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Bourbon of Indian vintage

Times Staff Writer

If France ever decides to call off its revolution and go back to having a king, the line to the throne could begin at the doorstep of a genial, plump Indian man with a name as outsized and incongruous as the massive fleur-de-lis over his porch.

Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon would answer the doorbell, and the call of duty, if the French nation needed him.

A restoration of the monarchy in France is, of course, improbable. But so is the story of how a possible heir to the throne, a dauphin from the royal house of Bourbon, lives in relative obscurity here in this lakeside city in central India, where he practices law, putters around the family farm and nurses hopes that his lineage, if not his birthright, might one day be recognized by his glittering European relations.

“I am born an Indian,” De Bourbon says. “But the fact of life is that I belong to the royal family of France.”

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Like all good tales of royal intrigue, the story behind his assertion is a swashbuckling adventure full of scheming aristocrats, high treason, forbidden love, narrow escapes, greedy pirates and mysterious disappearances. Fact and legend blend and blur.

But De Bourbon’s claim to noble European descent received an unexpected boost last year when one of his putative cousins, Prince Michael of Greece, signaled his support in a historical novel. In “Le Rajah Bourbon,” the prince, a noted author, offers a speculative account of the life of Jean Philippe de Bourbon, the ancestor to whom Balthazar traces his origins.

According to the book -- an amalgam of conjecture and research -- Jean Philippe, a nephew of King Henri IV who survived assassination attempts and a kidnapping at sea, eventually washed up in India, where he served at the court of the Mogul Emperor Akbar in the 16th century.

His descendants later moved to central India. In historical records, the De Bourbons are well documented as important and respected administrators in the region for hundreds of years. In latter generations, members of the family intermarried with the local population.

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Michael, who lives in Paris, believes Balthazar de Bourbon to be the surviving male heir of this line, an elder branch of the house of Bourbon. This arguably would give Balthazar prior claim to the throne over the descendants of Henri IV, whose unbroken line of succession was lopped off along with the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette under the guillotine in 1793.

Michael met Balthazar de Bourbon in Bhopal in 2006 after a serendipitous coincidence at the hotel where the prince was staying on a holiday.

“I was upgraded in the best hotel from a room to a suite. And what do I see on the door of my suite? ‘Bourbon Suite.’ So I rushed to the porter of the hotel and asked, ‘Why do you call it Bourbon here?’ And he said, ‘There is a family called Bourbon and they are well-known in Bhopal,’ ” the prince says in a telephone interview. “I had no idea they were still existing. I must say it’s quite amusing to see in a directory in India the name Bourbon.”

The experience inspired him to research and write his novel.

For Balthazar, 49, it was a thrill to receive an apparent relative for the first time -- and a feeling of vindication that one of them finally seemed to acknowledge him as a twig on the family tree.

He has never had doubts about his lineage, as illustrated by his home in Bhopal. Big brass letters declaring “House of Bourbon” hang outside his front door. The furniture inside his comfortably appointed living room is French pastiche.

From boyhood, De Bourbon was told of his exalted heritage. When he was 2, his father, Salvador, gave him an 1882 book by a Frenchman containing a chapter on the history of the De Bourbon clan in Bhopal. Tears well in his eyes and his hands tremble as he eagerly shows a visitor the book and the inscription his father wrote inside.

“This will make you understand that you are a scion of a dynasty and will inculcate and instill in your mind the qualities of a noble family, and might help you to shine according to my wishes,” Salvador de Bourbon wrote.

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Balthazar grew up to become a civil lawyer and married an Indian woman, with whom he has three children. He describes his family as “poor,” but given his middle-class lifestyle, that seems more a wistful comparison with the glamorous lives of some of his royal cousins in Europe and his own ancestors in Bhopal than with the reality of life in poverty-stricken India.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, his forefathers were among Bhopal’s elite, trusted retainers of the ruling Muslim clan. But after many decades of loyal service, the Roman Catholic De Bourbons were ousted from their privileged position by a new, intolerant Muslim ruler in the early part of the 20th century.

Much of the De Bourbons’ property was confiscated. Over the years they were forced to sell off jewelry, chandeliers and homes, including an imposing gated mansion, now demolished, that Balthazar remembers seeing as a child. The house he lives in has been in the family’s hands for 200 years, he says, and was where his ancestors would stop to refresh themselves after riding on elephant-back to attend Mass in the church that still stands nearby.

