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A case of Delhi poisoning?


DID QUEEN Zinat Mahal really poison Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, British Resident in Delhi, or did he die of natural causes or because of the after affects of a contaminated dish he had eaten? Sultan Mohammed Bin Tughlak, one will remember, died after eating fish that had gone bad while he was pursuing a rebel in Thatta (Sindh). A similar case of food poisoning in regard to Sir Thomas was not ruled out by some students of history at an informal get-together this past week.

However, there were a few who were convinced that the wife of the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, considered him a meddler in palace affairs not favourably disposed towards her son and, therefore, contrived to do away with him in 1853 - four years before the `Mutiny'.

To those who hold that view, the seeds of the great rebellion had been sown at that time and the death of Sir Thomas Metcalfe was the first blow struck by the freedom fighters, operating from the Red Fort. But there is a slight variation in the tale as one version mentions `jealousy' on the part of the queen as the motive for the alleged slow-poisoning of the East India Company's chief representative in Delhi. That brings in a very personal factor - for jealousy can also spring from unrequited love. And the queen was rumoured to have had a number of young lovers.Before going further into the argument, it would be worthwhile to take a peep into Sir Thomas Metcalfe's daily routine as mentioned in the diary kept by his daughter Emily from the 1840s. Such a "propah" Sahib in his `50s could not have qualified as a lover for a youthful and passionate Zinat Mahal:

"Sir Thomas rose at five o'clock precisely and, after eating a light breakfast on the verandah, walked up and down in his dressing gown while delivering orders to his servants. At seven he went to bathe in his swimming pool; then, having dressed, he attended prayers in his oratory before eating his main breakfast at eight. After breakfast he would quietly smoke his hookah for half-an-hour and then retire to his study to write letters until 10 o'clock when his carriage was brought beneath the portico by his coachman. He then drove away to return at two o'clock for dinner at three. After dinner he sat reading for a time (there were 25,000 books in his library) before going down to the billiard-room. A game of billiards was followed by two hours spent on the terrace contemplating the river. Then it was time for a light supper and the evening hookah. Immediately the clock struck eight he stood up and went to bed."

There was a change in the evening ritual when he would send for a pair of white kid gloves, which he wore before firmly pinching an errant servant's ear. The gloves, as also his clothes and shoes, were imported from England. That was the life-style at the magnificent house Sir Thomas had built on the west bank of the Yamuna decorated with marble statues, oil paintings, busts and souvenirs of Napoleon and an extensive garden with grassy lawns, exotic trees and beautiful flowers.

But Sir Thomas also had a summer house in Mehrauli which boasted of a castle and a lighthouse. Situated on the road to the Qutb, Metcalfe's Castle or Battery was built above a medieval mausoleum. Sir Thomas named his castle `Dilkhusha', meaning `pleasing to the heart', and occupied it for most of the 40 years that he lived in Delhi with his idiosyncrasies and love-hate relationship with the `natives'.

The castle had a set of rooms, which contained Sir Thomas's study and quarters for his daughter. Emily Metcalfe was just as fond of the castle as her father, who used to recount in between puffs of the hookah, the merits of the way of life he led in his country retreat and the entirely different one of the `fastidious Englishman' at Metcalfe House, where his wife and son, George, also stayed.

Incidentally, a scholar's claim some time ago that Sir Thomas was a friend of William Fraser is not quite correct. Like his brother, Sir Charles Metcalfe, who had also served as British Resident, he did not approve of the `wayward life' led by Fraser. The latter, on his part considered the Metcalfes `boors'.

Sir Thomas died in his late 50s. His grand uncle, after whom he was named, died at the same age and Sir Charles Metcalfe (later Lord) died at 63 after serving as Governor-General in India and holding the governorships of Jamaica and Canada. Sir Thomas's successor, Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, died at the age of 58. That shows that all the Metcalfes had roughly about the same lifespan. The poisoning theory, notwithstanding the motives, could have been part of British propaganda. But these days there seem to be increasingly more believers in it.

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