“In Search of Amrit Kaur” by Livia Manera Sambuy


In a museum in Mumbai, a chance viewing of a photograph of a Punjabi princess inspires Italian author and journalist, Livia Manera Sambuy, to investigate the rani’s life which, unexpectedly, becomes a journey of self-discovery too.

The young, elegant woman in the photograph, taken in London in June 1924, is Her Royal Highness Rani Shri Amrit Kaur Sahib. Married the previous year to the Raja Joginder Sen Bahadur of Mandi, the newlyweds visited London and were received by King George and Queen Mary. So far, so glamorous, but what happened later is far more intriguing. The portrait’s description claimed Amrit had been arrested in occupied France by the Gestapo for having sold her jewellery to help Jews leave the country.

Sambuy makes some initial queries but lets the project slide when she relocates, post-divorce, to Paris from Milan. Finally she gets back on track and calls Amrit’s daughter in Pune, India, who is known as “Bubbles”. She reveals that her mother died, not in captivity, but in London in 1948, having been released in a prisoner swap. She also invites Sambuy to visit her in Pune.


In Search of Amrit Kaur: An Indian Princess in Wartime Paris, Livia Manera Sambuy (Author), Todd Portnowitz (trans) (Chatto & Windus, January 2023; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2023)
In Search of Amrit Kaur: An Indian Princess in Wartime Paris, Livia Manera Sambuy, Todd Portnowitz (trans) (Chatto & Windus, January 2023; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2023)

The initial meeting with the 80-year-old Bubbles, now in reduced circumstances and a royal just in name, uncovers the threads of a story which is fabulous in all senses of the word. Amrit was born into Indian royalty at the height of the British Raj. The colonizers tolerated the maharajahs—once they had renounced their authority. Removed from their responsibilities, but enjoying incredible wealth, the Indian princes had little to do other than globe-trot or indulge in conspicuous consumption. Sambuy writes: “In the world of Indian princes, newborns played with ruby-studded balls, children with golden toys, and adults with luxury cars.”

Amrit Kaur’s father was one such princeling. Married six times, his fourth wife was Amrit’s mother. She was displaced in his favors by the fifth wife, a flamenco dancer called Anita Delgado who he met in Madrid.

Perhaps because of this experience, and her own arranged marriage with a totally unsuitable partner, Amrit was a vocal defender of women’s rights. She particularly championed education for women and the raising of the minimum age for girls to marry. However, this genteel politicking was not to last. When her husband took a second wife, Amrit endured the enlarged household for three years before fleeing to Europe in 1933. She left her two small children—Bubbles and her brother—behind, an action from which Bubbles was still nursing the pain.

Mystified by why Amrit abandoned her children, and what happened to her incredibly valuable jewellery, Sambuy travels between India, Europe and America to unearth the truth. The journey is peopled with fascinating characters, both in the past and present, including Jewish bankers, Parisian jewellers, spies, socialites, royals, writers and Nazis. The final breakthrough comes via a burlesque dancer in San Diego who, through a string of strange coincidences, has inherited Amrit’s original briefcase and its contents.


Existing details of Amrit’s life are scant but Sambuy’s exhaustive research more than compensates. Drawing on contemporary sources and her interviews with modern-day experts and existing family members, she evokes a compelling backdrop to Amrit’s life. Her depiction of the Besançon prison is particularly strong, as is her own response to the site of the D-Day landings. Sambuy writes:


I tried to imagine the burnt-out trucks along the beach, the overturned ships, the rows of the dead draped in blankets, only their toes protruding; and all those objects abandoned on the sand, left there the next morning to tell one, ten, thousands of stories, made up of diaries, Bibles, accordions, socks lost in escape, toothbrushes, hand grenades and even tennis rackets, mixed up with the latest letters from home, their addresses clipped off, just in case.


Sambuy leaves her personal revelations until the epilogue. Here she confesses that reconciling Bubbles with her mother has lifted the depression caused by Sambuy’s damaged relationship with her own mother. Too briefly touched upon, this is yet another fascinating story among so many others. As Sambuy writes, who would have thought that the Holocaust and the end of the Raj would have intertwined in the life of a lonely princess? Mounted on the author’s own narrative arc, this biography is a many-faceted gem.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.