Time Change

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Hope Cooke, a poor little rich girl from New York, grew up to marry in 1963 the Crown Prince of Sikkim, a tiny Himalayan country surrounded by India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. Her autobiography, Time Change, chronicles the circumstances of her life in the East and the political and personal events which kept her from living out the fairy-tale bliss promised by the press coverage of her wedding. Looking back on her life from the comfortable circumstances of summer on Martha’s Vineyard in 1978, she wrote, “I can’t believe what I have endured, yielded in both personal and public matters.” As her story demonstrates, she did endure much, but this first book, which shows the author’s considerable talent, is not told with bitterness or rancor. Instead, Cooke achieves a remarkable semblance of objectivity about her transformation from a somewhat romantic, idealistic young woman into a brave and responsible person.

Cooke relates events in the present tense, a point of view which gives the reader a sense of the immediacy of recent history, a sense of experiencing the events with her. She begins with her earliest memories at age two or three, when she and her sister came to live with their maternal grandparents after their mother’s death. Although the grandparents were financially well off, Cooke felt the sting of lack of nurture throughout her childhood and adolescence. As the child of her mother’s second marriage, Cooke also felt her grandmother’s disapproval of her Irish father, who gave up guardianship of her to the maternal grandparents with apparent willingness. The grandmother’s disapproving and stern nature seemed to prevent her from providing any emotional solace to the bereaved child, nor could the series of good and bad nannies who reared the girls in an apartment across the hall from their grandparents’ place fill the void in the children’s lives. Even Cooke’s half-sister Harriet, who was three years older and much different from Hope in temperament and personality, provided little companionship for the lonely younger child. At least Cooke escaped the knowledge until adulthood that her mother’s death in a plane crash was probably more suicidal than accidental.

Summer vacations at her grandparents’ summer home in Maine relieved the alienation of Cooke’s childhood to some extent. In Maine she felt free and happy with access to woods and beach. In New York she felt happy in the classroom, where she enjoyed writing and social studies, but she was unhappy at the boarding school in Virginia where she started high school. The death of Cooke’s grandmother when she was about halfway through high school left her homeless again as her grandfather had died several years before. Cooke’s new guardian, her Aunt Mary, then lived in Iran with her diplomat husband, Selden Chapin. In Cooke’s eyes her Aunt Mary, with her vivacious personality and many opportunities to travel to foreign lands, lived a charmed existence. What was to be merely a second summer visit to Iran turned into a prolonged stay for Cooke so that she could finish high school in the Community School in Tehran. Her stay in Iran, where she felt more at home than anywhere she had been, proved to be one of the happiest times of her life. Life in Iran, with the embassy parties and even invitations to one of the Shah’s palaces, provided a liberating change from the bleak boarding-school existence of Cooke’s last few years. Her interest in the foreign culture, however, was far deeper than a mere preoccupation with the social whirl of life associated with the diplomatic corps. Even at sixteen, she was sensitive to social issues: she loved to mix with the local people, saw the diplomatic corps as reinforcing elitist rule, and sensed inevitable revolution. The pinnacle of her stay was a trip into India, which sparked her continuing interest in the Far East even after her return to the United States and enrollment at Sarah Lawrence College, where she took up Oriental studies.

Cooke’s interest in India took her back in 1959, where at the Windemere Hotel she met Maharaj Kumar, the Crown Prince of Sikkim, who was in Darjeeling to visit his two sons at boarding school. Cooke took a favorable impression of the Maharaj back to school at Sarah Lawrence. She admired his “habit of talking in the immediate” and felt the aura of his position and his sense of loss. (His wife had died two years earlier.) Two years later she returned to Darjeeling to meet the Prince again. This time Palden Thondup Namgyal, which was the Prince’s real name—but used only by Westerners—brought his four-year-old daughter, who called Cooke “Mummy.” It was only a matter of time until the young woman who had never been mothered herself became the stepmother of the monarch’s three children.

The wedding took place in Gangtok, the capital of the tiny country with its monarchical tradition of more than five centuries. The bride’s account of the elaborate and colorful Buddhist wedding celebration in Sikkimese tradition with its exchange of scarves is much less romanticized than was the extensive press coverage of the event. Cooke’s account reveals incipient problems in the marriage, such as the Prince’s remoteness and her jealousy, which she frankly admits, over another woman in her bridegroom’s life, a woman who attended the wedding celebration. Four days into the festivities, the death of Cooke’s Uncle Selden took the newlyweds back to the United States for the funeral. In the rush of getting her passport in order, she learned that she had to renounce her United States citizenship because Sikkimese law prevented dual citizenship.

On returning to Sikkim, Cooke gave herself entirely to learning the customs of the people, redecorating the palace, and, most importantly, mothering the children. She seemed to have a natural gift for all these tasks, especially for mothering. Only a few months after the marriage, she had to learn about state funeral customs when her father-in-law died. At the time of their marriage, the older man was still the official reigning monarch, although the Crown Prince had acted in that capacity for many years. As custom dictated, the dead ruler’s body, embalmed in the lotus position, was displayed on the throne in its triangular coffin for a length of time set by astrologers. After the death of his father, Cooke’s husband took the title Chogyal,...

(The entire section is 2620 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Best Sellers. XLI, May, 1981, p. 57.

Book World. XI, March 15, 1981, p. 3.

Booklist. LXXVII, January 15, 1981, p. 651.

Library Journal. CVI, February 1, 1981, p. 348.

Ms. X, July, 1981, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 8, 1981, p. 3.

Saturday Review. VIII, February, 1981, p. 76.