Adventures in a megacity
Published on MondeDiplo english edition, by Sam Miller, August 2009.
… “Do you know Moses?” the Princess asked, fixing me with an intense glare. I must have looked puzzled. “The Mount Sinai Moses,” she clarified, exasperated at having to talk to such a simpleton, “in the Bible.” My mind wandered to the only other people named Moses whom I could think of, Ed and Grandma (1), before I said: “Not personally, but I’ve certainly heard of him.” A chortle ran through my body, as if a fit of giggles was about to overtake me. I lowered my head, so as not to catch her eye, as she continued: “We are descended from the Pharaohs. Do you know what I am saying?”
Ordinariness is a sin
She squinted at me through the beam of sunlight that separated us, specks of dust dancing through the air, each of us seated beside the crumbling column of a 14th-century hunting lodge. Was this a test? Could I keep a straight face? More than anything else, I must not laugh. A pigeon swept down, close enough for its wing beats to fan cool air on to my cheeks. I looked around at the bare stone walls of the Malcha Mahal and my mood became suitably dark. I was able to remain po-faced through the rest of a theatrical 20-minute oration on the sorrows of the royal house of Oudh, a bravura performance that ended with a declaration that seemed to give a clue to the speaker’s hidden tragedy, “Ordinariness is not just a crime. It is a sin. A sin.”
An hour earlier we had driven through the forests of the Ridge up to the signboard, and were met by a silent manservant in tattered blue livery and a gold-tipped turban who ushered us up a rocky path to the weather-scarred hilltop lodge. There were no doors or windows. Out of an arch emerged Prince Cyrus, dapper and jaunty, wearing blue suede shoes; more than welcoming. From the shadows of a column stepped his older sister, Princess Sakina, proud and gaunt, wild of hair, deep trenches in her face, as if etched by terrible tears of sorrow. She was less than welcoming.
I had brought a bouquet of blue flowers. They were placed on a table next to a crystal decanter that contained the ashes of their mother. Princess Vilayat Mahal had, I was told, killed herself by swallowing crushed diamonds, a regal way of dying (2). Sakina has not left the building since that day. She says she never will. She spoke of betrayal, of servants who had robbed and deserted her, of journalists who misquoted her, of government officials who had broken their promises. She spoke of a former prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, who stopped her mother from getting an allowance, and refused to allow the hunting lodge to be repaired. “He came to see us, you know. But we turned him away. Shoo, shoo, shoo.” Cyrus laughed, and I saw the faintest of smiles on the lips of Sakina. “We can’t trust anyone except our dogs. Dogs cannot be deceitful.” She pointed out through an arch, where I saw a huge black Great Dane, regal and terrifying, looking in at me. “We don’t call them dogs. They are Anubis. It is humans who are dogs.”
A sad softness came over her. She talked a little about the past, of the city of Lucknow where the old Oudh palaces, confiscated by the British at the time of the mutiny, are crumbling. She remembered a Jewish governess whom she clearly adored, and who had taught her that ordinariness was a sin; and Zita, the last Austro-Hungarian empress, who had written to her mother. Cyrus told us of the beautiful silver cutlery that he’d had to sell, and that he had an old General Electric Fridge that he now uses as a wardrobe. There is no electricity at Malcha Mahal, no running water, though Cyrus has managed to get a telephone connection … (full text).