Delhi Railway Mahal Station
Protest Indian style
This a true modern day saga set in the first class waiting room of New Delhi Railway Station. It is the stuff of legends that makes India incredible!
In 1981 an Indian magazine reported on a royal family that had taken up residence in New Delhi Railway station - for seven years!
Complete with her son and daughter, Nepalese servants, furniture and seven dogs, the Begum (Muslim word for Queen) of Oudh, was staging a very long protest.
Squatting at New Delhi Railway station the Begum of Oudh lived in the small, first class waiting room. The reason for her defiant stand was to pressure the Indian government into returning at least one of the dozens of ancestral palaces and other riches that were seized from the family in the province of Lucknow in 1857.
It was at that time the Begum's great-grandfather, the Nawab of Oudh, was removed as provincial ruler by the British for mismanagement.
But the Begum of Oudh (also known as Wilayat Mahal) strenuously denied the allegations of dancing, drinking, music and keeping harems while thousands of his subjects starved.
“This is absolutely and totally baseless. My Grandfather was very large hearted, pious, religious and interested in literary pursuits,” she told the Society magazine in 1981 from the railway station waiting room.
The Begum of Oudh attracted international media with Peoples’ magazine Cheryl McCall reporting in 1981 that:
“The family complains bitterly about the rumble of trains at night, the suffocating clouds of diesel smoke and the lack of privacy amidst the throngs of "commoners." Even in such reduced circumstances, however, they cling to vestiges of a royal life-style.
“The Begum has carpeted her tiny quarters with Persian rugs, erected a makeshift throne with velvet bolsters and hung family portraits around her. Royal meals are cooked on braziers outdoors—are served on heirloom china. The tea sets are silver and the napkins hand-embroidered.
“When not writing abusive letters to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth, the Begum prays and reads the Koran. Her habit of commandeering the second-class ladies' rest room for a three-hour bath every day infuriates the commoners queued up outside.
“Authorities have shut off the fans and electricity in the waiting room, and once even turned a garden hose on the royal family, but forcible ejection seems unlikely. As a powerful figure in the Shiite sect of Islam, the Begum is lionized by India's Muslim minority as a symbol of resistance to the Hindu-dominated government.” McCall 1981.
As a traveller in India in the early 1980s I collected women’s magazines and I was intrigued by this woman and her plight. I filed the articles as keep sakes of life in India.
Now in 2011, in the throws of a house clean-out I rediscovered the old articles. My curiosity was reignited. Is she still in that waiting room? Is she still alive? Has the Indian Government given into her demands? And what of her children?
Journalist James Heer of salon.com, having also heard the mysterious tale, attempted to get an interview with the Begum of Oudh in 2000. But time was not on his side. The Begum, via a gold embossed letter, agreed to an interview on November 26, two weeks after Heer left the country.
BBC producer Alex Ninian also tried to film the Begum in 2000 but the project stalled when the Begun’s, daughter Princess Sakina, would only allow the cameras in if a revolver was sent 24 hours prior to filming. Needless to say there was no revolver supplied and no filming took place. The princess had planned to take her life in front of the cameras “as her final historic gesture in generations-long fight for the family’s rights” Ninian reported.
But Ninian did get an interview and caught up with the family, well the two children, Prince Cyrus Riza and the Princess Sakina at Malcha Palace. The palace, 700 year old Muslim fort, is set in a forest outside of Delhi.
By all accounts its appearance is as intriguing as the continuing saga – overgrown, entangled and obscuring a view of the palace. The dogs were still there as were the servants.
The Princess, Ninian said, was still preoccupied with the family history. Both children, were in their 40s, were unmarried and the last in line to continue the fight that has gone on for centuries.
Once inside the palace Ninian saw the bare stone floors, bats hanging from the ceiling and bird nests in broken roofs. He described the atmosphere as “spooky”.
The family had arrived at the palace sometime around 1984 after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the railway station and offered the Begum the 700-year old Muslim fort and promised it would be repaired and restored. The family left the waiting room, moved into the palace but the renovations were never carried out.
The family had sold many of its treasures and jewels in an effort to keep up royal appearances. But funds were running out.
Ninina was still keen to get an interview with the Begun herself, but time was not on his side.
In a style befitting the way she lived, the Begum had pulverized her royal diamonds and swallowed them, “washing them down with a draught of poison from a china bowl.”
Her children embalmed her and buried her, but the son later exhumed her and burnt her.
There were no dates given of the Begum’s death.
The Prince is confident that if he dies before his sister, she will follow tradition and kill herself within hours of his death. If the Princess dies before him, well he’s not sure that he’ll follow her example.
There are no more reports on the Prince and Princess after 2000.
The saga continues……………
Alex Ninian’s full interview with the family can read at: .
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