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The Palace was something which we would notice immediately on getting on to the terrace. Its four white towers used to be illuminated. On top of one of them there would be red light on at night. This was the indication to the townsfolk that the Maharaja was in town. When he would be out of town the red light would be switched off. Sometime later Maharani added two bright lights at a level lower than the red one – perhaps on top of the Usha Kiran Palace where the “royal” family used to reside. People would know that she was in town when they would be on
Jai Vilas used to be a very closely guarded Palace. None could walk into it. However, long years ago when I was very small I remember walking right through it one evening with my mother and one of her acquaintances who perhaps was Mrs RK Hukku, the Head Mistress of the neighbouring Miss Hill’s School. The city was in festive mood with buntings all along the roads. Perhaps, the occasion was the wedding of the Maharaja. Entering through the Private Road gate we walked alongside the Palace with gardens on two sides and then exited through the gate (known as Nadi Darwaza) that was almost beneath the parapets of the Fort. The entire Palace complex was illuminated and decorated like a fairyland. As we stood around to perhaps catch our breath the parapets exploded in fiery colour. The evening fireworks had commenced and the Fort was probably chosen as the venue only to enable the entire town to witness the celebrations. It was indeed an unforgettable scene.
To my infant eyes the Palace looked beautiful with its four tall square-ish towers and the entire double-storied structure painted white and bathed in bright luminous light. Several recessed windows had very little ostentation. It was a huge complex which, in fact, was not being used as the royal residence. (I happened to see it from inside years later after it had been converted into a museum). The royal family had a smaller palace adjacent to it but Jai Vilas Palace was where all the state functions used to take place. It was built in 1874 for the current Maharaja’s great, great grandfather, Jayaji Rao Scindia, the then ruler, with Sir Michael Filose as the architect. Reputedly, built on the likeness of Versailles Palace.
When, years later I did have an occasion to see the palace at Versailles I couldn’t connect it with Jai Vilas However, at least as far as I am concerned, I found it better looking than the Buckingham Palace. When I happened to stand before the Buckingham Palace much, much later I was deeply disappointed with its looks. It looks bland and grim like some of its residents while Jai Vilas has a more interesting facade and has some architectural character.
The Victoria College clock tower was another striking feature that stood out and captured the attention from the terrace. The College was where my father used to go every morning to teach. It was around 50 years old then, inaugurated by Lord Curzon in 1891. It was a degree college and the only one in Gwalior State. We used to go to the College grounds every day along with father who would be playing tennis or badminton or even occasionally acting as a referee in football matches. We used to be mostly the only kids of a professor around and hence would attract the attention of the students almost all of whom were well-known to my father. Invariably every time a group photograph of the College team of football or hockey would be taken the boys would take us along if we happened to be around to sit on the ground along with some of them. The two of us – the two youngest siblings – figured in many such photographs, the earliest one I remember was of 1939 standing close to my father in my green blazer with even a tie. Those days the strength of the colleges used to be small - in hundreds, not like the present times when the strength touches five figures. When I used to be a toddler the College probably had only 150 students.
Gwalior was a small town and only the middle class – then very small in size – would be able to provide higher education to the children. Unlike the present times, the teachers were a highly respected lot – not only by the students, but also by the feudal and far richer businessmen. Knowledge was respected and those who possessed them were highly regarded.
While talking of college group photographs I am reminded particularly of one student whose name was Naeem Ahmed. It was he who would insist on our being included in the photograph. He would keep telling us to look at the camera lens as a bird was to fly out of it – an old ploy to prevent children from being distracted. He was short but a handsome boy with wavy hair who used to be a very good badminton player. Partnering with one Hafiz he regularly won the doubles trophy. He would frequently come to our hose to take lessons from father. While he would wait we would go and give him a few tickles. He enjoyed them as he was a good sport. Before leaving for Pakistan he came and saw father and all of us. We were sorry to see him go as indeed we were sorry to see Abdullah leave. There was so much of goodwill between us and it was suddenly snapped.
The clock tower of the College would register its presence right through the 24 hours of the day with its hourly melodic chimes that were, for want of any noise of motorised traffic, audible for quite some distance all around. We could hear the chimes in our house, more so at night. Talking of the clock tower reminds me of the evening when two of my siblings and I in the lap of a help had gone up the three floors of the clock tower. The weekly winding up of the clock was due that evening. The narrow confines of the tower unnerved me and then all of a sudden ear-splitting, deafening chimes – six for the hour of six – frightened me to tears. Inside the tower the chimes were horribly loud, more like blows of a hammer and did not sound to me melodic at all.
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