Saturday, November 24, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Jaipur and its Rajmata
Khushwant Singh

THE Delhi-Jaipur dual highway is the best I have seen in the country. After you get out of the city suburbs beyond the international airport, it is a smooth stretch of two broad black ribbons lined by multi-coloured bougainvilleas and cultivated fields with pampas and keekar with the low, rocky escarpments of the scraggy Aravalli range. The hoardings on the roadside advertise marble and granite. Eateries on both sides of the road are better appointed than on any of the national highways going out of Delhi to state capitals of Punjab-Haryana, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and beyond.

Two hours after a brief halt for an idli-dosa brunch at a half-way eaterie, we drove through a rock-strewn valley to face the mountain Fort of Amber, once the stronghold of the Kuchawar rulers of Jaipur. Then through crowded bazaars, past the Hawa Mahal and into the lush green gardens surrounding Rambagh Palace Hotel. A Palace it was not very long ago and the exclusive abode of Jaipur princes and their offspring. A palace it remains today but now open to anyone who can afford to stay in five-star hotels — or free loaders like me.

Meting out humiliation as punishment
November 10, 2001
Women like her do not die...
November 3, 2001
The Karnataka-Canada connection
October 27, 2001
Making English an Indian language
October 20, 2001
Worshipping the mother of all rivers
October 13, 2001
Salman Rushdie: Genius or eccentric?
September 29, 2001
A Telugu saga set in 19th century
September 22, 2001
A blot on the face of Mother India
September 15, 2001
Leaving for the heavenly abode
September 8, 2001
Controlling the urge to backchat
September 1, 2001
A tale of modern India
August 25, 2001
Reflections on the brother-sister bond
August 18, 2001
A dacoit or a dasyu sundari?
August 11, 2001
A case for moderate drinking
August 4, 2001
A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
July 28, 2001
No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001
A penny for Jagjit Chohan
July 14, 2001
The importance of bathing
July 7, 2001
An astral encounter
June 30, 2001

I felt a total misfit in the luxurious atmosphere of this princely hotel. The bed was of the size of a billiard table, large enough to accommodate a stud of royal blood and a small harem of three wives. The hotel does not provide lady companions. It took me a while to discover where light and G.C. switches were hidden; how to switch on the TV and the radio. And having done so, how to switch them off. Bearers were dressed in sherwanis and long-tailed Rajput style pugrees. Much bowing low and asking for hukum (orders). Everytime the room boy came in, I felt I should stand to attention. It was all too exotic to be comfortable. When Rajmata Gayatri Devi walked in and joined us, all eyes turned to her; barmen turned more obsequious. She was voted the most beautiful woman of her times; she remains among the most beautiful and gracious of women today.

I asked her how comfortable she felt living in a huge palace with rooms the size of tennis courts. It must have been a problem to keep warm indoors in the winter months. "We used to have log fires in some rooms," she replied. I persisted:"Living in a palace of this size must have been uncomfortable." She replied, "I have a home of my own next door. Drop in for a cup of coffee tomorrow."

"My idea of a home is a nest:small, snug and cosy. In winter a coalfire glowing in the grate. A deep leather arm-chair with a lamp, above it, a cat purring in my lap; a dog asleep at my feet, soft music over the stereo, book-lined walls with space for a TV set which is never switched on." She smiled, glanced at her wrist watch and replied, "Come, I’ll see you to the coffee shop." I knew it was time for my dinner. I don’t think she meant to snub me. Before leaving she repeated, "You must come over tomorrow to see how I live now."

Gayatri Devi lives in considerable style. Her house adjoins Rambagh Palace with extensive lawns of its own. She allows schoolchildren to play cricket there. Her double-storeyed house is like a museum cluttered with ancient relics and paintings. Her study and sitting room has shelves full of rare books. She leads a very busy life: she keeps an eye on the five schools, founded by her; that takes all her mornings. She has a lot of visitors, TV and Press interviews and family affairs to sort out.

