|FUNNY MAN: (Top) Sanjeev Bhaskar looks out from the Jodhpur Fort; and a still from The Kumars at No. 42
I’ve come to Jodhpur for several reasons. OK, so it’s a beautiful place to stop on my homeward-bound trajectory and I’m hardly complaining, but I’ve also been invited to the Maharajah’s birthday celebrations. I’ve always been intrigued by the maharajahs of India but my exposure to them has been largely through movies and literature. They were normally depicted as large fat men in bejewelled turbans sitting on an oversize set of scales, while peasants poured precious gemstones on the opposite tray, hoping it would balance out, else they would be fed to the royal tigers. More rarely they would be warrior heroes who fought against the mighty Mughal Empire. Colonial photographs showed them as British wannabes who posed with visiting British dignitaries, one foot courageously resting on a tiger that had met its end when faced by twenty guns after being chased to exhaustion.
None of the modern images had brought them much dignity and I wonder whether these hereditary leaders are still relevant in twenty-first-century India. But before I pass my judgment perhaps I ought to actually meet one, and this one has been kind enough to even send me an invitation card.
‘HRH Raj Rajeshwar Saramad-i-Rajha-i-Hindustan Maharajadhiraja Maharajah Shri GAJ SINGHJI II Sahib Bahadur Singh requests the pleasure of’ etc., etc. … Gosh, what do we sing when we get to ‘Happy Birthday dear …'’
At the palace gates, I emerge from my car and am received by a man with a truly magnificent moustache. It extends across most of his face, and yet is not a beard. It is a moustache that would make Dali feel ridiculous, as if he needed help. No, the palace attendants at Umaid-Bhawan, city residence of the Maharajah of Jodhpur, have moustaches that would make cats cower.
This particularly well-coiffed chap leads me through an art deco hallway into a circular central lobby of such stupendous opulence that one subconsciously begins to whisper as soon as one enters its embrace. Cool, pale marble reflects brass and candlelight. Stuffed leopards and tigers peer down from the walls, making me feel ever-more inadequate …
The brass band strikes up to announce the arrival of their Majesties...
The king and queen are festooned with flower garlands, which they politely remove and pass to their bearers only to have them instantly replaced by the next guest who has managed to force their way to the front of the unruly crowd. Guests assemble to present their offerings and the central tenets of Indian road sense are applied: every man for himself, and see a gap and go for it. I’ve brought flowers with me, but looking around, three hundred other guests have thought the same thing. After being jostled continuously to the back of the queue like the smallest kid at a free ice-cream sale, I finally decide to go native, stick my elbows out and move forward like a Panzer tank. The one edge I have over my bouqueted competitors is that my offering is a good two feet higher than anyone else’s. That’s class that is.
Finally it’s my turn:
‘Your Royal Highness, may I, on behalf of myself and the crew, present this small token of our gratitude and wish you a happy birthday.’
‘Thank you and welcome, lovely to see you,’ replies the King.
‘And I didn’t get it from duty free either,’ I blunder.
‘Oh!’ says the Maharani. ‘How wonderful to meet you. I watch you on TV all the time.’
This has me totally flummoxed. The last thing I expected was to be recognised by people who can trace their family tree back 700 years…
I move aside, basking in the attention slightly and the disorganised throng resume their focus on the birthday boy. This Maharajah is unlike all those caricatured ones I’ve seen in photographs and movies, he’s warm and engaging with a public-school clipped English accent, and moves effortlessly into Hindi and Marwari, the local Rajasthani dialect.
The celebrations too are modest. No elephants, camels or trays of diamonds and rubies here. There’s a buffet, tea and coffee and, most disarmingly, even a birthday cake. It feels very much like a normal family occasion, apart from the awesome backdrop of the imposing palace behind. One of the guests, a lady so well endowed that I constantly waited for her to topple over (fortunately, her enormous feet nullified that), tells me that this is his private celebration — the public event contains the pomp and circumstance that the people expect, but she’s reluctant to divulge whether elephants and camels are involved, though the trays of diamonds and rubies are ruled straight out…
The Maharani is an attractive, vivacious lady who introduces me to other guests and asks me how the rest of the cast of The Kumars at Number 42 are.
‘Well, I think they are fine, I haven’t spoken to Vincent and Indira who play my parents since I’ve been to India, but Meera who plays my grandmother is very well. I spoke to her last night, actually.’
‘Really'’ asks the Maharani. ‘How come'’
‘Well, you did know she’s my wife'’ I ask, sensing a misunderstanding looming.
The Maharani’s eyes narrowed and her brows furrowed slightly. ‘You married that old lady'’ she said slowly, with just a modicum of dignified disgust.
‘No, no, it’s make-up, it’s a young lady in make-up.’ A random female voice shouted. There was palpable relief on all sides before the Maharani was whisked away to meet some important people. I was left feeling grateful that she wasn’t hauled away before the awful image in her head had been erased…
The proceedings come to an end with a selected few surrounding the cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday’ (incidentally it was ‘Happy Birthday dear Bapji …’), with the nice Royal personage even handing me a piece of cake.
As the remnants begin to leave I finally get the chance to walk the red carpet, accompanying the Maharani, pike bearers standing to attention as we pass. Cool.
Extracted from India with Sanjeev Bhaskar; By Sanjeev Bhaskar;Published by arperCollins UK;Special Price in India: Rs 695