The princess of the long-extinct Indian kingdom of Oudh is having a very bad first year in her new "palace." It is a 600-year-old, crumbling stone monument called Malcha Mahal that has no water, no electricity and hundreds of bats.
The woman's children say Her Highness deserves much better, and that the government of India should be ashamed for giving her a home in such disgusting condition. To make sure a visitor understands how unhappy they all are, the royal family's 24-year-old son, Prince Ali Raza, orders a servant to jab a stick toward the ceiling in the dungeon-like main room. Bats flap and screech in all directions, leaving their droppings on the Oriental carpet.
"How can we live like this?" asked the prince.
The Train Station
Princess Wiayat Mahal, officially known as the begum of the Royal House of Oudh (pronounced ow-wud ), has for years been one of the more bizarre characters of India. In New Delhi, people call her the begum , a title for a Muslim woman of high rank. As far from regal as her surroundings are now, they are considerably better than where she was before. For a decade, up until she was finally evicted in May, she lived with her children and a dozen snarling dogs in the New Delhi train station. Her purpose there was to shame the government of India into returning her ancestral property, which she said--and historians agree--was illegally seized when the British deposed her great-grandfather, the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, more than a century ago.
She particularly is seeking the return of the family palace in Lucknow, currently used as a pharmaceutical research center. According to news reports, it is decaying. Other family property is used by the government for libraries, courts and picture galleries.
The begum may be an eccentric case, but she is not entirely alone in her reduced circumstances. Many of India's great princely families, whose kingdoms made up a third of the country at the time of independence in 1947, have today lost all of the power and most of the wealth they once enjoyed. They used to receive government stipends, but these were withdrawn in 1971 because of political pressure on then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Still, the families have always been permitted to keep their ancestral homes, even if that meant turning them into hotels to pay for the upkeep.
Hers is a strange and poignant story of a woman who appears to have a legitimate property grievance, and yet who lives in a dreamy Indian past of maharajahs and princely states. She comes from a family of strong-willed Shia Muslims whose women were especially fierce in standing up to the British. Railway officials say she is the widow of a former defense minister of Pakistan.
These days, she wears a regal black gown and cape, and her haggard face looks older than her 56 years. The decade in the railroad station seems to have taken a toll. These days she has difficulty talking because of what her children say is a jaw injury. She speaks through clenched teeth, but her voice is garbled and it is impossible to understand her words.
But in her search for a proper home, the begum has inserted herself into the lives of some of the most powerful people in India--Cabinet ministers and department heads otherwise preoccupied with Sikh terrorists, industrial policy or drought.
Gandhi Steps In
It was no less than Gandhi who, after being told about the begum during a visit to the train station in 1984, ordered the then-home minister to find the woman a more suitable residence. A site selection team was sent out to inspect possible homes. Malcha Mahal ( mahal means palace) was one of the few suggested that wasn't in ruins.
But now that Gandhi is dead, assassinated Oct. 31, 1984, nobody in the government is certain that the begum was even given Malcha Mahal. The former home minister said nothing was ever decided, and his successors don't know where to find the file.
And now, in a new wrinkle, the Archeological Survey of India, which oversees historic monuments, is moving to have the begum evicted from what turns out to be the only well-preserved hunting lodge built by Feroze Shah Tugluk, the ruler of Delhi in 1325. "We want the monument back," said Nagaraja Rao, the survey's director-general.
Some time ago, a deputy superintendent of the Archeological Survey, Dhramvir Sharma, was dispatched to Malcha Mahal to investigate. He still shudders when he recalls how a snake fell from the ceiling onto his arm.
"I will never dare to go inside the monument again," he said. "She is living in hell. So many lizards, so many snakes. The bat smell was terrible. Inside in the darkness, I had a feeling of horror."
A visit to the begum should be undertaken in broad daylight. Although the monument is on Delhi's southern ridge, only a five-minute drive from some of the city's luxury hotels, it is a macabre journey that takes you back several centuries. First there is a long, winding drive through heavy underbrush to a sign that reads "Entrance Strictly Forbidden--The Raj House of Oudh." Next to it is a warning to "be cautious for hound dogs." Finally, at the end of a steep, rocky path, sits Malcha Mahal, a squat, open-air hulk with enormous arched doorways. It does not look inhabitable. In the winter, cold winds blow through it, and in the summer the sun beats down, turning the surroundings into a desolate landscape of rubble and dust.
