IN THE EARLY SPRING of the year 1963 a wedding took place in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim which created an exceptional journalist stir. The groom was the the Crown Prince (Maharaj Kumar) soon to be King (chogyal) of a legendary land of the borders of Tibet. The bride was a young well-born New Yorker, often referred to as a "debutante," actually a serious-minded though somewhat unconventional and certainly adventuresome student at Sarah Lawrence College. Now, two children and a divorce later, Hope Cooke, the former queen (gyalmo) of Skikim, and the heroine of this much-publicized romance, returning to her native land for good as an "immigrant," has written the story of what happened to her, the King and the country to which she had so freely given her youthful allegiance and her exuberant hopes for a meaningful future. (For which also, not incidentally, she had even relinquished her American citizenship.) It is a lively, often astute, surprisingly candid account beginning with a vivid re-creation of an emotionally deprived though privileged childhood and ending with her escape from a besieged hilltop palace.
The two principals in this unlikely romance met under strange circumstances and quite by chance, Following some deep though vague attachment to the "mysterious East" Hope had gone -- for no reason she could explain -- to Darjeeling in northeastern India to spend her school holidays. There she met the attractive heir to the Sikkim throne, a recent widower with three young children who were all enrolled in the English-speaking schools of this former hill station. When Hope was invited to visit the Gangtok Palace, a sort of glorified mountain bungalow built in 1910 in British residency style, she found that the Crown Prince was a tender and devoted father. To her the palace seemed to "sing" with the activities of the children and their many cousins who at holiday time filled its rather shabby neglected rooms with their activities--pollywogs in jars. comic books, firecrackers -- all very different from her stiff and starchy, governess-supervised upbringing as the ward of her New York grandparents. Hope soon came to love the three motherless royal children and they her, a fact which may well have played a part in her determination to marry their father, for by her own admission she was hungry for affection, wanted more than anything else in the world to be loved: "I want a family so much, I want to fill this nest, make it a real home."
Not long after their marriage the old ruler of Skkim, a semi-invalid and a recluse who had never involved himself in politics, preferring to paint and mediate, died. Immediately, there descended on the shoulders of the new monarchs a whole set of heavy problems, some stemming from the recent Chinese takeover in neighboring Tibet and the resultant determination of an alarmed India to assume a protectorate status over this small vulnerable kingdom, long known as the "gateway" to Tibet. Because of many factors, including Prime Minister Nehru's friendship, Hope and her husband assumed that India would never infringe Sikkim's independence. They want right ahead with ambitious plans for the modernization of their spectacularly beautiful kingdom. They made significant changes in public education and in the hope of creating much-needed state revenue, they encouraged local handicrafts: jewelry, carpets, costumes. With the help of Hope's American friends they even managed a successful foray into the fashion world of a New York City. In 1971 Bergdorf Goodman's windows displayed colorful models of clothes Hope had been designing with the assistance of a little Gangtok tailor.
But in spite of a number of successes and triumphs, plus their shared pleasure in the children, private life in the palace was not going too smoothly. Even before her marriage, Hope, to her stunned dismay, had discovered the presence of "another woman" in Chogyal's life and although he was by all accounts a sensitive, intelligent man, wholly dedicated to serving his country, he did drink and often lost his temper. There are occasions one must admit when the reader tends to sympathize with a king whose queen has apparently not yet decided whether she is a college beatnik or a mature adult. She plays her tape recorder -- her "life line" -- continuously: Joan Baez, James Taylor, jazz rock. One day in a fit of temper the king throws it out the palace window. She developed certain disconcerting mannerisms; slouching as if in mock submission; ducking her head and speaking in puckery whispers. Hope herself describes her behavior as "asinine" when she answers direct questions in absurdly stilted phrases as though, so a forthright friend tells her, she were "writing a paper for Sarah Loony College." She is accused of indiscretion, of meddling and interfering in state affairs. Grotesque headlines begin to appear: "CIA agent in borrowed plumage"; "American wife plans missile base."
Finally, history takes over. Incited by Indian propagandists, violence breaks out in Sikkim; the royal family finds itself virtually imprisoned in the hilltop palace. As soon as she can, Hope escapes, taking her two children and her stepdaughter, Yangchen, to America, ostensibly to enroll the children in schools there and then return to Sikkim. She never goes back. Instead she begins a new life "from scratch" this time without money, possessions or even a country. In spite of her state of shock and her curiously enduring immaturity, she survives -- through her own indomitable will and help of loyal friends.
Readers of this engrossing tale may well feel puzzled by the manner in which the author has chosen to end her book. In particular, the final scene between Hope and the king seems unduly compressed. By now the monarch, a tragic figure, has lost his throne and his country, a wife (for the second time) and three of his five children, the oldest, the crown prince, in a mysterious motor accident in Gangtok. When the king is at last permitted a visit to America, Hope brings their two children from summer camp to New York to see him. "There Thondup (I'd never called him that before, it might have been better if I had) and I arranged to make our separation official in the fall." Nothing more.
As for Hope herself she wants from now on only a small-scale existence. She "thanks heaven" that she returned home "in the self-centered seventies . . . I should have hated to come back in the sixties, to have been surrounded by feelings of hope and idealism." Although she would like to be able to tell her children "to look outside themselves, to serve some greater purpose in life," her conclusion is, "I can't afford it. They can't afford it. It's dangerous."