EVERY MORNING at the Baroda Palace, a turbaned guard dressed in a white uniform, a sword strapped to his waist, trudged up thirty steps to a turret, blew a few notes into a battered bugle and hoisted a flag of the British Empire. The flag was red and blue with a gold star of India in the centre. Every evening, the guard sounded the bugle again and lowered the flag. After ironing and folding it into a precise square, he carried it on his outstretched arms into the maharaja’s library.
It was a wood-panelled room, lined with books on one wall and large portraits of the maharaja’s forefathers on another. A chandelier hung in the centre, just above the maharaja’s semi-circular desk and a glass case stood on the back wall below a bank of windows.
The maharaja rose from his chair and watched the guard as he entered. For the past hour he had been eyeing the clock. He studied the flag for a moment, then reached into a drawer of his desk and took out a key for the glass case.
The guard, his bare feet noiseless on the marble floor, followed the maharaja to the case. His bad knee creaked as he bent down and he lowered his eyes in embarrassment as he held up the flag to the maharaja.
The maharaja laid the flag in the case, shifting it a little until he thought it was exactly in the centre. After turning the key he dismissed the guard with a slight wave of his fingers. When the maharaja returned to the files and papers spread out on his desk he could hardly concentrate; every now and then he wandered to the back wall and, with one hand at his hip, the other coiling the edges of his dark moustache, he stared absently at the resting flag.
* * *
The maharaja’s palace stood off the dusty road that led from the city to the aerodrome. A high compound wall and thick foliage hid the palace from the road. Just before the palace gates, a pile of broken bricks and a dilapidated shed marked the place where passers-by knew to turn their heads to catch a glimpse inside. The grounds were strewn with old fruit trees, mosaic fountains and bushes sculpted into shapes of birds. A gravel driveway went up to the portico in a long sweeping semi-circle.
The palace, built of red sandstone, was a sprawling structure with dozens of bedrooms, great halls and courtyards. The maharaja and the maharani lived there. Five ayahs and valets looked after their personal needs, twenty-six servants tended to the palace and the grounds and an office staff of forty helped the maharaja manage state affairs.
The maharaja’s full name was Maharaja Sir Balram Sayaji Gaekwar Sena Kas Khel Shamsher Bahadur of Baroda, more simply Maharaja Balram, or Maharaja of Baroda. Or just, maharaja.
He was middle aged and there was an air of strength to his movements, in the way he strode through the palace grounds each morning with his back straight, and the way he sometimes sprinted up and down the cricket pitch, imagining himself a batsman in the Indian team, a childhood fantasy that had never left him. On Sunday evenings when he played polo on the palace field he could hoist himself, despite his thickening waist, into the saddle of a white mare in one easy swoop. He could ride with intrepid speed and, with his white silk shirt filling with the arid Baroda wind he could swing his polo club firmly and gracefully.
His maharani had never understood the rules of polo but she watched with interest from her upstairs sitting room. As soon as the umpire blew the final whistle and she saw her husband throw his mallet in triumph, she would step back from the gossamer curtains, clap her hands and twirl in glee. Perhaps that evening the maharaja would be in a happy mood and come to her. She would rush to her dressing table to touch up the kajol under her eyes or weave more flowers into her plaited hair.
But the maharaja hardly ever went up to the maharani’s wing. On those rare occasions when he did visit her he sent a small gift beforehand – a leather pencil case, a box of handkerchiefs, some article of jewellery – telling her to expect his arrival. As far as romance went, that gesture was all he was capable of. When he lay in bed with her it was only for an hour or two. Once, on a chilly night, he asked if she was cold and went to fetch a quilt for her.
The maharaja worried about the flag that fluttered atop the palace at daybreak and came to rest at sundown in the sanctity of the glass case in his library.
The flag reminded him of his station in life. Fifty years ago, when he was barely six, his father, Maharaja Surendra Kumar, told him: ‘We are the sovereigns of this land, we have been entrusted a duty by God.’ The old maharaja had died soon after. The young prince’s main memory of him was as a weathered, sick man, sleeping most of the day, tottering into the library every evening to gaze solemnly at the flag. He remembered being taken to sit by his bedside every now and then, and the warring smells of alcohol, bedclothes and eau de toilette that lived around his father.
The prince was raised by his mother and two aunts. His mother was a graceful woman, her neck and hands always adorned with jewels. His aunts, both older sisters of his mother, had lived at the palace as long as he could remember. He spent much of his boyhood being tutored by experts who came in from Baroda and Ahmedabad. His playmates were the sons and nephews of the tutors. When he was fourteen, his mother and aunts took the brave step of sending him to school in Switzerland. ‘The boy must experience the world, he must learn to be independent,’ his mother said to his aunts. Yet, during the six years he was abroad, his mother bought a small castle on the lake near his school in Montreux and she and the aunts took turns living there.
After Switzerland he returned to the palace in Baroda and, without any formal announcement, assumed the title of maharaja. For a few years he did nothing. Then one day his mother and aunts decided it was time for him to marry. He protested vehemently. His mother wondered whether her son was like his father: did he have that fondness for men, too? She called him into the rose garden and as they sat on the bench she took his hand in hers. ‘It is a matter of formality,’ she said, ‘you can do what you want afterwards.’ The maharaja stared at his mother, ‘What are you saying?’ She looked away and said quietly, ‘I’m unable to say everything I’d like to.’
After marriage he suddenly started taking an interest in state affairs. Either he was trying to forget about his new maharani or he had made a decision to live up to his princely status. The older aunt died; the younger aunt and his mother moved to Mount Abu; the climate was better there, they said. The palace seemed emptier than ever. His days, except for playing polo on Sundays and taking his vigorous walk through the palace grounds some mornings, were mired in work.
There had been no precedent set for the Maharaja of Baroda’s duties or for the cases that should be sent before him, so he ordered his officials to present every issue for his sanction: new doorknobs and doormats for a school, more weighty matters such as tax revenues, repairs to a temple, building new roads. He approached each decision with equal authority, thinking he was making up for the diligence and energy his father had lacked. The British officers in the state of Gujarat sat up straighter: although this foreign-educated maharaja seemed harmless, they would keep an eye on him.
The maharaja followed the speeches of Gandhi and Nehru and Jinnah. He was well aware that the flag hoisted each morning at his palace symbolised British sovereignty. But he was comfortable enough, what did he care about foreigners in his country? Besides, only last month the British officer of his district had expanded the maharaja’s dominion to a small village near the Narmada River. The British could go or stay; it made no difference to him.
Please subscribe/sign in
to view article.