After a 10-year wait at the New Delhi railway station, the Princess of Oudh finally has her "palace."
Her long battle with the Indian government has won Begum Wilayat Mahal, heir to the last ruler of Oudh, a royal abode--a crumbling, bat-infested ruin that now bears the sign "The Raj House of Oudh."
Until the week before she moved in at the end of May, bureaucrats were saying the 54-year-old princess had no right to a palace and that her status as heir to the ruler of Oudh (pronounced Ow-wedh) was disputed.
But the government--in a sign of lingering respect for India's defunct royalty, mixed perhaps with exasperation and pity--allowed her to take possession of Malcha Mahal, a red-stone building believed to have been built in the 1200s as a hunting lodge by a Mogol ruler.
Off the Platform
Her move into the lodge ended her long sojourn near Platform 1 of New Delhi's railway station.
The Begum, a word that means the wife of a Muslim ruler, had illegally occupied the spot in the station since 1975, keeping railway officials at bay with 11 Doberman Pinscher guard dogs and threats she would drink a cup of snake's venom if they enforced any of the numerous eviction notices served on her.
After the Begum appealed to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when the Indian leader visited the railway station last year, the Home Ministry was ordered to find the princess suitable accommodations.
The ministry's solution was the Malcha Mahal, set amid acres of cactus and thorny scrub in western New Delhi. Grass sprouts from the roof and its old stones echo with the squeaks of bats and lizards. There are no doors.
A visitor to the princess' new home encounters a sign that says, "Entrance strictly forbidden. The Raj House of Oudh." Another warns, "Be cautious for hound dogs."
In the one chamber with high ceilings, she has laid out carpets and a "royal couch." Dozens of potted plants line the stone floor. Her son, Prince Ali Riza, has followed her from the railroad station to the palace.
The red-haired princess greeted a recent visitor silent and erect on the couch, wearing sunglasses and a faded purple robe. Before her on a small table lay a ceremonial sword.
"She keeps aloof and she comments," said the prince, lying at his mother's feet. He will not disclose his age but appears to be about 30.
The house lacks electricity and the servants have to walk two miles for water. Fires must be lit at night to keep away wild animals, the prince said.
"We are royal people and we have royal problems," he said, pushing over a copy of the family history.
The history of the tiny kingdom of Oudh is written on paper headed "Ruler of Oudh in Exile, New Delhi Railway Station."
The tale relates how the kingdom of 5 million inhabitants, centered on the city of Lucknow, about 250 miles southeast of New Delhi, was overthrown in 1856 by the British. The last King of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, was imprisoned in a Calcutta jail by his British captors for the final 26 years of his life.
When India won independence in 1947, the last King of Oudh's scattered descendants were not among the former rulers--nawabs, begums, maharanis and maharajas--granted government allowances.
But India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave the family a house in Kashmir, 600 miles northwest of their former kingdom.
When the house burned down in 1971, the princess, her son and daughter moved to Lucknow. The government, which was then withdrawing allowances even from Indian princes, would not allow them to occupy their ancestral palaces. So, four years later, they established a "kingdom" in New Delhi railway station and dug in until the authorities relented.
Prince Ali says the Begum will continue her struggle with the government until at least two of the family's seven ancestral palaces are returned. One of them is now a pharmaceutical factory and another is a government office.
"We don't make requests, we make demands," he said. "We don't fight with power, we fight with character," said the prince.
As the interview concluded, the princess broke her silence and whispered a comment in her son's ear. "Her Highness says the prince and princess have done the duty of her forefathers," the prince announced.