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India's wealthiest man the country forgot

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

In Istanbul, a conservatively dressed man hovers into view of the city's popular coffee houses, where he will sit with a cup of Turkish and stare out of the window. The waiters, far less the other patrons, are unaware of the eighth (and last) Nizam of Hyderabad, a kingdom that was the size of France. That His Exalted Highness Mukarram Jah was also to be the Caliph of Islam is even less known. The chosen heir of the richest man in the world (who was also an eccentric miser) was a reluctant inheritor to the title. He would later admit to being more anxious about the reason for his car breaking down than the ostentatious rituals surrounding his coronation. Married three times, Jah bought neither dignity nor ceremony to his office, escaping to Australia to live like a recluse on a ranch (the size of Belgium) that he bought on a whim, and where he drove bulldozers with the zest of a boy playing with his toys.
Jah's unusual life will probably see more surrounding his reluctant celebrity, but journalist John Zubrzycki's has a headstart and, quite contrary to the title, is a comprehensive history of the Jah dynasty, which was once the most powerful (and certainly the wealthiest) of India's princely kingdoms. In its time it challenged the Mughal empire, constantly chastised the British for not allowing the Nizam the title of Emperor (the other Indian kings were merely Raja and Maharaja), and was wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of any man, the result less of fiscal management than arising from the practice of employing "nazar" or bequest to tame aristocrats, landowners and traders to pay an audience tax to the Nizam.
Hyderbad today is Cyberabad, but if the city's lands and title deeds of properties are a mess, you can blame it on the Nizams, who led profligate lives, were prone to sycophancy, and were for most part uneducated and therefore reluctant to bring reforms, often at loggerheads with the central powers, rarely stood by their word or treaties, and had so many wives and concubines that merely being cared for by the ruling family entailed thousands of daily meals and a huge drain on the exchequer.
While the rise (and fall) of the Jahs is compelling reading, it is the lives of the last two Nizams, Mukarram Jah and his grandfather Osman Ali Khan, that are riveting. Khan, probably the most important Muslim leader of his time in the world, rarely strayed beyond the confines of his palaces, and almost never set foot outside his state, remaining, therefore, a medieval potentate in his outlook. Writes Zubrzycki, "When an invitation came from Jawaharlal Nehru to attend a conference in New Delhi of regional governors and princely heads of state in 1952, he was first reluctant to accept. Only when the government agreed to supply the three planes needed for transporting his entourage, which consisted of 15 wives, 10 children and some 56 physicians, barbers, nurses and servants, did he relent."
Unhappy with his son (whom he disinherited in favour of his grandson), he was more moody than whimsical, suspicious even of his most trusted courtiers, and had his sons marry Ottoman princesses. The marriages weren't a success""the princesses found Hyderabad stifling""and Khan would not allow his grandson a Western education, though his mother, the beautiful and emancipated Durrushehvar, used her wiles with the British residents to attempt an education in, first, London, and later the newly founded Doon School in Dehra Dun.
Jah did graduate from Sandhurst, married the Turkish Esra Birgin, had two children, and simply let his inheritance slip through his fingers""the hundreds of rooms in his palaces filled with robes and jewels and art and everyday things decaying (unless they were broken into and sold by rapacious courtiers), the failed attempts to sell his family's fabulous jewellery, and the rapid slide into a state almost of penury. His escape to Australia, where he bought Murchison Station, his marriage to Helen Simms, who would launch herself in society and take on lovers who would leave her with AIDS, the sale of his properties there and being barred from entering his own palaces in Hyderabad, a belated attempt to right things in his former kingdom (an impossible task, given his grandfather's propensity to adopt hundreds of children, giving rise to thousands of claimants to a share of the property and wealth), another late but equally unsatisfying marriage to Manolya Onur""and a lonely Jah living the life of a recluse in Turkey ... all the ingredients of a masala history about a man even India""and Indians""have forgotten.
The Last Nizam
The Rise and Fall of India's Greatest Princely State
John Zubrzycki
Picador India
Price: Rs 395; Pages: 382


First Published: Fri, March 30 2007. 00:00 IST