18 July 2020

The New York Times: “The Jungle Prince of Delhi”

“India Princess Reigns in Rail Station”, a Times correspondent wrote in 1981, describing her “genuine commitment to redeem the ancestors, to right wrongs suffered over centuries and to obtain justice.” People magazine recorded her declaring, “Let the world know how the descendant of the last nawab of Oudh is treated.”

Foreign correspondents arrived, one after another, and readers began to send letters from all corners of the world, expressing outrage on her behalf. The begum imposed stringent conditions — she “could only be photographed when the moon was waning”, United Press International reported — and journalists complied, delighted with the Gothic peculiarity of it all.

In 1984, her efforts paid off. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi accepted their claim, granting them use of a 14th century hunting lodge known as Malcha Mahal. They left the train station roughly a decade after they first appeared there. Wilayat never appeared in public again.

Ellen Barry

Fascinating story about a reclusive family in Delhi who presented themselves for decades as the last surviving heirs to the princely state of Oudh in northern India – and an exceptional example of investigative reporting! Since publication, the story has been expanded with new information from readers and government documents, and Amazon has purchased the rights to develop it as a drama series.

The prince led me up to the roof to show me the view. We stopped at the edge of the building, gazing across green treetops to the dusty city, shimmering in the heat.

Other great cities may be built on top of ruins, but Delhi is built of them. It is almost impossible to go from one point to another without stumbling over a 700-year-old tomb or a 500-year-old fort.

Seven successive Muslim dynasties built their capitals here, each swept aside when its time had passed. The ruins are a reminder that the present dispensation — democracy, Starbucks, Hindu nationalism — is only the blink of an eye in India. We were here, they seem to breathe. This was ours.

What I found most interesting about the story is how people around them, all the way to top government officials, have simply accepted their noble origins without question because the family displayed such unwavering conviction – the same way people under authoritarian governments accept statements from their leadership even as they are being let in the wrong direction. Here it is solely this family that suffered a tragedy, but with authoritarian leaders the entire society suffers during their rule and in its aftermath.

Lucknow is studded with shrines and palaces of Oudh nawabs
Lucknow is studded with shrines and palaces of Oudh nawabs, whose kingdom was annexed by the British in 1856. Bryan Denton for The New York Times

I put down my bag and sat on the airport floor, feeling a little in shock.

This feeling was partly selfish. I had a thick file of interviews in a manila envelope labeled “Prince Cyrus.”

I had figured that, in this family’s story, there was a parable about India, something about trauma that went unresolved as one empire replaced another.

And then there was a second feeling. I was sad that I was not there to help him. I had enjoyed our conversations, the maddening dance of 18 months. I could not believe that he had died alone in that forsaken place.

I was sure that in the dark, he had wanted someone to hold his hand.

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