A Visit to the Manor
On a recent day, a white-uniformed servant emerged from the central doorway and directed a visitor to wait in a cane chair in the foyer. The man, Mushahid Hussain, said the begum pays him $36 a month for his labors, an average wage for household help in New Delhi. He appeared to be the begum's only servant. In the railroad station, she had seven.
The monument was quiet and dank. On the walls were a few shields, a sword and a picture of the begum's other son, who died mysteriously at the train station some years ago. (The family says the cause of death was "sadness.") A few potted plants were scattered around. Bat droppings fell periodically from the ceiling, and a vicious Doberman snarled in a corner.
"We've chained up the other dogs for you," said the prince, appearing out of the shadows. Handsome, with the chiseled features of his Mogul ancestors, he was dressed in an open-neck shirt and pants. Some days he carries around a field hockey stick. With him was his 25-year-old sister, Princess Sakena Mahal, who had hollow eyes, a thin, taut face and wore a black cape and boots. No sign of Her Highness.
"You must take some tea," said Princess Sakena. Off in another room, a servant used a kerosene stove to heat the water, which was delivered by truck to the monument once a month. It was stored in a concrete tank, but before the royal family can drink it, it is cleaned of dead lizards and bugs.
The tea was served in simple china cups. "Our silver, our tea set, everything is gone," said Princess Sakena, who paced in her cape. "How can we stay in this condition?" She said the family survives by selling off its little remaining jewelry and rugs. Money is short, but the prince and begum said that as royalty, they must never work.
"The House of Oudh does not appreciate trade, business and politics," said the prince. "It is better to be in the grip of death rather than in the grip of a job."
Her Highness Arrives
After some time, Her Highness finally emerged but did not seem able to speak. Her eyes were pouchy, her face was lined and her expression was distant. But she retained an aristocratic manner, and stood proudly, her head held high. "When Her Highness was only 13 years old, she was married to a very elderly rajah," said her daughter. "He was like a father to her."
Through the years, Her Highness has raged against the British in her quest for a home. "It was all Queen Victoria's fault," she has said.
Historians say that, indeed, may be the case. At the time of Victoria's reign in the mid-19th Century, India was a patchwork of hundreds of princely kingdoms run by maharajahs and nawabs . Oudh was one of the greatest of these, situated in the fertile plains of the Ganges River. Like many of the kingdoms, it was peacefully bought off in a treaty with the East India Company, the British trading concern that was effectively running the Subcontinent.
But in 1856, the British ignored their treaty and annexed Oudh directly to the crown, complaining that the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the begum's great-grandfather, was more interested in concubines than in producing revenue. The Nawab pleaded with the British, first in Lucknow and then in Calcutta, but they refused to listen. He then took his case and his ministers to London, hoping to find a more sympathetic audience. But, according to the historian Stanley Wolpert in "A New History of India," all the Nawab encountered there was "the same expressionless wall of British faces." He returned to India defeated.
The next year he helped lead his countrymen in the Sepoy Rebellion, the first major revolt of the Indians against the British. Historians say the annexation of Oudh was a factor in the uprising.
The Indian government has never disputed the begum's claim and has attempted over time to help her. Railway officials say she lived in Pakistan until her husband died, and then came to India with her children sometime in the 1960s. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave the family a house in Kashmir, railway officials say, but it burned down in 1971. The begum suspects arson. Railway records from January, 1975, note that she "occupied" the train station "along with a squad of ferocious dogs."
Offer Turned Down
The next year, the begum has said, the state of Uttar Pradesh offered her a modern home but she refused, saying that she wanted only what was rightfully hers, her ancestral property. "Why, even my dogs wouldn't live in that," she said of the government's offer.
Finally, a new station manager who took over in 1985 said he threatened to shoot the begum's dogs and told her he would physically remove her if she didn't leave.
By this time, the Home Ministry had apparently told her that Malcha Mahal was under consideration for her new home, but that it needed extensive repairs. The begum does have a photocopy of a letter indicating as much. Armed with it, she fled the train station and moved in. Needless to say, the government repairmen have not yet materialized.