PRINCESS – A SHORT STORY BY LEELA SOMA
He lusted after her from the first moment their eyes locked. She looked young and vulnerable; her baby blue eyes in that innocent, cherubic face set his heart thumping. On her first visit to the university library he had made sure he issued her the tickets and talked over-long about all the facilities of the huge library. She seemed to take it all in, her eyes darting about the room, looking nervously around.
‘I work in the archives, so any time you need special reference books or documents, just ask for me.’ He pointed to his name badge on his shirt.
She nodded, took the tickets and walked around the book shelves. His eyes followed her every move.
He had never seen her with a friend or classmate in the library. History seemed to be her major. He had secretly looked up the computer to see the books she had borrowed.
By the end of the second semester he had managed to help her with quite a few of her essays.
He followed her shapely body leaning against the glass-fronted table. He could feel a tingle spreading all over. He sauntered over, trying to look casual.
‘Can I help you? Looking for something?’
Tracy looked up and smiled. It was a sepia-coloured portrait. The image of a child-woman intrigued her. She wanted to know more, yet had never found the time. She was looking at the sepia portrait intently again. She thought it must be something to do with the Raj.
‘Do you know anything about this portrait?’
He sidled as close as possible, on the pretext of looking at the portrait. His palms were sweaty.
‘That’s strange – there’s no note beside it. I’ll get to it right away and get you all you want to know.’
She waited, sitting at a desk with a pile of books on the Raj. Her mind was on the big essay that had to be handed in soon and formed a huge part of her assessment. She was stressed.
She watched him walking towards her with his glasses over his forehead. Forty years old, with grey eyes, in crushed chinos and an old grey jumper. He smiled brightly as he came close to her desk, then put a book down on it.
‘This will be fantastic material for your final essay. That lady is an Indian princess, born in 1841. I’ll help you. There’s such a fascinating history here.’ His eyes shone with excitement.
‘That sounds perfect, but I’ve classes all day! I need to go to my lecture. Then a seminar.’ She looked disappointed.
It was a perfect excuse for him.
‘Give me your mobile number – I’ll send you all the information. Start reading; in fact, I’ll make notes for you.’
‘That’s too much. But thanks.’
She gave him her mobile number. That was the start to it all. He texted her that same evening.
I searched the archives for you and got some information on Queen Victoria and the Raj that you wanted. Brian.
Thanks so much, she replied.
She read the document he had sent over. It was like the start of an essay. Was he doing the essay for her?
Coorg, the tiny principality shaped like an infant’s bootie. Mountainous, yet on one side the vertiginous drop to the white waves of the aquamarine Arabian Sea, on India’s Southern coastline. Mist-laden hills and temperate climes. After the overthrow of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Coorg ceded to the British. The peridot green of trees – rosewood, sandalwood, and eucalyptus. The coolness reminded them of Scotland. The king of Coorg, exiled in Benares, sued Queen Victoria for the looting of his wealth and asked for it back, unheard of during the days of the Empire. Promised an audience with the Queen on condition of his beautiful eight-year-old daughter’s baptism to Christianity, the king travelled to England, handed his little princess – unaware of the plot to marry her off to Duleep Singh, the first Indian Christian prince, protégé of the Queen….
He waited for her reply.
Nothing, nothing at all. He got a bit desperate, kept texting her.
He decided that maybe she was ill, so he sent her a message to say he could go over to visit her if she could give her address to him.
There was no reply. There was only a couple of weeks to the essay due date. He decided to text some of the information he had collected. Should he just send the bullet points, he wondered? Would that bring her over to flesh out the essay? He spent a few restless hours thinking of how to word the fascinating history he had discovered in the archives.
He tried a bullet point first.
The Princess was baptised in the presence of Queen Victoria by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have the date here and more info. Brian
Next text, which was not answered, was this:
She was born in 1841 and after her baptism on 17th June 1852 she was brought up in an entirely European way of life. She attended the Royal Juvenile Ball of 18. There is so much more, and I can give you more on the plot to marry her off. Brian
Nothing. Even this important text with information to help with her essay was not answered. He tried calling several times, but again no response. Had she changed her phone number? Why had she not come to the library at all? Was she away? Dropped out of the course?