The Rajmata hosted a dinner that evening. She was the imperious Maharani of old days, ordering people to sit at places indicated by her. I was given the seat on her right. Next to me was my old friend Bhoopinder Hooja, a retired IAS officer. I was present at his marriage to the sculptress Usha Rani Joseph in London over 50 years ago. And kept with them and their children — mostly their daughter Reema, now with a doctorate in archaeology from Cambridge and author of a couple of scholarly books. Bhoopi, as I have known, assumed a new name Kumar Bharati — G.B. KumarHooja, the author of Shahadat Nama: A Saga of Martyrs (Sanghar Vidya Sathu Trust, Indian Book Chronicle and Aalden Publishers). He presented a copy to the Rajmata and one to me. Before I retired for the night, I took a casual glance at the Shahadat Nama. It starts with the rising of 1857, which he as well as other patriotic Indians regard as India’s first War of Independence. Most serious historians are of the opinion that it was nothing of the sort. However, I was not in a mood to dispute his reading of Indian history. At the end the book has an appendix listing names of freedom fighters who were executed by the British in different Indian jails. More than half of them were Sikhs who formed a little over 2 per cent of the population of India. That filled me with a sense of pride. I slept the sleep of the just till sunlight streamed through the windows. An hour latter, we drove out of Rambagh Palace to take the road back to Delhi. I took the more comfortable seat in front and let my grand-daughter Naina Dayal and our escort Reeta Devi Varma, wife of Bheem Varma of Cooch Behar (nephew of the Rajmata) take the rear seat. After we passed the hill on which rise the magnificent escarpments of Amber Fort, I dosed off dreaming of the days when I first saw Gayatri Devi in all her youthful glory: how gracefully she had aged defying the ravages of time which included a year and a half in Tihar Jail where a very vindictive Indira Gandhi had imprisoned her along with the Rajmata of Gwalior during the Emergency for no fault of theirs except that she regarded them both as her rivals.

An evening with Akbar Ilahabadi

Akbar Ilahabadi has been gone a long time but he remains my favourite poet for wit and satire. I am sure he could have lit up my mehfil without the help of a shama (lamp) or wine goblets going round. He was a puritan who even supported women wearing burqahs. However, one evening my friend Abid Saeed Khan who stands six feet and four inches high in his slippers and grows the most delicious Dussehri, Ratol and Langda mangoes in his orchards in Bugrasi village dropped in. He does so periodically to collect the books I cannot accommodate in my small apartment. His preference being English, I did not even suspect he had a taste for Urdu poetry. We were talking about some politicians who shamelessly switch sides when a party in the ascendant promises them a brighter future. Abid came out with a satire Akbar Ilahabadi had penned to lampoon the Raja of Mahmoodabad who had been supporting the Congress for many years but was veering towards the Muslim League which was gaining strength among Muslims of Uttar Pradesh:

Muzakkar ‘He’ ko kehtey hain

Muannas ‘She’ ko kehtey hain

Voh ek marde-e-Mukhannas hain

Na ‘heeon’ main na ‘sheeon’ mein

(The masculine gender is a He

The feminine gender is a She

But he is of a neuter gender

Neither among the he’s nor among the Shias)

Mahmoodabad Raja Sahib was a Shia.

Akbar Ilahabadi had made a dig at Sarojini Naidu. She came to him to solicit his support for the Home Rule League. Akbar was more inclined towards supporting the Muslim League. He told her in verse:

Shama Khud ban jaee gee

Mome to mangvaaeye

Rule main haazir karoonga

Home to dikhlaaye

( The candle will form itself

Get some wax at first

I will get you the rule you want

But show me the home at first).


Singular success

Sunil Dutt made a film Yaadein in which he was the sole actor. It did very poorly at the box office. Once one of his fans met him and said, "Wah Dutt Sahib, What a wonderful film you made! There was only you on the screen and there was only myself in the audience."

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)