I am always being asked about how I came up with the idea for my first book, the biography The Last Nizam: The Rise and Fall of India’s Greatest Princely State. My answer might sound trite, but it was quite simple. One day in December 1995 while I was living in New Delhi I opened The Times of India and found buried, at the bottom of page three, the briefest of articles about an Indian prince auctioning off the chattels of his mansion in Perth to meet his debts.
What made this particularly interesting was the fact that I had come across this prince before. The Nizams of Hyderabad had always made headlines because of their spectacular wealth and their quirks. I had read for instance, about the Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Osman Ali Khan, once the richest man in the world. He counted his diamonds by the kilogram, his pearls by the acre and his gold bars by the tonne – yet he was so frugal that he saved on laundry bills by bathing in his clothes! I had also heard about his grandson, Mukarram Jah, the prince in the news article, moving to Western Australia. Every now and then an article would appear in an Australian newspaper about how this eccentric Indian prince lived on a sheep farm, driving bulldozers through the Outback. I hadn’t really paid much attention to all of this, until now.
The Nizams of Hyderabad had always made headlines because of their spectacular wealth and their quirks
This story was fascinating. What was the sole heir to one of the largest fortunes in the world, doing selling his estates? How had he become so broke that he was auctioning off everything from his tea towels to a pair of antique elephant guns to settle his debts? Solving this riddle would become a decade long obsession for me. It was such a fantastic story!
At that time, I was working as a foreign correspondent for ‘The Australian’ Newspaper and my Editor agreed that I should fly to Hyderabad to interview anyone who knew Mukarram Jah. Getting to him, was out of the question. Only a handful of people knew where he was and they were not going to talk. Jah As I found out much later, had fled Australia fearing he would be arrested as a debtor and was living at a secret location in Turkey.
Finding Mukarram Jah wasn’t going to be easy. My first point of contact in Hyderabad was Sadruddin Javeri, the jeweller Jah had appointed in 1990 as chairman of the substantial ‘Nizam’s Private Estate’. Andhra Pradesh was a dry state in those days, but Javeri had a cabinet well-stocked with imported alcohol. Over glasses of his bootleg gin, Javeri claimed he had lent Jah more than USD2 million when he was down to his last few Rupees. Once the closest of friends, they were now involved in a bitter litigation over the money Jah still owed.
What was the sole heir to one of the largest fortunes in the world, doing selling his estates?
Javeri was as generous with plying me with information as he was with refilling my glass with gin, but I was clear I needed to get the other side of the story. Only a few of Jah’s closest associates were willing to be interviewed. One of the few who agreed to talk was Mujeeb Yar Jung, who had worked both for Jah and the Seventh Nizam. Old and frail he put on record what most people would only whisper in private: ‘We’ve been cursed. Our heritage, our culture, everything is ruined now.’
When I returned to New Delhi I wrote a number of articles on the lead up to the auction of Jah’s estate. On final count, it raised only a fraction of the money that Jah owed Sadruddin Javeri who I had met in Hyderabad. A few months later even his sheep farm, Murchison House Station, near Perth in Australia went under the hammer, but even then, the money raised fell short of clearing Jah’s debts. In early 1996 I published a magazine feature based on the extensive interviews I had conducted. For a brief while I thought that was the end of the story.
Only a few of Jah’s closest associates were willing to be interviewed
But it wasn’t. Over the next few years, I continued to plot Jah’s fortunes and his troubles especially after one of his former wives (he married five times) demanded alimony. There were other relatives claiming a larger share of the inheritance. And then there was the battle between Jah and the Government of India over the Jewels of the Nizams. The famed and priceless horde of baubles that included the 184-carat Jacob diamond – once the largest brilliant in the world.
Finally nine years after first chancing upon the story on Mukarram Jah, I decided that the ‘Last Nizam’s’ life was so extraordinary that it deserved a full book. How often would I find another drama that spanned the history of India and its princely states, geography – across Turkey, the UK and Australia and a riches to rags story on a scale that beggared belief?
But I also knew there would be no book unless I could talk to Jah.
Finding the Nizam
Finding the Nizam was not easy. A possible whiff of a breakthrough came when a contact gave me the phone number of Mukarram Jah’s mother, the fiercesome though still strikingly beautiful Durrushehvar, daughter of Abdul Mejid, the last Caliph of Islam. Majid had been sent into exile when the great Kemal Ataturk took charge of Turkey in 1924. Durrushehvar was now living in London’s Kensington Garden. But the only time I got past her private secretary, she immediately hung up.
Nine years after first chancing upon the story on Mukarram Jah, I decided that the ‘Last Nizam’s’ life was so extraordinary that it deserved a full book
I also drew a blank with David Michael, Jah’s private secretary, who ignored my emails and wouldn’t take my calls. Michael, together with Jah’s first wife Princess Esra and his lawyer, Vijay Shankardass, controlled who Jah could meet and talk to. I understood their sensitivity. The press had mostly sensationalised Jah’s life in Australia and hadn’t been kind to his grandfather who was frequently labelled a ‘miser’. I was getting the message that there were too many skeletons in the closet, too many uncomfortable truths for an outsider to uncover.
I however believed I stood a chance if I could convince Jah’s gatekeepers that I was approaching the book as a historian not a journalist. I began my research by flying to Perth and driving for nine hours to Murchison House Station, Jah’s ‘Durbar in the desert’ where the rusty bulldozers he had abandoned a decade earlier, stood like sentinels to dreams gone awry.
