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DINNER WITH THE QUEEN

                                 

‘Gawd,’ said in a plummy London accent, ‘what a bloody nightmare.’

‘Yeo-o-owww!’ moaned a voice behind him, ‘I’ve just bumped my head – really, really hard.’

Christopher lurched into the courtyard, a bright yellow cashmere sweater draped electric around broad neon-green shoulders. Sebastian arrived seconds later, a towering inferno of lollipop pink, an orange prayer scarf wound angrily around his neck. He was holding his forehead. Each had white Bermuda shorts on, hairless sun-bed calves, snazzy red loafers and carried a matching Panama hat.

These colourful lads had just arrived fresh from London – but then Ahilya Fort was the kind of place where people always arrived ‘fresh from London’. It’s a boutique-y, Conde Nast-ie, Mick Jaggery place, a not-for-the-commonfolk kinda place, an ‘I’d tell you where it is but I’d have to cut your tongue out’ kinda place – quite the most remarkable place in the world.  Perfect for our boys.

Both blithely displayed the aesthetic of their tribe, a range of socks and shorts and hats and shirts that branded them as surely as if they had the words: ‘Big London Fag’ tattooed on their forehead. They were either blissfully unaware that their extreme fashion statement might not apply to the rest of the world – or were, in their own strategic way, using their disguise as a weapon. I rather suspected the latter.

The boys had just endured the drive from Hell to get here, in their eyes anyway – everything was amazing, everything was incredible, every cow, every farmhouse, every wave. They gushed with all the predictable ‘O-o-o-o-oh, they have no money and how could we glide right by in our limousine and the poverty, oh my god, I’ve never seen people living like that… and ah-h-h-h!’  and ‘o-o-o-oh!’ and ‘o-o-oo-ohhh!’

I waited kindly, till they were gushed out.

‘Well, my friends,’ I said, ‘you must learn how to be King.’

Sebastian’s eyes lit up. This was a concept he could run with.

‘What a very interesting thing to say…’

He was a tall man, very British, very arty London, very gay. He was on his absolute best behaviour, beaming charm and wit; urbane, flamboyant, in-your-face – he was exactly who he was – no apologies, no favours. The lads were behaving with ‘gay abandon’ – in the true sense of the words. They didn’t give a damn.

*

‘D’you know where I can get something to smoke?’ he said in a stage whisper. He didn’t quite lean over, pat my knee and say, ‘darling,’ but that was his tone.

‘Mmm-m-m-m,’ I said, a slow smile growing in my eyes, ‘gosh, that might be difficult…’

‘What do they call it here?’ he said being cute, ‘ganga?’

I laughed.

‘It’s awash with ganja, Sebastian. Just go down on the ghats.’

But then I realised that if the lads went down on the ghats dressed like that they would be the object of such amazement they would score nothing but hilarity. A sudden attack of kindness came upon me.

‘Let me help you,’ I said gently. I knew just where to go.

In Sebastian’s eyes I was a man of such antiquity that I was of another species – but he was ‘being nice’ to me as he would to an elderly relative, gracious, sweet, awash with ooze and flow.

‘Oooh-h-h-h, that would be lovely,’ he squealed, ‘and so, so terribly kind.’

*

He didn’t mean a word of it. I knew that, so did he.

These lads were masters of the gush, princes of the dark arts of flattery and deception – part Widow Twankey, part Court Jester and part lethal weapon. Not a word of truth came out of them, no matter how hard you squeezed. They were sharp and brittle, savage fruit from a poisoned creeper that grew from shallow ground. Self-made creations, prickly as a pear behind that gush – a particular amalgam of girlish trill and heart of steel, society hit-men who could murder with a phrase, kill with an upturned eyebrow.

‘Oo-o-o-o, how lovely,’ they coo and simper, ‘oh, how go-o-orgeous, what a triumph, what a hoot!’

Turn your back and it’s ‘Oh! What a prick! Did you see his shoes? How awful!’

‘Fa-a-a-abulous, darling, it really is…’

‘Did you see that rag she was wearing?

‘Mm-m-m-m, this is scrumptious!’

Ble-e-a-u-gh-h-h!’ behind their hands.

