Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maharajas Galore!!!!

I am writing on a topic today which is close to my heart. To me, 15th August 1947 was a day which not only we became independent but we threw out a loosely fragmented princely tyrannical India. 500 odd kings who amassed wealth beyond most people's imagination (actually the state's taxes and duties dutifully paid by it's citizens, which they royally gobbled up!!). All this went to feed their personal greed and hunger. They indulged in mindless eccentricity while their poor "subjects" (I hate this word as it smacks of slavery) toiled day and night to make ends meet.

We were a poor country with the richest kings. Those shameless creatures had amassed so much wealth (actually looted it !!!) that some of their descendants are still feeding on it. For decades, we doled out to privy purses to these jokers most of whom had nothing in them apart from a few strand of genes which they kept en-cashing. We are told that they understood luxury and the good life while others didn't. If one does not know where his next meal would come from after toiling 16 hours a day, I do not think Cartier watches will be on his mind!!!

As I write the leftist side of me continues to poke me to elaborate on how they subjected the ordinary masses to a wretched life while they enjoyed what they did not deserve even by an inch. The Maharajah of Junagadh had a peculiar passion for dogs. His favorite pets were assigned to apartments equipped with telephones, electricity and domestic servants and were borne off to marble mausoleums to the strains of Chopin's music. For the wedding of his favorite bitch he spent 60,000 pounds, a sum which could by any estimate financed the basic needs of 1,20,000 of his people.

The Nizam of Hyderabad reputed to be one of the wealthiest in the world in 1947, reportedly contributed 25 million pounds to Britain in world war -1, for which a very grateful Britain addressed him as his "Exalted Highness" (the only royal in India to be addressed with such salutations are really costly!!!!) The man himself guarded his wealth zealously for 35 years eating off a tin plate, smoking cigarette stubs left by guests and squatting on a mat by the floor in his room. Yet wrapped in a tattered newspaper on his desk was the Jacob Diamond, one of the largest in the world, a mighty 280 carats.

Then there was the super-glamorous Maharani Bakhtavar Kaur of Patiala, who got Cartier to redesign her necklace with a diamond of 234.69 carats; Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar wore sandals by Salvatore Ferragamo who in his memoirs wrote how the Maharani loved a pair in black velvet set with diamonds. The maharanis had weavers to weave saris specially commissioned. Jewels, cigarette cases, shoes, evening bags, hair combs and ornaments would all have been from design houses like Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, Cartier or Faberge. There was no need for the princes to travel or indeed leave the palace if they didn’t wish to as it all came to them. I am told (but I am not vouching the authenticity of it) that a certain Maharaja had a snout in the front of his Rolls Royce to spray steaming water if any ordinary citizen crosses his path while driving.

This fantasy of luxury in a country where people struggled for basic living, seems not only barbaric but also criminal. Alas, we didn't have an egalitarian society then and being worshipers of such rulers, the people meekly accepted it as their destiny and lived on. The fact that we abolished the privy purses and made them "commoners" is one great achievement of democracy and modern India. We should have no place in an equal society where men and women by virtue of lineage get away with all the nation's wealth.

Thankfully most of their properties now belong to the nation and their grand children only have stories to tell!!

Thankfully we could bury the monarchies and move on to a strong vibrant democracy. Let us not forget that not many people in this world have that privilege.