chingu, there is little that is not covered. The reader follows the author through his myriad journeys, from Mysore to New York and London, to the Chambal Valley and beyond.”

The last few chapters of the book are notable. Whether it is the merger of the princely states or Prime Minister Nehru, Sardar Patel and the two Nobel laurates- CV Raman and Dalai Lama – Sreenivasan’s chronicles make for an absorbing read.

In the epilogue, he writes: “The years have witnessed revolutionary changes in India. There has been impressive progress in many directions and many remarkable achievements. The scourge of smallpox and plague has been eradicated. The shame of human beings carrying night soil has ended in many cities and towns. Infant mortality has been reduced, and life expectancy enhanced.

“The production of food grains and other needed crops has vastly increased. Thanks to generous foreign aid and increased revenues, huge dams and reservoirs have been built. Hydro-and thermal power generating stations installed. An industrial revolution has taken place. Thousands of mills and factories turn out myriads of products, from cotton cloth and silk to telephones, television sets, computers, locomotives, motorcars, and aeroplanes. Transport and communication have also been revolutionized. Scores of universities, hundreds of engineering and medical colleges and research institutions have been started and equipped. India can boast of having perhaps the largest surplus of scientists and technologists in the world for export. But progress has not come with both hands full. With great gains have come great losses. An irreparable loss is the grievous vivisection of India.”

This captivating life story will be of particular interest to students and scholars of modern Indian history as well as the general reader.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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