Their lives were determinedly shallow, full of accoutrements and greed. All was colour and movement, all was fickle and cruel – they had replaced the real world with a feeble cartoon full of divas and drag queens, mere celebrity, fashion and dope.

‘Twas ever thus.

*

The last Maharaja of Indore, the magnificent Yeshwant Rao, had a beautiful wife, Sanyogitabai Raje. Usha Devi, their daughter, was born in 1933 when Mum was only twenty and Daddy twenty-four, at the very height of their fame; young, vain, good-looking, spectacularly rich and renowned – they were fa-a-a-abulous, as Sebastian would say.

The handsome couple were surrounded by fawning and fantastic friends, the brightest and best, artists and sculptors, actors, dancers, movie stars – all the Sebastians and Christophers of their day. They come with the territory, then and now; easily bought, glittering moths to the celebrity flame.

Their legendary excess brought fame and acceptance in Europe and America, their style and flamboyance grew apace. On an extended tour of Europe and the U.S. in the mid-Thirties the young Maharaja picked up one hundred trunks full of souvenirs, including a ukulele and a twenty-nine karat piece of the million dollar Jonker diamond. He commissioned art works from Brancusi, Le Courbusier, private aeroplanes and rail carriages designed by Muthesius, bought the finest, rarest cars – the list went on and on and on. Only good taste and a sense of style can mitigate this asinine extravagance and mercifully the young couple had that in spades. They were exquisite creations awash with cash, not caring for anything but the moment, the fashion, la mode.

That they scarcely understood real life at all was fair penance for their privilege. They danced and played polo instead. Jazz was all the rage; jazz, gin and hunting with a battalion of servants to help them on their way. All they knew was grovel and money, the licence to over-spend, two perfectly spoilt Indian diamonds bringing beauty to an ugly Western world. Of course, like all beautiful young people, they were invincible. Of course, they were headed full-tilt for the gilded brick wall.

*

‘D’yoo ne-a-ugh Rich’d? Christopher asked.

Of course Christopher did. He knew everybody. Christopher only had to be in the same suburb as someone famous to claim a relationship.

‘No,’ I said blank faced, ‘I’ve seen his shaving kit. Does that count?

No.’

‘What’s he like?’

There was a suspicious pause.

‘Hard work,’ blurted Sebastian.

‘D’you know?’ said Christopher, ‘I think he might have that sleep-disorder, what’s it called..?

‘Na-a-arcolepsy,’ Sebastian chipped in – then did an imitation of someone chatting away then falling suddenly asleep.

‘He just cuts off,’ said Christopher. ‘One minute he’s there – the next minute…’

‘Na-a-arcolepsy.

Sebastian loved saying it. He said it again.

  *

First blood on the golden bricks was the young Maharani; a mysterious car accident in Switzerland and she was suddenly, irrevocably dead. Poor Sanyogitabai Raje wasn’t the only one to hit the brickwork. Something happened, something strange, something stirred in the Maharaja’s shallow soul. Of course, one way or another, Yeshwant Rao was driving the car.

The Maharaja was never the same; he became introverted, self-indulgent, grieved rather too much and abandoned himself to little Usha Devi and his pain. At a stroke he lost interest in his arty friends and the society life, neglected his schemes and commissions, ignored those grandiose, fa-a-a-abulous plans.

Yeshwant Rao dropped the Holkar bundle at home as well; deserted all his grand dreams and rushed back overseas pleading ill-health. ‘Junior’ was in quite a state. Of course, when the fun stopped, all the Christophers and Sebastians of that other world gaily fled his side. They only love a winner; all this grief was very dull, not very chic at all. The poor little rich boy was only twenty-seven.

Like many a young man at a turning point, he made some really dumb decisions. In September the following year he married little Usha Devi’s American nanny, a broad-mouthed brunette of limited sophistication but undoubted sexual prowess who had previously been a stewardess on the Union Pacific Railroad. Once again, history falls silent. The marriage lasted four years, dissolved, so they whisper, because she couldn’t bear him an heir.