He decided to write a more important aspect of the essay and see if she would come around. Maybe if he gave her more she would come and get the sources for her bibliography.
There was another reason for the plot to marry the princess off to Maharajah Duleep Singh. The Queen and her Court felt strongly that they were the only two Christians of high rank in their own countries and this would be a way of making the whole of ‘pagan’ India into a Christian country. Save all their souls. Queen Victoria made her a God Daughter and christened her Victoria Gowramma!
Now this would be an important fact in your essay. Was that a sinister plot by The Queen or was it genuine concern and love of her subjects?
Come over and we can discuss it and I can give you the sources for your essay.
There was no answer again. He was really worried now. He decided to visit her.
Now he had to get her address. He would take annual leave and find her.
Shit! I’d never expected he’d turf me out! Literally throw me out.
I was his princess; he loved me to bits. He looked after me from when I was wee, when ma passed away. Jesus! He even grabbed my phone. Threw it out. Broke it.
Never expected he’d turn like this.
Hurtful words. I’d never forget them.
‘Bitch! What will the church think? How am I going to face them?’ That was what he screamed at me. ‘They helped me raise you.’
‘Christ, da,’ I said, and that’s when he raised his hand.
‘How dare you even utter his name?’
‘Dad, da,’ I pleaded. He slapped me then. For fuck’s sake, I’d never seen him this angry. He ran up the stairs; heard him rummaging in my room as I massaged my hot cheek. He came down in a few minutes with a bag, flung it at me, opened the front door and shouted, ‘Out, out, never want to see you again!’
I walked out the door.
The counsellor at the Uni was really helpful. She said as a first-year student she could find a place at the halls of residence as a few students had left after the very first semester. But I’d need to pay for it. I decided to save the money I earned from my job in the cafeteria and see if I could get a loan or use all of my SAAS for the term.
I stayed at Claire’s for a few days, until the accommodation in the halls was sorted out. I slept on the sofa. Her parents were so nice to me. Claire was too busy with her maths and science course, spending all her time in the department. She persuaded me to go to the course supervisor and explain what had happened.
The lecturer was good, very sympathetic, and offered to defer the essay date. He also said I could repeat the semester if I couldn’t cope, but told me not to miss any classes.
I cried shamelessly in front of him. People were so good to me. But not my da. I tried calling him on Claire’s phone, but he put it down as soon as I said, ‘Hi, da.’
I got back to a routine slowly. I went back to the library and worked on the essay. Where was Brian? He was so helpful before all the carry-on with my da. I asked for him. I was told he was away on his holidays. Lucky for me he had left a box of documents and photos, paintings of Princess Victoria Gowramma, the Indian goddaughter of Queen Victoria, all relevant to my essay in the archives. I took ages but wrote the essay. It was a story that took my breath away. The Princess was a feisty character; she refused to marry Prince Duleep Singh. No arranged marriage for her! She defied conventions even in that age. She shocked her guardians by having a fling with a stable boy, as she was obsessed with blue eyes and the light skins of the British. Finally she chose and married a forty-year-old widower with four sons, an aristocratic gambler, Lord Login, who wanted only her wealth. She gave birth to a baby girl and died of consumption at the very young age of twenty-three. I wondered if there were any of her daughter’s family still in Britain.
I slanted my whole essay on why she was written out of the history of Queen Victoria. I loved the research and writing it all down. Brian had got documents from various sources for me. The photos of the young princess and the portraits of her were striking. I added them as illustrations in my essay and gave the sources in the bibliography.
I would have to thank Brian when he came back from his holiday.
Nearly a month later, I emailed the first draft to my coursework tutor from the library computer. He replied the next day, even though he was on the summer break.
‘”The Princess Who was Airbrushed out of History” – that’s a great title! Looks like a solid piece of work on a historical figure we were not aware of. Well done, Tracy! Make sure you make the few corrections that I’ve pointed out in the document. This merits a very good pass.’
I was so excited that I wanted to work on the final draft immediately. I was hurrying along to the library when I bumped into Claire. I told her about the essay and that I would pass this year; we kissed.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the old archivist, Brian. He must be back from his holidays. I waved to him, but he hurried away as though he hadn’t seen me.
Claire hadn’t told her parents about us. Not yet.