Tuesday 8 October 2013

A Begum on a platform

A few decades ago, a Begum of Oudh (or Awadh) along with  her retinue, which included a son and daughter, seven servants and 13 or 14 dogs, resorted to perhaps the most unique form of protest. She stayed put in a tiny waiting room in the New Delhi railway station and no amount of persuasion or even force could get her evicted from the Railway station.
For several years, the Begum was a sight for railway travellers in Delhi and she was as much a sight as the trains. It was all just like the Old Curosity Shop of Charles Dickens. The only difference was that Dickens has set his shop in England and the Begum in India.
The Begum wanted to prove a point. She wanted the Central Government to return at least one of the many palaces that belonged to the Oudh royalty of yore. These palaces were first seized by the British in 1857 and subsequently they became the property of the Indian Government. The Begum’s last palatial residence, a 20-room estate in Srinagar given to the family soon after Independence by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was  burned down in 1971 and she had been rendered homeless.
She had then sought justice for herself and her clansmen. She wanted the Government to return one or a few of her estates, which she aimed had been seized.
Since then, for 16 months and more, the Begum and her family with retinue in tow lived in tents on the grounds while asking the Government for the return of another ancestral home in Lucknow. She railed against the government when it offered a modern house and a small palace that her father had gifted to his servants. Incensed by what she perceived to be a grave royal slight, she then moved bag and baggage and of course with the dogs to the train station.
The Begum decorated her tiny quarters on the railway platform with Persian rugs and set up a makeshift throne with velvet bolsters. The station was not the place for royalty. The continuous movement of trains drove everyone, including the Begum into a tizzy. However, the Begum had her sweet revenge for what she perceived was a deliberate slight by the Government. 
She ordered the Shahi cooks to cook the Royal meals on vessels or braziers put up on the platform. The Begum commandeered the second-class ladies’ rest room for a three-hour bath every day, leaving the Railway officials exasperated and the travelers, particularly women, seething with fury and anger.
She tied the dogs to the lampposts outside the station and when it rained she confined them on the platforms. Her servants pitched tents outside the station and lived there.
She later shifted to the VIP entrance and made it her home. She was imperious to every one and never failed to make it known that she was a royal and that they could not treat her like a commoner. Try as they might, the Railways failed to dislodge her from the Railway station.
The Begum remained firmly entrenched in the station. When the international media went to town about the Begum and her platform palace, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the railway station and met the Begum. She persuaded the Begum and her family to shift to the nearby Malcha palace in 1984, promising to get it repaired and renovated.
This was almost ten years after the platform protest.
The Begum reportedly consumed poison on December 10, 1993. She laced wine with crushed diamond and drank it.  
The name of this doughty woman: Begum Wilayat Mahal or Vilayat Mahal. She claimed to be the great granddaughter of  the redoubtable Begum Hazrat Mahal of Oudh (1820-1879), the wife of Nawan Wajid Ali Shah.
This may sound unbelievable but it is true. During the Emergency, news about the Begum was banned by the Censors. 

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