On the 6th July 1943, nearly six years to the day since his first wife’s fatal accident, Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar divorced the second one in the morning and married his third ten hours later. He got it right this time – she was a classy dame. Another American. The happy couple set to work to create a mini-Maharaja and just over ten months later Shrimant Maharajkumar Richard Shivajirao Yeshwantrao Holkar tumbled through time and space and landed fully formed in the midst of a dynasty.

By the time he was six years old, through no fault of his own, the little Prince had gathered enough enemies to cripple a continent.

‘I just had these run up in Deh-h-lie,’ Christopher fluttered as his pristine kurta rustled in the breeze.

A hundred oil-lamps lit the garden as he paraded down the path, an elegant ivory cotton outfit hanging to his knees, beautifully cut, trousers bound tight to his ankles but alarmingly loose between his legs. He looked briefly as if he had enormous testicles, but that was just a trick of the light. Dogster resolved not to think about Christopher’s testicles, ever again.

‘Oh, god, my bum is killing me,’ he sighed as he slipped onto the sofa beside me.

Sebastian ran up the steps across the garden.

Me, of course, sorry I’m late, I was on the phone.’

He posed dramatically.

‘Oh-h-h, how pretty!’ he said to the oil-lamps.

I hoped he wouldn’t catch alight.

‘Well…? he said to nobody in particular and did a little twirl. ‘It had to be pink, don’t you think?’

He looked gorgeous, shimmering top to toe in a louche silk outfit, long white scarf flapping round his neck, delicate counterpoint to floppy pink trousers that melted into the couch when he sat down.

‘And the shoes! Look at the shoes!’ He held one foot up in the air. His toes disappeared into a curly pink point of leather.

‘Aren’t they just the best things you ever saw?’

He leant in my direction.

‘Did you get any…?’

‘No, my darling,’ I said, trying not to slur my words, ‘but I had many adventures trying.’

He pulled a face then returned to the fray.

My invitation to the costume party had been waylaid, it would appear. I felt very ordinary indeed in my crisp striped shirt, freshly ironed linen pants and slip-on shoes – particularly when our host and hostess swept in with a flourish and a herd of dogs, all dressed to the nines. He looked elegant in pure silk salwah, black waistcoat, black trousers and a rather jaunty hat. She glided across the courtyard looking stunning in a softly-draped white sari, all veils and jewels, petite European face, an elegant nose peering out through a veil of soft cotton. Even the dogs were dressed for dinner.

‘Ah, bravo!’ said Prince Richard Holkar, ‘I see we’re all assembled…’

*

Here he is, the man who nearly was.

The merest whiff of Ahilya Summer Water, a tang of Trumper’s Lime, impeccably groomed and shaved, a tall man with enthusiastic eyebrows and a hint of sadness, a distant twinkle in a distant eye.

Yashwant Rao wanted little Prince Richard to succeed him as the ruler of Indore, his official heir to the throne. In 1950 he made his intentions clear. The lad was barely six at the time and would have been just as happy with a new train set – but that wasn’t the point. The line must go on, even if the Holkar State no longer existed.

Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad and Home Minister Patel had a fit of convenient cultural correctness. Citing an arcane historical precedent they objected and ruled that a son born to the ruler’s foreign wife could not be accepted as the heir to the Indore throne. It was a landmark, extraordinary decision, an action still discussed in the newspapers of India today.

Contrary to all Hindu tradition, precedent and religious sanction, despite the existence of the Indian Constitution, by special gazette of Parliament the Maharaja’s daughter, Usha Devi, was made a successor to the ruler of Indore instead of Richard.

The little Prince was a reject, age six, his whole raison d’etre cancelled out.

‘Let me introduce my partner, Jasmine,’ he said gently and stood back.

All three of us rose to our feet and gracious introductions were made, o-o-oh’s and ah-h-h-h’s at her sari all graciously accepted with gentle tact. She fluttered to her chair and we regained our seats. I was hit with a barrage of be-ribboned Pekinese, the Prince with a barrage of babble.

Christopher and Sebastian leapt upon him like a horde of tropical frogs. I could hear the squeals of joy as the lads endeavoured to slither as far up the Maharajical arse as they possibly could. They had no idea who this man really was, the peaks and valleys of his life – they didn’t really care. He was just another title, another name to drop – just a Prince of Indore. Neither of them had the faintest idea what an ‘Indore’ even was.

