| Gina Narayan in front of a portrait of her late husband, Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan, at the Dev Burman residence. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
London-born Gina Narayan loves Cooch Behar more than any other place in the world. The beautiful Cooch Behar palace, her handsome husband on a horse, tennis or badminton in the afternoon… the images flash through her mind, 27 years after she left India.
Gina was Georgina Egan before she married Maharaja Jagaddipendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur of Cooch Behar in 1956. “We were introduced at a dinner party in London and married secretly after a three- month courtship,” recounts the 76-year-old, sitting in a room bedecked in oil paintings and black-and-white photographs of royal family members at the Dev Burman residence on Ballygunge Circular Road.
“It took three years for the official announcement, as we had to make sure that the Indian government would accept me, and I arrived in Calcutta in January 1960 full of trepidation,” she goes on.
Jagaddipendra, elder brother of Maharani Gayatri Devi, was educated at Harrow and the University of Cambridge. Gina, who lived with her mother and stepfather, had a modest upbringing in London. The 5-ft-8-inch blonde took a course in shorthand and typewriting before becoming a “highly-paid fashion model” at age 18.
But nothing could match the drama of life in Cooch Behar — “the different customs, learning to tie a sari, getting to know the mashimas and pishimas, and getting used to being called Her Highness…”
“We would get up very early and my husband would practise stick-and-ball (polo). Then we used to take a walk around, have breakfast and he would see to his office work. In the afternoon, we played tennis or badminton. We had a squash court, too. There were tea gardens 30-40 miles around and we would invite the officials to dinner. You couldn’t get bored,” she smiles, her eyes twinkling.
Gina’s current trip to India involves stops in Delhi, Jaipur and Calcutta, where she caught up with the polo season, which also brought Maharani Gayatri Devi to town.
“My husband and I would come down to Calcutta from Cooch Behar for the racing and polo seasons. The polo would go from here to Delhi, to Jaipur and then to the UK. And then, there would be dinner parties or social engagements down here. We would take a plane from the Cooch Behar airport,” recounts Gina, who lived in Cooch Behar till Jagaddipendra’s death in 1970. “He had a polo accident in Jaipur in 1966 and had brain damage. He needed constant medical attention and also suffered a couple of heart attacks.”
In London, the couple moved among a swish set comprising Ava Gardner, Shirley MacLaine and Sammy Davis Jr. “Ava Gardner and I had become very good friends,” she adds, as an afterthought.
Currently, Gina shuttles between London and Spain, where she lives on the foothills of the Pyrenees. She stayed on in India till 1980, before shifting to Spain. But “the peace and quiet of Cooch Behar” is what she has come to love more than anything else.
Yet, 16 years since her last visit to Calcutta, Gina is reluctant to revisit the place where she spent most of her youth and wedded life. “Unfortunately the Cooch Behar palace is empty inside. It’s very sad. I haven’t been back because I had such happy times there and I only want to remember that,” she says.