The Last Prince
My thoughts remains entwined with my friend, Sambhaji Rao Shinde and his family. We both belong to Gwalior. Gwalior is a former princely state in Northern India and now a bustling town of changing environs. Sambhaji raja (Sambhaji prince) as he is lovingly called is revered as the last of a tiny royalty, many of which existed within the fiefdom of Gwalior. This town after the colonial era stood transfixed in time for a while. The many princely families invested in education, business or politics. Some went to become members of parliament only to protect their palaces and wealth from the prying eyes of the tax man, others became successful businessmen, turning their palaces to lavish hotels while still others quietly left the country to live in a British county reminiscing of what they were once.
Sambhaji’s family just didn’t do anything like that. They lived in the Sayaji Palace, a beautiful gothic architecture of marble with huge halls where I once played with Sambhaji and his sisters as we all grew up. We hunted rabbits in the summer, flew kites, played cricket and heard tales of valour of the family and their descendents from Sambhaji’s father and uncles. His sisters turned out to be beautiful maidens, princesses disowned by time. I always remained confused of who was more beautiful than the other.
Fate moved fast and mercilessly. It crept into Sayaji Palace too, ferns growing on laughter and joy that held the walls together so long. I came back home last year. Standing in front of the derelict building, I could see the tattered insignia of the royal household, still flying at the rooftop. I made my way through weeds and bushes, which was once an immaculately kept garden, to a rundown entrance door amidst dust and darkness. This was once the pride of the palace guarded by moustachioed guards. Sambhaji was expecting me for supper tonight at his home. The door creaked open and a paraffin lantern flashed on my face. A very old man was standing, trying to identify me. He suddenly smiled merging with his many wrinkles as he said; “ Raja Sahib has been waiting for you since long.” I followed him through musty corridors; shadows from the lantern beckoned me in familiar grounds.
I saw Sambhaji sitting in a small room bereft of furniture. He had become thin, stooped and looked old than his age. But his eyes still had the fire that lit up that night. “Welcome home, it has been so long, I have been waiting for you,” as he embraced me. We didn’t talk that night. The old man, the last of his faithful brought us a dinner resembling the culinary dishes we had when I frequented his home as children. I knew he must have sold a family heirloom to provide me this dinner. He remained apologetic till the end for the electricity which was cut off long time and the absence of his sisters who use to be around whenever I came, they had passed away many summers back
Suddenly a scream rent the air, “Koi Hai…” (Is anybody home)?
Sambhaji smiled, a sad smile in wrinkled decay. “ It’s the old man, he screams in his sleep, still looking for everybody in the palace.”
Sambhaji Rao Shinde died this year in abject poverty. Unscrupulous builders demolished his palace and ugly high-rise buildings have taken its place.
I still wake up at nights to the call of “Koi Hai…” and the wanton laughter of Sambhaji and his sisters.
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Dr. Amitabh Mitra
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