Clearly Mr. Dogster’s eminence came a distinct second to Indian nobility – suddenly I’d disappeared, swallowed up in the wake of someone else’s celebrity. There was nothing new in that. As a diversionary tactic I cleverly occupied myself with my latest friends, Winston, Bijou and Fernando as they snarled and snuffled their way into my freshly laundered linen pants, trying to clamber into my groin.

‘Mrack!’ snapped Winston.

‘Mrargh-h-h-!’ snarled Bijou.

‘Mrar-ggg-h-h,’ I snarled right back.

I speak Pekinese.

‘Winston!’ hissed Lady Jasmine, ‘Winston! Tais-toi!’

Lady Jasmine was French, an ex-diplomat who, to the complete dismay of her family, fell in love with an Indian Prince, upped stakes and went to live in Maheshwar – which is about as romantic a story as I can imagine. So when she said ‘Winston’ it sounded like ‘W-e-e-nsto-o-o-ohn…’ which I rather liked.

‘They like you,’ she said gently and reached over to touch my knee.

‘They only like the nice guests – they are, how do I say it? My baro-meter.’

I truly felt as if Cinderella had floated down to sit beside me. She twinkled and sparkled and glowed like a peach, she was animated, literate and very, very smart.

‘But I am a sensitive, too’ she said, ‘I have a very sensitive soul.’ She looked over at her husband, lolling back, talking to the boys.

‘So does he,’ she said softly.

Her partner was still besieged by the magnificence of the London lads. He attended to them, charming, gracious and a little distrait. I had the feeling one of his ‘moments’ was coming on.

I nodded and patted the sleeping dogs.

Winston leapt to his feet.

‘Yap! Yap! Yap!’ he shouted. Then he stopped, his angry head facing his curled up tail, the perfect frozen moment of rage.

‘Gr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r,’ he said to his bottom.

Then he snapped out of it and ran round and round in tiny circles chasing his arse and barking – then stopped once again, dead in his tracks.

‘Gr-r-r-r-r-r-r’ he said to his bottom and froze once more in his pose, an angry face with huge sad eyes pleading for a way out of his disgrace.

Lady Jasmine clapped her hands and diverted him.

‘Mr-r-r-rack!’ yelped Winston.

Oo-o-o-ohhh, babe-e-e-e,’ Lady Jasmine crooned and patted him on the head.

Winston blinked, shook himself and lay down, perfectly content. By the time he closed his eyes again he’d forgotten all about it. That’s what dogs do.

‘I didn’t tell you,’ she whispered across the table. ‘He has a sore bottom. He does a little dance.’

We retired to a candle-lit table further inside the fort, silent waiters waltzed through the courtyard, the housekeeper hovered, the kitchens ran smooth as silk. It was a night to dress in fancy clothes, sink into the dream and live out the Indian fantasy, to catch an imaginary sniff of the past. On my left a dripping fountain lit with two dozen oil lamps, at my feet a growl of Pekinese. Behind my head a wondrous Art Deco clock, sole survivor of the glory years. The clock had no hands.

Then someone farted.

Sebastian and Christopher looked stricken.

A broad smile crept over Richard’s face.

‘Ah-h-h-h!’ he said, ‘that feels better’ Then he laughed and laughed and laughed.

‘Wee-e-enston! Tais Toi!’ hissed Lady Jasmine.

It wasn’t Prince Richard farting, of course – it was the dogs. That grumble of Pekinese under the table would rumble and grunt in their sleep, an invisible punctuation to the conversation. We all sounded like we had an attack of severe intestinal discomfort. I found this terribly amusing, in my adolescent way, sat giggling to myself for all too long until called to attention by Christopher.

‘Are you a bit stoned?’ he suddenly said, with a broad smile on his face.

*

‘So, Master Dog,’ said the Prince of Indore, ‘what have you been up to today?’

‘Religious instruction,’ I answered solemnly.

The Prince’s eyes twinkled. One eyebrow shot up.

‘I’ve been making the acquaintance of a sadhu or six – very instructive.’

I returned the eyebrow and stared at him over my glasses.

