Princess Keya of Pompuspur is fed up with being a princess. She doesn’t like the abundance of pink objects that are specially crafted to surround her day and night. The very thought of the monthly tea party with the Society of Snobs that she must host, and of living up to its snobbish standards, sickens her. She detests the retinue of attendants whose job it is to trail her at all times, ensuring that her skin, dress, diet and health are in order—she even has a person dedicated to turning the pages of the book she is reading. So, one day, after throwing a rare royal tantrum, Keya decides to quit.
Word is sent out inviting applications for a replacement princess, much to the consternation of the king and queen. And ignoring scores of applicants, Keya zeroes in on the most unlikely candidate, a girl called Nyla, teased by everyone for being a “tomboy”, having no social graces or even the faintest manner of a potential princess.
Payal Kapadia’s delightful reimagining of the princess trope begins on this premise. Twice Upon A Time is part slapstick, part profound, a heady comedy about two girls thrust into roles they are unwilling to fulfil. Subverting centuries of fairy tales that project impossible standards of femininity on princesses, and, by extension, on girls who read and dream about being a princess one day, the novel is uproariously wicked. While all the ingredients of a classic fairy tale (a fire-breathing dragon and a pair of princes who come to the rescue) are recognizably present, they turn into sources of hilarity and twists in the tale.
Kapadia has the gift of drawing attention to the minor characters in the palace, especially to the women. As Princess Keya begins to flout the norms of her earlier life, encouraged by Nyla’s flamboyance, her mother the queen and the ayah who looks after her also begin to be affected by her change of tenor.
Like all fairy tales, this contemporary retelling also ends on a happy note. But it’s not with the two princesses walking into the sunset, hand in hand with two handsome princes.
Twice upon a time
By Payal Kapadia
192 pages ₹199.