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THE LITTLE PRINCE

High above the ghats Sreemant Maharajkumar Shivajirao Yashwantrao Richard Holkar Prince of Indore, absently sipped at a blue teacup of first flush Darjeeling, brewed for exactly five minutes then poured. He liked the high leaf, preferred the mellow, delicate taste – after all, he was a mellow, delicate man; an elegant gentleman of considerable poise, a charming humble fellow – humble, that is, until you got in his way, until the shaving water was warm, not hot – then you saw the royal blood, the regal demand and pout. It was about all he had left.

Prince Richard owned a splendid telescope, mounted on a high wooden tripod. The fittings were brass, polished to a passion of perfection. One princely eye was glued to the glass. He’d had the Dog in his sights all day.

Dogster was easy to spot. He was the only white man, the only foreigner – and the only man not dressed in orange.

‘Is this one of ours?’ he said to the housekeeper.

She came over, had a look.

‘Yes, that’s Mr. Dogster, Prince Richard,’ she said, ‘he’s staying just upstairs.’

‘Mmm-m-m-m,’ he said. ‘I think we might have him for dinner.’

Slowly, as I watched, the real inhabitants of the ghats appeared. The sadhus of Maheshwar emerged, sliding round temples, scuttling out of doors; a feral collection of religious ratbags in fancy dress crept out of hiding, spread their few possessions out in the sun and one by one reclaimed their traditional places. They sat right back down again, just as they always had, just as they always would, sprawled languidly watching the holy Narmada, sipping chai, passing a chillum and thinking their sadhu thoughts.

A goat trotted by.

‘Maaa-a-a-aah…’ the goat said.

*

Richard’s father was a most remarkable man. His memory is still held dear. Official histories sing the praises of His Highness Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shree Sir Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur – or, in literal translation: His Highness the Lord Paramount, King of Kings, King of Kings, one-quarter-better-than-anyone-else, beautiful Sir Yeshwant, King Holkar, Brave Warrior – otherwise known as ‘Junior’ to his friends.

Nehru didn’t approve; ‘Junior’ was just another ‘gilded, empty-headed maharaja’; a cashed-up, flamboyant aesthete prone to wearing canary yellow suits and giving lavish tiger-hunting parties. He was one of the richest men in the world, the dilettante of dilettantes, amongst the most stylish and flamboyant maharajas of the early 20th Century. He could afford it – Indore’s taxes gave him one rupee in every three of revenue.

In 1937, his fortune was estimated at forty million dollars; Junior had no hesitation in spending it. The Maharajah of Indore was said to have been so wealthy that he could plunge his arm up to his elbow into chests full of precious jewels. In 1937 these treasures alone had an estimated value of twenty million. He ran seventeen mansions, ruled over a three million dollar palace with two hundred servants and drove around in his fifteen cars. The servants wore gold-embroidered uniforms. I suppose I’m meant to be impressed.

His official hagiography coyly mentions his love of jazz and dancing but neglects to mention what came with the jazz and dancing. I’m sure he was surrounded by fawning and fabulous friends. He and his child-wife were abroad so often that the British Resident at Indore suggested ‘Some day my prince will come’ as a suitable regional anthem. He’d married her when she was ten.

jeevermadness:

Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and Maharani Sanyogita Devi of Indore, Photographed by Man Ray in Cannes, France, C. 1930.
Today I toured Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts, an incredible exhibit at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. I’ll post more extensively about the exhibit, but I had to share this incredible photograph.

Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and Maharani Sanyogita Devi of Indore,

Photograph by Man Ray in Cannes, France, C. 1930.

On an extended tour of Europe and the U.S. in 1936/7, when he was twenty-eight and she twenty-three, the young Maharaja picked up one hundred trunks full of souvenirs, including a ukulele and a 29-karat piece of the million dollar Jonker diamond. He commissioned art works from Brancusi, aeroplanes, rail carriages designed by Muthesius – the list went on and on and on. Only good taste and a sense of style can mitigate this extravagance – at least the young couple had that in spades – that they scarcely understood life at all was fair penance for their privilege. Of course, like all young people, they were invincible – of course, they were headed for the wall.

Pride does come before a fall – and Yeshwant was a very proud man indeed – proud, profligate and politically naive. Aided by history, ensnared by Nehru, Patel and Prasad, he proceeded to screw things up in a right royal manner – out-gunned and outplayed by the best in the business.

Seventy years later his son, Shrimant Maharajkumar Richard Shivajirao Yeshwantrao Holkar, Prince of Indore – stood silent in the Chamber of the Winds.

Now his name was longer than his bank balance.

There, standing all alone in the square, was the young man that had kept me and most of Maheshwar awake till dawn screeching his prayers. He smiled up at me, completely without guile.

‘Will I kill him now?’ Dogster thought.

Nah, things were tough enough already. I decided to let him live. The poor kid existed all alone on the ghats, slept rough under a piece of bright yellow plastic sheeting, dressed in a filthy pink sleeveless shirt and bright orange pants.

