Three thousand kilometres southwest of Dalhousie Hilltop School, at the opposite end of the country, I discovered that in some families in India, the English language had been taught for over 200 years, for political reasons, almost as a matter of necessity. Inside the old royal family of Travancore, Her Highness Princess Pooyam Thirunal Gouri Parvathi Bayi had grown up hearing English spoken around her all the time. Consequently, when she began to learn it formally, it was almost effortless, as natural as paying obeisance to Lord Padmanabha, a representation of the supreme deity Vishnu.
Every member of the royal family of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom was a dasa, a slave, to the god with the rare ‘right-turning’ conch. Even when Princess Gouri Parvathi Bayi travelled to other parts of the world, reminders of home popped up, in the most unexpected places. On a visit to the Isle of Wight, she had just entered the Durbar Room in the Osborne House where Queen Victoria had breathed her last when the princess felt that something in that place was calling out to her. Sure enough, among the displays was a gift to the queen from her family—an ivory carving of Lord Padmanabha.
Likewise, on another visit to the Windsor Castle, she noticed a throne among the exhibits, and told her friend that there was something about it that spoke to her. They walked around to the back of the chair and, there, engraved on it was the emblem of the Travancore royal family, Lord Padmanabha’s conch. When she went back to her palace in the old city of Thiruvananthapuram, the princess discovered that in 1851 the throne had in fact been gifted by her ancestor, the Travancore maharaja, to his pen pal Queen Victoria, for the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park.