The brutality of daily news and life in a young City Beautiful can make you blind to the beauty of ruins. The romance of rotting royalty, that pride in a cat’s walk, Gulzar’s lyrics, and the diehard poetry of Bashir Badr. Set in the palace of Mahmudabad in Uttar Pradesh, ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ is supposed to be fiction. But art often transports you to a time in the past or future. The latest Vishal Bhardwaj gem made me recall vividly my visit to Malerkotla, the unique Muslim-ruled principality of Punjab, where a queen still reigns over heaps of once-grand furniture and broken chandeliers. This week, let me take you to that place.
Bharat Bhushan, my photojournalist colleague, was tired after climbing trees and avoiding onlookers to get the best shots of Sheesh Mahal, a palace under severe litigation ever since the death of the erstwhile Malerkotla nawab’s youngest wife some years ago. A part of it is used by that wife’s relatives, and the rest is a hollowed structure. As we surveyed the hollow, a man straight out of an Aladdin movie appeared out of nowhere, and pointed towards a corner of the roofless structure. A throne-like chair sat there on a pedestal. Eerily beautiful, I thought. A tired Bhushan wasn’t impressed. And it was set to get worse.
Still piecing the story together, a short drive away from Sheesh Mahal we reached the grand palace, Mubarik Manzil. Surrounded by housing colonies, it does not have an approach road. A rickshaw-wallah had told us the last living wife of the nawab lived there. A walk to the gates led us to believe the guide had lost his marbles.
The rickety door swayed like a leaf in the wind, and no one stopped us as we walked in. Damp air welcomed us, and a cat dashed across the bricked verandah. Thank God it was not dark yet. The cleanliness was a sign of life, though. Then, he appeared.
This man, perhaps a cousin of the Aladdin character we met at Sheesh Mahal, was cutely menacing. Broom in hand, he shouted: “Bahar nikliye (Get out)!” Bhushan’s camera was particularly unsettling to him, so he left me alone and walked up to Bhushan: “Begum sahiba fotu bilkul nahin khichwayengi. (Her Highness will not want to be photographed at all.)”
Bhushan walked out in a huff. I was just happy to know that the one of the nawab’s five wives was alive and indeed lived there.
The man turned to me, and I bowed in respect, requesting him to let me meet her. “No,” he said. My Press card did not work in the time and space he inhabited. As he gently nudged me to leave, I argued with him, telling him that I had come to write an article that could solve the legal problems around the nawab’s properties. My intellectual arrogance made him furious further, but then She spoke from behind a tinted glass wall: “Andar aaiye aap. Akele! (Come inside, you. Alone.)” Who can disobey a queen’s orders?
Begum Munavvar-un-Nissa, said to be at least 90 years old, was dressed in soft, pink malmal, and spoke in a softer tone. “Since nawab saab is not alive now, how does it matter?” she asked, in convent-school accented English. I sought permission to sit, and she pointed to a cane chair. She fiddled with her Nokia 1100, then kept it back over an Urdu magazine on a steel table. No signs of royalty, except her tall chair, gentle demeanour, pearl necklace, fingers adorned with a couple of rings, and the fact that her hereditary servants brought water in a stained plastic glass for me and a silver tumbler for her. “What do you want to know?” she asked.
I spoke breathlessly about her family’s many disputes and, for effect, laid out some trivia found on Google. A smile escaped her lips — ‘Is it fine for a 25-year-old junkie to fall in love with a 92-year-old queen?’ my heart asked my brain — and then she broke the spell with one word. “Son,” she said, “I was the princess of Tonk (Rajasthan), then a queen, and now I live here, in this palace. I have seen enough loss. All that is in my name will go to a welfare organisation after my death.” She picked up the magazine, her eyes telling me to leave.
“Can I interview you at length, please?” I pleaded.
“You have had enough time already,” she replied, not looking up.
“Can we at least take a photo?”
The question led to an awkward silence. Her brows formed a frown, and out came some royal anger: “Is ladke ko yahan se bahar nikaliye! (Get this boy out of here)”
I got up to avoid humiliation, but two men appeared from a dingy room and pushed me out nevertheless. Outside, stood Bharat, smirking. Here we were, back from time travel.
P.S.: Dedh Ishqiya has a scene in which Madhuri Dixit addresses Naseeruddin Shah’s character in a sensuous tone that only she could muster: “Iftikhhaaar.” The name of Malerkotla’s last nawab, too, was Iftikhar.