A Delhi legend unravels: A Partition tragedy of royals who were not
Delhi has her fair share of urban legends. Like the Djinns of the Walled City.
In my early years at my grandfather’s haveli, a stone’s throw from Jama Masjid, what disturbed my impressionable mind the most was the claim that the Djinns, if denied meals on time, would cause a lot of disruption, such as overturn the rope cots on the terrace.
A few years later, when my family moved to a Central Delhi neighbourhood flanking the Ridge forest, we got to hear a new set of stories. One of those was far more horrific than anything to do with the resident Djinns of Jama Masjid.
In 1978, two teenage siblings hitched a ride only to be kidnapped and killed by two criminals, Ranga and Billa, who had stolen the car. Their bodies were found in the Ridge.
In my neighbourhood, the memory of the crime lingered on for decades, and many avoided the forest stretch after sundown.
But the most fascinating of all Ridge stories played out on the other side of the wilderness. After squatting at the waiting room of New Delhi railway station for a decade, Begum Wilayat Mahal, who claimed she was the descendant of the Nawab of Awadh, wrangled from the government a ‘palace’ in lieu of her ancestral properties seized by the British in 1856.
In 1985, she, her daughter princess Sakina Mahal, her son prince Ali Raza, also known as prince Cyrus, their servants and dogs had moved into the ‘royal’ Malcha Mahal, a hunting lodge constructed by Feroz Shah Tughlaq in the late 14th century deep inside the central Ridge along Sardar Patel Marg.
The presence of the family, which lived in arched chambers that had no doors or windows, and no water or power connections, inspired much awe. They were extremely reclusive. A friend and I had once ventured into the forest through a dirt road to explore the lodge situated close to ISRO’s earth station. We came upon a board on the gate: “Entry Restricted. Cautions of Hound Dogs. Proclamation. Intruders shall be Gundown.” We did not spot any member of the ‘royal’ family though.
They did give interviews, but mostly to foreign journalists. In 2006, I asked my colleague Avishek Dastidar to give it a shot. Just as he entered the Mahal premises, prince Raza appeared. “Tell your editor that her royal highness does not wish to grant an audience now,” he told the reporter in a clipped accent. Just so he remembered what to tell us back at Hindustan Times, Raza made him repeat the sentence.
It took over a decade and a tragedy for the media to get unrestricted access to the Mahal. On September 2, 2017, Raza was found dead on the floor next to his bed when some staffers from the earth station came to check on him.
Earlier, there were reports that the Begum had allegedly committed suicide in 1993 by drinking a concoction laced with “crushed diamond”. Sakina too had passed away but the exact date of her death was unclear.
On entering the Mahal, reporters had found handwritten notes, a broken typewriter, porcelain crockery, dirty carpets, English magazines, a corroded sword, photographs of the family, visiting cards of foreign journalists, copies of Sakina’s autobiography and a collection of poetry in Urdu by Mir Baber Ali Anees.
It was in this rummage that New York Times reporter Ellen Barry found Western Union cash transfer receipts sent from England, and a letter, written presumably by a relative. These led Barry to the UK and Pakistan in search of Raza’s brother and other relatives.
In a deeply moving article published last week, Barry wrote how the Begum and her offspring “were, or had been, an ordinary family”. Her husband was the registrar of Lucknow University and prince Raza was “not prince anything... he was plain old Mickey Butt”. Following Partition, Barry wrote, the family had moved to Pakistan where the husband passed away and an increasingly unsettled Wilayat spent a few months in a mental hospital before returning to Lucknow as the “heiress” in the early 1970s.
While the revelation offered a stunning closure to many, some felt betrayed that the three had taken everyone for a ride. But we would never know what made a fairly affluent family weave a false identity only to live a life of splendid isolation and considerable hardship till they took that lie to their graves.
It is both unreal and shattering to realise what culminated in Delhi’s Ridge forest seven long decades after Independence was, in all likelihood, yet another Partition tragedy.
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