In Search of Amrit Kaur

Image of In Search of Amrit Kaur: A Lost Princess and Her Vanished World
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

This is not only the story of Amrit Kaur, a princess of Colonial-era India, but even more, it’s the story of author Livia Manera Sambuy’s wide-ranging efforts to learn about Amrit. In particular, the author wants to understand how a South Asian princess came to be “arrested by the Gestapo in occupied Paris on the accusation of having sold her jewellery [sic] to help Jews leave the country.”

In the end, Manera Sambuy—a veteran Italian literary journalist—doesn’t find definitive answers. But her decade-long quest is fascinating as she travels back and forth from France to India to California, interviewing a score of sources including Amrit’s 80-year-old long-abandoned daughter, a scion of one of the world’s great jewelry houses, and a retired topless dancer, among others.

When Amrit’s daughter, known as Bubbles, asks Manera Sambuy why she embarked on this project, the author replies that it was because of a portrait of Amrit that she saw in a museum in Mumbai in 2007, with its mysterious reference to the arrest by the Gestapo.

“But there was more,” Manera Sambuy writes. Her brother had just died, after “a ferocious disease.” Manera Sambuy was overcome by “the unexpected longing I’d felt, a desire that caught me off guard in that dimly lit museum room; and the trace of hope I’d heard in Bubbles' voice over the phone.”

Actual details about Amrit’s life constitute a surprisingly small part of In Search of Amrit Kaur. She was born in 1904, the daughter of an immensely wealthy, albeit minor, maharaja in a tiny corner of northwestern India and his fourth wife. Educated in a British boarding school, she was abruptly yanked out of her cosmopolitan world and whisked back to an even more remote part of India for an arranged marriage to an even more minor prince. During those years, Amrit briefly managed to establish a reputation as a campaigner for women’s rights.

Then, in 1934, three years after her husband had taken a second wife, Amrit abruptly ran off to Paris, abandoning Bubbles and an older son pretty much for the rest of her life, aside from occasional letters.

The museum label that spurred Manera Sambuy’s quest was semi-accurate. Amrit was indeed arrested in Paris in December 1940, but it was part of a Nazi roundup of British subjects, not in retaliation for helping Jews. Along with some 4,000 other prisoners, she was sent to a detention camp in the French border town of Besançon, where she lived in filth and starvation for six months.

Manera Sambuy never manages to resolve exactly how Amrit got released from that camp, although it seems a safe assumption that her family’s powerful connections played a role. In any case, as Bubbles tells the author, “captivity had taken a terrible toll on my mother’s health,” and Amrit Kaur died in 1948.

Another unsolved mystery is the fate of Amrit’s treasure trove of jewels, which included “an extravagantly beautiful Art Deco necklace, with several diamonds and an enormous sixteen-carat sapphire; a Cartier ring with an emerald-cut nine-carat diamond, flanked by two pentagonal diamonds; another diamond ring with a sixteen-carat rectangular diamond; and several diamond and sapphire bracelets.” Did Amrit sell the cache? Did the proceeds go to Jewish refugees? Or was she forced to leave the jewels behind in India?

While the author doesn’t line up all the pieces, she succeeds in uncovering other secrets about Amrit’s missing years.

The research she undertakes to achieve these results is truly impressive. She pores through jewelry auction catalogs and archives of the British Museum and the Paris police; she flies off to India for a dinner party with Amrit’s unwelcoming cousins, then to San Diego to inspect a tattered old suitcase. At one point, she drives up an exhaust-choked, winding mountain road to see a small chalet where Amrit had lived for a short time during her pregnancies.

The narrative, translated by Todd Portnowitz, reads as easily as a good novel, with vivid descriptions.  

One of the book’s biggest bonuses is also its major flaw. To her credit, Manera Sambuy places Amrit’s life in the context of British Colonial history and the lifestyles of the various cultures that the princess traverses. However, she tends to go overboard, padding her narrative with digressions into the architecture of Paris or the details of pearl-diving.

The story of Manera Sambuy’s quest is rich enough to carry a good book, without any extra baubles.