‘I might pop back down tomorrow for a little bit more. I feel a spiritual need.’

He chuckled.

‘Well, you’re the first guest that has ever sat down with the sadhus. Well done.’

‘What’s a sadoo?’

I decided to ignore Sebastian.

‘I went on an errand of mercy and became so… distracted by spiritual affairs that I quite forgot what I had gone there for…’

Prince Richard clapped his hands and laughed.

‘Such is the nature of the ghat,’ I droned on, ‘I have been cleansed.’

‘What’s a sadoo?’

The Prince knew precisely what I was talking about. This, after all, was the man who had famously published a recipe for Consommé Marijuana:

6 cups rich chicken stock; ½ cup fresh basil leaves; 1 cup freshly picked nasturtium flowers in various colours; salt and pepper; Marijuana to taste. Bring the stock to a boil while you preheat the oven. Steep the marijuana stems and seeds in the stock for an hour, after toasting them in the oven for ten minutes. Strain the stock scrupulously, and return to simmer. Chop basil and nasturtium and place in the bottom of a soup bowl. Pour the consommé over.

‘I want a sadoo, whatever it is,’ Sebastian pouted. ‘I’d lo-o-o-ove some religious instruction. A big bag of it. Right now!’

Christopher kicked him under the table. Pekinese scattered.

‘Just learning how to be Queen,’ Sebastian hissed.

‘I’ve never been to Venice,’ said the Prince of Indore late that night. I was drunk. I don’t remember whether he was.

Sebastian gasped. Never been to Venice? How could he possibly be alive?

‘Out of my reach…’ he sighed.

There was twittering and confusion from the divas. Who cares what they said.

‘I’ve reserved Venice for someone special… someone I love.’

‘Oh-h-h-h, how sweet!’ simpered Sebastian. Shut up Sebastian.

Who was he talking to? I wasn’t sure. The Prince had a far away look in his eye.

‘I spent six months as a student just down the road in Florence,’ he continued, lost in thought, ‘I was in love then – but I never went to Venice…’

He was talking about his first wife, Sally, the mother of his two children. They divorced after thirty-eight years.

‘Too young, most likely – too young…’

He looked around for the wine. A servant was there in an instant. He indicated my glass, then his and continued.

‘Then I found someone special…’

He drifted off.

Richard was somewhere else, floating free in his past. Like Winston, he had a sore spot. When touched, he did a little dance, a lonely pirouette across an empty stage. I could see the little Prince looking out, a boy of six or seven, suddenly aware that he wasn’t where he should be. For a moment he looked completely lost – surrounded by strangers, fabulous nobodies, smart people he’d never seen before.

Who are these people? Why am I talking to them? Where am I?

He was frightened.

Who is this woman by my side? Sally?

Cinderella’s hand slipped silently over his.

The awkward silence continued.

‘Na-a-arcolepsy,’ mouthed Sebastian, behind his callow hand.

I could hear music; rhythmic chanting drifting clear across the river through the still, humid air.

‘Narmade-e-e Hah-h-h! Narmadey Hah! Narmade-e-e-e…’

The wind changed and the ghosts were gone. The candles were starting to splutter out. So was I.

Prince Richard blinked and entered time and space once again.

‘Venice is slipping away,’ he said quietly.

Lady Jasmine leant over and caressed his cheek.

Je t’adore,’ she murmured.

Winston farted.

Everybody laughed this time.

Jasmine leant over and touched my knee.

‘You see? I told you he was a sensitive man.’

‘Mm-m-m,’ her sensitive man chuckled, ‘time for a whisky, I think.’

A tray with two bottles of whisky, glasses, water and ice was brought.

‘The Talisker,’ he muttered then reached over for a cigar with a sigh. He selected the last Hoyo de Monterrey. The glaze fell back over Richard’s eyes as girlish prattle pierced the darkness.

‘Mrack!’ oozed Christopher, determinedly jolly.

‘Mrargh-h-h-!’ simpered Sebastian, determinedly gay.

‘Yap, yap, yap!’ they snapped and ran round in society circles, endlessly chasing their fa-a-a-a-abulous tails.

*

COME TO GUJARAT

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