In the pub at nearby Kalbarri, where Jah’s estate was, the locals still referred to him as ‘The Shah’. Most remembered him fondly- after all, his extravagant spending had been good for the local economy. The response in Perth, however, was mixed. His second wife, Helen Simmons, was one of the first women in Australia to die from AIDS and the scars of their often torrid relationship was still felt by many who had been close to the pair.
From Perth I travelled to Jah’s birthplace, Nice, on the French Riveria. This was truly the favourite destination for deposed Eastern monarchs and despots in the nineteen twenties and thirties. I found the hotel where Durrushehvar and Jah’s father Azam Jah were married and the villa the family had rented.
I was getting the message that there were too many skeletons in the closet, too many uncomfortable truths for an outsider to uncover
From Nice I flew to London where I started searching the India Office Records at the British Library. From the files I found how the British had taken a keen interest in Jah’s upbringing, keeping a watchful eye on the excesses of his profligate father and the eccentricities of his grandfather, while fielding demands from Durrushevar about what she wanted for her son. She always got her way!
While I was in London I also visited the prestigious public school Harrow. I found Jah’s name carved on the wood-panelled wall of West Acre, one of Harrow’s 12 boarding houses, even though he never spent a night there. Durrushehvar had convinced the Principal to bend the rules and allow her son to be a day student. While flicking through the school’s alumni list, I finally found a crucial clue. Beside Jah’s name was a Chelsea address belonging to David Michael, Jah’s Personal Secretary.
That very evening I found Michael’s apartment and rang the buzzer on the intercom. He sounded surprised to hear me and after a few moments of hesitation invited me in. He admitted he was impressed by my tenacity, but insisted I would never be allowed anywhere near Jah. I told him I had been to Harrow, seen Jah’s signature and had read his school reports in the India Office Records. I also said I intended to go to Hyderabad and stressed the importance of getting Jah’s point of view. I pretended the book would be written whether I got to him or not. After several glasses of single malt whiskey, Michael’s initial reservations melted away and he began telling me about his early days with Jah. But at the end of the night we were back to where we started. The family simply would not allow a meeting.
The British had taken a keen interest in Jah’s upbringing, keeping a watchful eye on the excesses of his father and the eccentricities of his grandfather
The next morning I woke up despondent and hung-over. I half-heartedly ordered some more files at the British Library and pondered whether it was still worth going to Turkey trying to find Jah on my own. But then came the phone call that would change everything. Michael was willing to arrange a meeting with Jah on three conditions. Firstly I had to read Lord Birkenhead’s biography of Walter Monckton, who had taken the Seventh Nizam’s side in the negotiations on Hyderabad’s independence that ended with India’s taking over the state in 1948. Secondly, I had to meet Asadullah Khan, who had been Osman Ali Khan’s legal adviser and finally, I would have to get Princess Esra’s approval. If she agreed I would be able to meet Jah, but only the condition I would never reveal where he lived.
I flew to Istanbul in anticipation of Esra’s summons. I didn’t have to wait long. I expected an interrogation, instead I got tea and biscuits and some wonderful anecdotes about how the two had met. Jah had tried to keep their courtship secret from his mother. Esra came from a well-to-do Turkish family, but she was not the royal his parents and ever watchful grandfather wanted him to wed.
The day after our meeting Michael rang to say that Esra had given permission for me to meet Jah. I was to fly to Antalya in southern Turkey and wait for Michael there. I would be given three days with Jah and Michael would be present throughout. I could take notes but not make a recording and there would be no further contact after that.
I couldn’t care less. I felt like I had landed the ultimate scoop. I found a cheap hotel in the old city, but the anticipation of finally meeting Jah robbed me of sleep. In the morning I took a taxi to Michael’s hotel arriving exhausted. I expected another long drive to a villa hidden in the hills. Instead we walked across the road to a nondescript block of flats, entered the lobby and pressed the button for the elevator.
My favourite image of Jah had been of a courtly gentleman with a neatly clipped silver moustache, balding hair, short sleeves and braces, sitting barefooted on the veranda of Murchison House Station, taken in the mid-1990s. It was a frail and much thinner man who shook my hand and invited me inside. Lighting a cigarette, he settled down in his favourite sky-blue armchair from where he had an uninterrupted view of the placid waters of the Mediterranean and started to tell me his story.
We had a lot to talk about and three days extended to four. On the last day, Jah and I were left alone. He took me for a hair-raising drive in his maroon Mercedes to his favourite ruins and bought me a charm to ward off the evil eye at a trashy souvenir stall.
Jah had tried to keep his courtship with Esra, secret from his mother
Cut off from his friends and associates, living in anonymity in southern Turkey, Jah was incredibly lonely and clearly missed his former life. He had a glint in his eye every time he talked about Australia and the time spent on his farm. He was willing to discuss the most intensely personal aspects of his life, including how he felt when Helen contacted AIDS after she had an affair with her driver. I found a man who was humble, yet unmistakably regal, philosophical about how ‘kismet ‘or fate had guided his life, without ever being morose.
Most importantly Jah gave me letters of introduction to his associates in Hyderabad. Palaces that had been locked up for decades were thrown open for me. Old school friends suddenly lost their inhibitions and began regaling me with stories. One of them was Habeeb Jung, a Paigah nobleman-turned Sufi, who had been a kind of mentor to Jah. I would go to his house three or four times a week, to listen to him weave tales about their time together dating back to the 1940s when they attended the Doon School. Archives became accessible and the story of his life slowly took shape.
When the book was published I sent a copy to Jah. There had been no requirement for it to be vetted, so I had no idea what he would say. Because of the embargo on further direct contact with Jah, everything still had to go through Michael. A few weeks later he relayed Jah’s response. Yes, he liked it, and most importantly for me he thought it was fair.
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