From riches to rags
Deepika Gurdev

The Last Nizam
by John Zubrzycki. Picador.
Rs 395. Pages 382.

The Last NizamThe Last Nizam tells you on page 173: "Durrushehvar was determined that her son stick to the rules and achieve no special treatment, but she also took the precaution of renting a house in Dehra Dun in case he had difficulties settling in. Foot reported that the Princess was 'a great addition to the rather provincial society of Dehra Dun and we all got on very well with her.' But he was not impressed with (Mukararram) Jah's performance in his entrance test which showed that 'even if understood a sum, he had always been accustomed to have a tutor to do the tedious business of working it out.'"

Which is why it's not surprising that "for a highly pampered prince like Mukarram, Doon School was a boot camp. The daily routine started with a rising bell, and continued with exercises, breakfast, assembly, classes, lunch, rest period, sports, extra-curricular activities, bathing time, evening meal, study time and finally sleeping."

After all he is from the World of Prince and Princesses and the Ottoman Empire that at its height covered northern Africa and the Middle East. It is this empire that Mukarram Jah's mother Durrushehvar has known. The only child of 'His Imperial Majesty the Caliph Abdul Mejid II,' she had seen her world crumble when she was only 11. Her family was sent into exile, though her father had sealed the fate of generations to come by nominating his grandson Mukarram Jah, who was at the time only a schoolboy, the next Caliph.

All that happened when Durrushehvar wedding was arranged with Prince Azam Jah. She was 17, "the epitome of Oriental beauty, fluent in six languages and a 'thoroughly modern woman,' while Azam was billed as the 'heir to more wealth than that held by all the Fords, Rockefellers and Morgans.' The event was described as the merger of the mightiest houses of Islam."

As we learn a couple of pages later, the marriage was a disaster. They were mismatched physically (the pictures show that much) as well as in their social status. Azam is established as no gentleman and the differences between the couple are for all to see. Then comes the Second World War, which lays rest to the best-laid plans including the education of the five-year-old son of Durrushehvar and Azam.

"Durrushehvar was in favour of sending her son to Eton while the Prime Minister Akbar Hydari favoured Winchester, but the Nizam was steadfastly opposed to any education abroad." With her plans thwarted, she found "the atmosphere in Hyderabad stifling" and set out to change the course of her son's education.

It is into this fascinating world that the Australian journalist and writer John Zubrycki draws you in. Piece by stunning piece, he establishes the fall of a dynasty, which in the end goes for a sheep farm in Australia. From palace intrigues, illicit affairs, doomed wedding, circle of sycophants, its mind over machine in the fall of Hyderabad and end of India's great princely state.

This extraordinary story takes you, like good stories do, to places you imagined. You can almost picture the Hyderabad bookstore Zubrzycki describes. The kind where you should look, choose to buy but refrain from attempting to pull any book without the express the help and consent of the proprietor.

Zubrzycki has a 30-year-old long association with India and it is his ability to capture subtle nuances like these, that make this book such a superb read. There are moments when you feel you are meeting the characters too fast, too furious, that moment passes fairly soon. The history of the passing of an era is captured in a concise 334 pages (not counting the end notes, biblio and acknowledgements), for those of you who have survived the 1,000-page tomes, this is a huge relief.

The author provides superb insights through his research, his personal interviews with so many people who have watched Hyderabad then and now. A rare personal interview with Mukarram Jah, who now lives in Turkey, puts his life and that of a dynasty in perspective.

Was his life doomed from the start? Could he have been lucky in love? Should he have stayed in Hyderabad and changed the course of history? Could diplomacy have been the answer? You have to read The Last Nizam to decide. And remember to add it to your bookshelf, even if it's already crumbling under the pressure of so many good ones.