He was just the sorcerer’s apprentice. He was just a sadhu-lite. This lad was about as low down the sadhu ladder as you can get; barely fourteen, I’d say, poised somewhere right on the greasy tip of puberty. If he had a name I never knew it. Probably he never knew it, either. Round his waist a bind of red string, a yellow turban on his head with a vast pink tika in the centre of his forehead, bangles made of prayer seeds on his wrists and elbows, around his neck a mini-galaxy of necklaces and amulets. He made a small living selling religious dingle-dangles and tat to the pilgrims, somehow eked his way from day to day.

‘Chai?’ I said.

His face lit up – then he remembered he was a sadhu. He tried to be serious and happy at the same time; clearly, sadhu school hadn’t got to that yet. The clash of thought brought about such a furious wiggling of head that I had to decide for him.

‘Bring my spiritual advisor some chai,’ I said to the chai-man.

‘Sit, sit,’ I said to Sadhu-lite.

He was bursting with excitement. He sat opposite me and smiled and smiled as if his life depended on it. I had the feeling he didn’t get much kindness.

We had not a word of language in common. That didn’t matter. He looked at me, slurped and smiled. I did the same. Then I brought out my camera and let him play with that. Soon we were chattering away like old friends. Dogster has developed his own international language in situations like these; a language prone to confusion. Had this lad lost his mum and dad or did he have fourteen children? It was one or the other. He was fifty-nine years old, he told me proudly. Or was that me? One of us was. I asked where his parents were. This involved a mime of stupendous proportions, an Oscar winning performance from the Dog; he was so exhausted he forgot to listen to the answer – but then, Sadhu-lite might have been answering a different question. Who knows? Such was the nature of our discussion.

‘Maaa-a-a-aah…’ that little goat bleated.

Sadhu-lite looked down and smiled.

‘Maaa-a-a-aah,..’ the goat repeated, ‘ma-a-a-a-ah! I want some lo-o-o-o-ve!’

‘Poor little goat,’ said Dogster. So did everybody.

Sadhu-lite nodded gravely. He understood. His wide brown eyes glazed slightly, he took a breath then whispered low. Something clicked in the depths of his eyes. He held out one hand to the goat and, without any hesitation at all, the goat trotted over. Sadhu-lite held out his chai.

Sip, slurp, slip, slurp, sip, slip – and the chai was gone in an instant, just a little pink tongue searching out the last skerrick of liquid from the pottery cup. Sadhu-lite looked up at me and smiled. He stretched out one hand and scratched goat’s hard horny forehead.

‘Maaa-a-a-aah…’ she said and lovingly looked up into his eyes. He raised his other hand in a sign of blessing. The goat’s bottom suddenly vibrated, her little white tail wiggled furiously then, as if she could wiggle no more, she lay down at his feet and promptly went to sleep.

Well, I’d never seen that before. He was the goat-whisperer.

Huddled in clumps, somewhere along the road to Omkareshwar the pilgrims settled down to eat. Some were asleep, some were high, some just lost in thought. It began to rain.

‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ they cried, ‘Narmadey Har!’ But then they shouted that about anything. When the next lorry hit the next pilgrim some idiot would be shrieking ‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ They were not deep thinkers. Quite a lot of them didn’t seem to think at all. They had no sense of death.

Some danced stupidly in the rain. They were out of it. The smart ones found cover. They were under it. Swami Marlon was counting his cash inside the truck, chuckling and smoking his chillum. He was on top of it.

*

It was all gone. The privileges of the royal families abolished by the Indian Government, the legacy dismantled, property by property, piece by beautiful piece; the palaces were sold, the contents stolen. The Holkars had to give up Manik Bagh Palace and sell the residence, the houses in Europe, the palaces, kitchens, servants and cars, the jewellery, the art works, the furnishings, the money, the prestige – all gone, broken up in an orgy of politically correct vengeance and pedantry leaving Richard with a useless title and Ahilya Fort, a derelict castle in Maheshwar.

Where money and power are concerned, everybody is Swami Marlon in India.

The Prince of Darkness was counting his blessings. They came in grubby rupee notes; a thick wad of hard earned cash squeezed from the poor in the name of their faith. As Shiva’s representative, it was his religious duty to spend itl. Now I knew why Swami Marlon had that terrible vitiligo; the colour had fled from his face in shame.

The Prince of Indore lost a fortune through no effort of his own – now he was reduced to bringing in paying guests.  Some things, he consoled himself, were worth more than money. Only Richard knew his particular poverty. Rich men can be destitute too.

The Prince of Paupers snuggled under his yellow plastic cover, hoping it wouldn’t rain too hard. This kid was really destitute – and the less he had the richer he was. He had nothing, needed nothing, wanted nothing – Sadhu-Lite already had everything a sadhu might need.

He could perform miracles with goats.

Soon it would be people.

*

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