Lost in France, found in India

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  • Published 4.03.07

Bhopal, March 4: France may be electing a new President this year, but if it wants it can have a new king.

And in a joke on colonial history, he is from India.

Balthazar Napoleon Bourbon woke up in Bhopal’s rundown neighbourhood of Jahangirabad this morning to learn that the world is ready to acknowledge what he has known for years.

That the 48-year-old Indian lawyer with a skin the colour of chocolate is the “last king of France”.

Well, sort of. What Bourbon happens to be is the first in line to the lost French throne – abolished by the revolution of 1848 after being once ousted earlier during the French Revolution of 1789.

The claim is made by Prince Michael of Greece in his just released novel, Le Rajah de Bourbon, which describes the Bhopali as the descendant of a nephew of France’s first Bourbon king, Henry IV.

And it says that of all the Bourbons now scattered around France, Greece, Australia and elsewhere, he has the first claim to the crown his forefathers wore from 1589 to 1848.

Being a Bourbon makes Balthazar not only a relative of Louis XVI — guillotined in 1789 for the sake of liberty, equality and fraternity — and Marie Antoinette, but also a cousin of Britain’s Prince Philip and Spain’s King Juan Carlos.

Till today, his neighbours knew him as “Bourbon wakil (lawyer)”, smiling indulgently at the royal claims of the brown-skinned man who spoke no French. The crueller ones snidely called him the “nanga (naked) king”, a reference to the gulf between the middle-class householder’s means and a king’s treasury.

The royal with the high forehead and broad nose, in turn, would joke that all that “Bourbon” means to a Bhopali is chocolate-cream biscuits.

Not today, when TV cameras made a beeline to his door and his phone kept ringing all day.

The doorway to Balthazar’s 174-year-old house carries a brass sign that says “House of Bourbon”. So, how did his ancestors land up in Bhopal?

The story could be out of a historical romance. Jean-Philippe de Bourbon Navarre, forced to flee France after killing a nobleman in a duel, set out on a voyage during which he was kidnapped by pirates, sold as a slave in Egypt and was forced to serve in the Ethiopian army before landing up in Goa. He made it to Akbar’s court in 1560 and took up service under the Mughals. Jean-Philippe’s father, a duke, was a cousin of Henry IV, who was still to ascend the throne and found the dynasty. After the fall of the Mughals, the Bourbons began serving the Bhopal nawabs as administrators.

“I regard myself as an Indian,” Balthazar said. “The only thing uncommon about me is my ancestry, which is only incidental.” His Italian-born wife Alisha runs the Bourbon higher secondary school, which teaches Sanskrit and Hindi but not French. She wears the sari or the salwar kameez.

“Perhaps the only French traces left in me are in my blood,” Balthazar laughs. His personal library has a History of Bourbons, written by his late father Salvador II.

What about a claim to the crown? Jokes apart, Bourbons have had the throne restored to them once — in 1814, after Napoleon’s ouster.

Balthazar, instead, would rather narrate the experience of his first sight of the Palais de Versailles in Paris a few years ago. The guard’s mouth fell open when Balthazar’s French-speaking companion told him the Indian-looking man’s ancestors once lived there.

“Suddenly, the sergeant did something odd,” Balthazar says. “He became emotional and said, ‘Monsieur, I feel so sad to see a Bourbon standing outside. Please go in’. And so for the next half-hour, I explored the splendid universe of my ancestors.”