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- Unmaking of a myth

The Last King in India Wajid ‘Ali Shah, 1822-1887 By Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Random House, Rs 599

There is something Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has done that she wants her reader to do put herself in the shoes of Wajid Ali Shah, the much-maligned ruler of Awadh who also happened to be India’s last king. This is a demanding job and not merely because there is so much space to fill. There is also that old stink. The last nawab of Lucknow appears to have done scarcely more than pen and stage elaborate dramas, cavort with the ladies of his harem before tamely accepting an ignominious treaty from the British in 1856 and fading into the disreputable environs of Garden Reach in Calcutta, where he was banished.

But the change of shoes, or perspective, helps. For one, it becomes easier to see Wajid Ali Shah as a victim of circumstance. His situation had been rendered hopeless even before he took over the reins of his kingdom in 1847. With the British rulers having already made up their mind to annex the lucrative and strategically-situated Awadh, nothing that the nawab did made any difference, especially after a string of British residents in the Awadh court had worked extra time to mark him out as a failure. It is to this systematic character assassination, Llewellyn-Jones believes, that Wajid Ali Shah owes his disrepute and uncomfortable place in history. In fact, she is so cut up with the company officials for doing what they did to the nawab’s image that it needed the prodding of the descendants of Sir William Sleeman, helping her with her research, to make her see this British resident in a kinder light.

Thwarted in his efforts to make meaningful changes in the system in Awadh — revenue or army — the nawab took refuge in art, his talent more than obvious since childhood. This is where Wajid Ali Shah left his indelible mark. Hindu as well as Arab and Persian mythology formed his inspiration, the Qaisarbagh palace became his open stage, and the women of the palace his co-actors in performances that could go on for a month. But the creative bubble that brought him closer to his subjects also distanced him from the realities of their lives. To the British, who had a dislike for anything too “arty” or culturally pretentious, says Llewellyn-Jones, Wajid Ali Shah’s artistic passion was another indication of his unsuitability as a ruler.

Llewellyn-Jones believes that the continued hostility of the British, with a few exceptions of course, that Wajid Ali Shah faced even after his deposition was because of this clash of perceptions. As she puts it, “wrong impression, irrational prejudices, non-comprehension” of his British observers, all added up against him. Wajid Ali Shah’s conception of the world — essentially feudal and paternalistic, where the ruler and the subject were bound together by intangible bonds of service and loyalty, din and dharma, customs and usage — was very different from the world view of the government officials. Their Victorian propriety and financial acumen, the drivers of India’s modernity, clashed violently with the nawab’s notions of morality and economic behaviour. The problem is that Wajid Ali Shah was not the only one trying to hold on to this idea of a moral economy that was in a crisis throughout India at that time. It was to preserve this moral order that kings, peasants, soldiers came together to fight the rebellion of 1857.

Wajid Ali Shah was in Calcutta when the mutiny happened. He was imprisoned in Fort William on trumped-up charges. But he immediately reminded the British of his loyalty, denounced the already divorced Begum Hazrat Mahal and her son, Birjis Qadr, who led the revolt in Awadh, and even made known his willingness to help the government in any way he could. Such a sympathizer of British interests, a pliant ruler at the time of his deposition, a well-wisher during all times should have been no problem for the British. Yet, whether in or out of power, Wajid Ali Shah turned out to be a perpetual headache for the colonial government. It was in his dogged refusal to change his ways and his ideas that the problem lay — a problem that also, typically, lay at the heart of India’s response to the West.

The deposed nawab would neither stop philandering, give up on his servants and dependents no matter how much they fleeced him, nor begin worrying about the impossibility of running a mini-empire on an annual pension of Rs 12 lakh. Wajid Ali Shah fashioned another Lucknow court out of his humble dwellings in Garden Reach, played king to around 7,000 people within the boundaries of his estate, married and begot children at the same rate as before and remained a source of perennial anxiety for the government that was called in either to solve his financial or domestic problems.

A series of British agents appointed to keep an eye on him could not fathom the reason behind what appeared to be Wajid Ali Shah’s eccentricities. He had little qualms spending thousands of rupees buying animals for his menagerie, but found it completely unreasonable that his wives and children should demand an increase in their meagre allowances or better accommodation. In response to one such query from Mowbray Thomson, a government agent looking into complaints from his wives about their pitiful state, the nawab famously replied, “But the women are old and ugly, and can bear no more children; they are no use to me.” When asked who then should provide for them in their old age, his answer was just as casual, “The Government, whose ryots [peasants] they are.” To Wajid Ali Shah, a menagerie that indicated his exalted status was definitely more important than a mut’ah wife with whom he considered his contract to be over. There was nothing wrong with his logic that strictly adhered to Shia prescriptions on mut’ah marriages, only that it did not live up to the notions of “manly behaviour” that the British officials held.

Llewellyn-Jones neither condones such behaviour nor condemns it. She does acknowledge that not everything in Wajid Ali Shah’s relationships with women would make one feel comfortable. Her intention, however, is not to whitewash the nawab’s sins. It is to help him clamber out of the dustbin of history and then to position him somewhere between the two extremes of being a debauched character painted by the British and a romantic hero of Indian memory. Wajid Ali Shah’s placement on this scale will depend on individual readings of the vast array of material that Llewellyn-Jones places before the reader. As for her effort at lending Wajid Ali Shah a hand, it is truly a commendable one.