The unbudgeable Begum wants her palace back
According to her gold-embossed stationery, she is ''Her Royal Highness, the Begum of Oudh, Princess Wilayat Mahal, Heir to the last King of Oudh.'' But today, the Begum of Oudh reigns from the VIP quarters of New Delhi's railway station. Outside the station, squatters cover the pavement, cooking meals and drying laundry. Inside, the eccentric Begum stolidly waits to get her kingdom back.
Two Nepalese servants attend her. She is guarded by 14 Doberman pinschers and seems completely oblivious to the clatter of trains and frenzied passengers who constantly come and go.
A visitor is asked to remove his shoes before entering the VIP portico, which is now parlor, bedroom, and living room. A bearer in livery, his head bowed, kneels on a red valet pillow at the foot of marble slabs. Atop the slabs, resplendent with Persian carpets, sits the Begum of Oudh. Dressed in a black sari, a gold broach highlighted by a single string of pearls, she is flanked by her son and daughter. In the background, the Dobermans howl.
The last King of Oudh was unceremo-niously deposed by the British colonial administration in 1856. His kingdom and royal properties were annexed. At the time of India's independence, Prime Minister Nehru gave the Begum a home in Kashmir. But, unlike many of India's maharajas, who were given liberal government stipends to merge their principalities into the new Indian state, the descendents of Oudh received nothing. They were a century too late.
So, when her Kashmir home caught fire in the mid-1970s, the matriarch of a family that once ruled 5 million subjects decided to occupy the Indian capital's railway station. The sit-in - now into its seventh year - is meant to shame the government into returning the once stately ancestral home in Lucknow.
Why has the Begum chosen the railway station as the site of her protest?
She doesn't answer the question, only recounting how, in 1976, she and her daughter arrived at the station. Accompanied by a handful of servants and secretaries of the royal entourage, they were escorted into the ladies' VIP lounge. Much to the bewilderment of station officials, they began to unpack. Their chained dogs were clearly capable of waging an attack.
''We don't trust in servants,'' says Prince Ali Riza. ''We trust only our own security system, the protection of our dogs. . . . Let them send in the entire Indian Army. The house of Oudh will refuse to fall.
''You must understand,'' continues the prince, ''we don't want money. All we want is our original home.''
No one in the Indian government appears able to answer why such a seemingly simple request cannot be met. Only the minister of home affairs may speak publicly on the matter, and he is unavailable for comment.
Its gardens neglected, the King of Oudh's once splendid main palace now houses a government pharmaceutical research plant. Another palace, damaged in the 1857 Sepoy rebellion, has never been restored.
''Give us the broken walls,'' says the unbudgeable Begum. ''We will rebuild them ourselves. We only want to maintain the same status that we had centuries ago.''
Her words were drowned out by the announcement of a departing train. A servant entered carrying a silver tea set on an antique silver tray. Amid Persian carpets, Sind pillows, family heirlooms, and well-used wicker chairs, the Begum of Oudh accepts it with a decidedly regal air.
Asked about the ongoing court case to evict her which is entering its fifth year, she dismisses the consequences with a dramatic flourish of her hand. ''We are Shiite Muslims, we know what martyrdom is. . . . We have never succumbed to pressure.''
Mukandi Lal, the stationmaster, shakes his head in despair. ''When I want to see her, such visits, as befit royalty, must be arranged in writing, well in advance. . . . Her only concession is that she agrees to vacate temporarily when we have VIP visitors in town.'' Why does he then permit her to re-enter the VIP lounge?
Permission is not at issue. The station-master surrounds the complex with police. But either one of the servants, Prince Ali Riza, or Princess Sakeena Mahal, finds a way back into the VIP quarters - usually by dropping in from one of the trees in the adjacent garden.