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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book Review | The Last King In India
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Book Review | The Last King In India

Twenty decadent facts from the life and times of India's last 'nawab'

A portrait of Wajid Ali Shah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.Premium
A portrait of Wajid Ali Shah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The poet-ruler Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87) was the last nawab of the north Indian state of Oudh. Deposed by the British, he spent the last 30 years of his life in a riverside mansion near Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he languished in a mock-kingdom with 6,000 subjects. It was a make-believe world. Many of the exiled king’s high-ranking officials held on to their old titles. To the extent that it was possible, Wajid Ali Shah, whose actual reign lasted only nine years, continued the customs of the court.

In The Last King In India: Wajid Ali Shah, British historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones resurrects the nawab with all his tasteful eccentricities. “Holed up in his new palaces, dreaming of love, music and drama," Llewellyn-Jones writes, “his lack of enterprise only increased the distance between the bubble-like atmosphere of the Court and the reality of peasant life outside the city."

Days after finishing the book, I mostly remember the following aspects of its hero:

The Last King in India—Wajid Ali Shah: Random House, 314 pages, Rs 599
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The Last King in India—Wajid Ali Shah: Random House, 314 pages, Rs 599

2. He married (approximately) 375 women.

3. At 15, he was married, for the first time, to Khas Mahal, the granddaughter of an Anglo-Indian woman called Sally Begam. Like her husband, Khas Mahal was a poet.

4. He had three kinds of wives—the mahals, who gave birth to his children and were veiled; the begams, who did not give birth and went unveiled; and the khilawatis, who performed menial household jobs.

5. His autobiography was dreamily titled Pari Khana (House Of Fairies).

6. His poetic pen name was Akhtar, meaning “star" in Persian.

7.At 22, he wrote the play Radha Kanhaiya Ka Qissa—a rare instance of a would-be Muslim king creatively engaging with Hinduism.

8.He had a soft corner for dark-skinned women. One of his brides, Yasmin Mahal, “is clearly of African origin with her short curly hair and un-Indian features".

9.His personal bodyguards consisted of female African soldiers dressed in red jackets and tight-fitting, rose-coloured silk trousers.

10. His mother Janab-i Aliyyah, who died during a visit to Europe, lies buried in Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, which is also the resting ground of musician Jim Morrison and author Oscar Wilde.

11. He ascended the throne in 1847; by then he was fairly notorious. Two years earlier, John Shakespear, an East India Company bureaucrat (he was recently described as the great-great-great- great grandfather of British Prime Minister David Cameron), complained to the governor general that “The Heir Apparent’s character holds out no promise of good. By all accounts his temper is capricious and fickle, his days and nights are passed in the female apartments and he appears to have resigned himself to debauchery, dissipation and low pursuits".

12. By the time he became king, he had written two lengthy romantic narrative poems—Darya-i-Ta’ashshuq (The River Of Love) and Bahr-e ‘Ishq (The Ocean Of Affection)

13. Wajid Ali Shah marked the beginning of his reign by building Qaisarbagh Palace—it happened to be Lucknow’s last palace. One of the structures was given the poetic name of Jalpari Darwaza, or The Mermaid Gate, which no longer exists. The palace also had a spiral staircase that led nowhere. In 1955, British architecture critic John Terry saw in the palace “the full horror of the impact of stucco and European baroque".

14. After being compelled to move from Lucknow to Bengal in 1856, the deposed nawab was settled by the British in Garden Reach, an area south-west of Calcutta that had opulent villas along the Hooghly river.

15.The Garden Reach estate comprised three buildings. One of them was Azud Manzil. It was the royal menagerie and had 20,000 birds, beasts, snakes and “every conceivable variety of freshwater fish that can live in a hot climate". The pigeons, of every variety and colour, numbered 18,000 . There was also a collection of cobras. One morning in 1879, a tigress escaped, severely wounding a German man and an Indian lance corporal (it also killed two cows before being shot dead by the Howrah magistrate).

16. The nawab’s evenings during his years in exile were chiefly spent in the company of musicians and dancing girls.

17. In his later life, he was carried all over on a sedan chair. He is said to have been afflicted with an anal fistula that forced him to spend many agonizing hours in the toilet.

18.On his death, the nawab’s survivors—his wives, children and their servers—numbered about a thousand.

19.At his funeral procession, a military band played Dead March from Saul, the oratorio by German composer George Frederic Handel that was also performed in the funerals of US president Abraham Lincoln and British prime minister Winston Churchill.

20. Throughout his life, Wajid Ali Shah remained a teetotaller.

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Published: 19 Jul 2014, 12:06 AM IST
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