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In isolation at Malcha Mahal

Prince Ali Raza and his sister Princess Sakina Mahal, who claimed to be "rulers of Oudh", now live in Malcha Mahal in relative obscurity, notes R.V. SMITH

Dobermans and German shepherds guard Malcha Mahal renamed Wilayat Mahal, on the ridge in Chanakyapuri. Inside dwell Prince Ali Raza and his sister Princess Sakina Mahal, safe from trespassers, both because of the dogs and the grim warningthat intruders would be shot.When their mother, Wilayat Mahal was alive, they were pretty well off with a host of servants, but just as suspicious of visitors as now, may be because of a persecution complex. Absence of piped water and power supply make things worse for the middle-aged siblings in this tarried weather. No wonder they have ceased to smell like royalty. This scribe's memory of Begum Wilayat Mahal goes back over 35 years.

A gaunt middle-aged woman standing at New Delhi railway station' platform, arms akimbo. Trains came and went but she continued to stay unperturbed by the sick hurry of life. When she got tired, she went and sat down in the VIP lounge of the ceremonial platform, where she and her children, Sakina and Raza, had made their home.

They used to eat at the station's refreshment rooms while sharing, along with a number of dogs in a conspicuous corner of the platform, their box piled up neatly on one side and a bed-sheet hanging from a cord tied to two pillars, their only screen from preying eyes. Villagers paused sometimes to stare at the strange family, smiled and then rushed to catch a waiting train, while the urban commuters only cast a furtive glance at them, blissfully unaware of their children.

Romantic chapter

Sometimes the slim boy and girl were not to be seen for hours, but their mother continued to stand alone, lost in thought, her dark sari rippling in the soft breeze, her hair falling just about her shoulder, her face, which must have been beautiful at one time, sad and her eyes staring vaguely into the distance as though gaining sustenance from that romantic chapter in the history of Lucknow that threw up such dandies as Wajid Ali Shah.

She was related to that colourful nawab and her long stay at New Delhi station was a sort of sit-in (dharna) in support of her demand for a share of the property of her ancestor, who had been banished to Bengal, after the annexation of Oudh, in 1856 - a year before the outbreak of the "Mutiny".

The Central Government was willing to give an allowance of Rs.500 a month, but Begum Wilayat Mahal rejected it as being too meagre. The vigil continued for many more years and then in 1978 a kind of compromise was reached. The Begum agreed to make her home in one of the lesser-known monuments of Delhi. After a hectic search for such a place, the Begum and her children finally picked on Malcha Mahal. The 700-year-old shikargah of Firoz Shah Tughlak became their home after that.

At first the family had a retinue of servants, who used to bring their meals from the city restaurants. Then that stopped and the meals were prepared in the mahal itself, which was out of bounds to visitors, with barbed wire all around and 12 big dogs and an equal number of small ones, guarding the place night and day. Slowly all but one of the servants left and of the dogs only one remained, the others having been poisoned by thieves.

After that nothing much was heard about the family, which preferred to stay in seclusion, until the revelation that the Begum had swallowed a crushed diamond and ended her life years ago. However, one thing that needs to be clarified is this: The main branch of the family of Wajid Ali Shah went along with him to Kolkata in 1856. It included the chief Begum and other members of the harem. But her favourite, Begum Hazrat Mahal, stayed put in Lucknow and played a leading role during the "Mutiny" after the claim of her minor son, Birjis Qadr, to the gaddi of Oudh was rejected by the British. Both died in Nepal.

However, Wajid Ali Shah, who died a few years before Hazrat Mahal, was survived by his other children, among whom were the main claimants to the nawabi. Their claims were partly recognised by Queen Victoria and her Government.

Begum Wilayat Mahal, whose husband pre-deceased her, was one of the descendants of Wajid Ali Shah. Incidentally, her husband was a government official and only some years after his death did it occur to the begum to seriously seek a share of the ancestral property in Lucknow.

Of late, Prince Ali Raza and Princes Sakina have managed to get enough dogs to bring their number at par with the pack they had during their mother's days. But otherwise their fortunes have taken downward swing, making them even more reclusive than before.

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