De Bourbon shakes his dark-thatched head when he ponders his proud family’s circumstances. From a pile of yellowed news clippings about him, he gloomily points out one headlined “Bourbon on the Rocks.”

He says he has no desire to profit financially from his claim to be of royal French stock.

“I’m not looking for any claim to any riches,” he says. “I’m not begging [for] anything from anybody. I’m a happy man.”

But he acknowledges that he might like to move his family to France, to give his children better opportunities and the comfort of belonging to a religious majority instead of a tiny minority.

His normally jovial exterior crumbles when he complains about the lack of recognition from his purported European relations. Letter after letter has been met with frosty silence or polite replies that don’t acknowledge him as one of the Bourbon brood. His name does not figure on any royal or aristocratic Christmas card or wedding invitation lists.

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Wringing his hands, De Bourbon wonders whether he’s being snubbed because, by both appearance and citizenship, he is Indian. Michael suspects a deeper reason.

“I think that the Bourbons here [in France], first, they are very busy and they could care less about India, and second, it’s my impression . . . that they are not enchanted to discover that they have cousins in India, mainly for the reason that, if my theory is right, these Indian Bourbons are the eldest” of the family line, he says. “So there was not a great enthusiasm to say, ‘Yes, come here, you are the eldest, you are the chief of the family.’ ”

Perhaps, but would the European bluebloods really cling to such attitudes, especially with nothing truly at stake -- no thrones, no ancestral lands, no entitlements other than nostalgia and lavish photo spreads in slick celebrity magazines? The citizens of the French Republic aren’t exactly clamoring to bring back a monarch, let alone one who would embrace both curry and croissants.

Michael laughs.

“I can assure you that I know former royal families -- I can name two examples now, Europeans -- who fight for long-dead rights,” says the prince, who is of Bourbon descent through his mother’s side. “They’re very jealous, all these royal European families, of the name, of the rights that do not mean anything anymore.

“I don’t mind at all, because I’m more interested in the historical truths than the rights of this one and that one.”

The problem is finding proof to back up those “truths,” which the prince freely acknowledges he does not have.

No one disputes that, in 1560, a French gentleman named Jean Philippe de Bourbon wound up a member of the imperial court in India. How he got there, and exactly who he was, is murkier.

Various versions of the story, including Michael’s, identify him as a son of Charles de Bourbon, a duke known to French schoolchildren as their country’s Benedict Arnold, a traitor who collaborated with enemies of King Francis I. Young Jean Philippe fled France either after killing a man in a duel or for fear of assassination as a scion of the elder branch of the Bourbon family, which had a strong claim to the throne.

(Henri IV, who became the first Bourbon king in 1589, hailed from a rival branch of the family. Most present-day monarchists in France support the claim of his descendant, the current Count of Paris and theoretical Henri VII, as the next in line.)

Accounts of Jean Philippe’s adventures in exile are a wild romp that variously involve his being captured by Turkish pirates in the Mediterranean and sold off in an Egyptian slave market, escaping to Abyssinia, eloping with a princess and, in the end, fleeing for Delhi, where he became a trusted advisor to the Mogul emperor and married a Portuguese woman.

Separating fact from fiction is difficult. But Michael sees no reason for Jean Philippe to have lied to Akbar about being of noble birth.

“Why did he pretend to be a Bourbon when the Indians had not the slightest idea who the Bourbons were? The emperor of India knew there was a faraway kingdom of France, but ‘Bourbon’ didn’t mean a thing to him,” the prince says. “There were a few adventurers who went to India, made a fortune and went back to France. Why did this one never go back to France? Because his father was a famous traitor, and he didn’t want the shame.”

Science may be the answer to both Michael’s speculation and Balthazar de Bourbon’s hopes. The prince says he would be willing to organize a DNA test to verify De Bourbon’s claim of kinship, and De Bourbon says he would gladly submit to it.

For now, de Bourbon contents himself with the barest of scraps that come his way, which sound rather like wishful thinking on his part.

“Unofficially, I’ve heard that Queen Sofia of Spain often inquires after me. The people who go there [from India], she asks [them], ‘How is my cousin?’ She calls me her cousin,” he says, his chest puffing out.

He hopes to journey to France someday soon, though he speaks no French. Pride keeps him from applying to visit as a tourist, which would be too humiliating. He wants to be welcomed as a long-lost member of an illustrious family.

“That would be a dream come true.”

--

henry.chu@latimes.com


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