Thousands of homeless “bag ladies” find shelter in train stations all over the world, but few carry it off with as much style as the Begum Wilayat Mahal, 50, heir to India’s long-dethroned royal house of Oudh. For almost seven years the Begum and her retinue, including a son and daughter, seven servants and 13 dogs, have been living in a tiny waiting room in the New Delhi railroad terminal. The purpose of the bizarre sit-in is to pressure India into returning at least one of the dozens of ancestral palaces and other riches that were seized from the family in the province of Lucknow in 1857. At that time the Begum’s great-grandfather, the Nawab of Oudh, was deposed as provincial ruler for mismanagement. “I shall not vacate this waiting room,” the Begum imperiously declares. “They can bring their military. We shall not be moved until our palace is returned.”
That, alas, will not be soon. The palaces were converted over the years into courts, libraries and, in one case, a pharmaceutical factory. Her last residence, a 20-room palace in Srinigar given to the family in the late 1940s by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was burned down by religious enemies in 1971. For 16 months the Begum and her retinue lived in tents on the grounds while petitioning for the return of another ancestral home in Lucknow. She scorned the government’s offer of a modern house plus a small palace that her father had turned over to his servants. Finally, in a bid for public sympathy, the Begum moved to the train station, the most public spot in the nation’s capital. “Let the world know how the descendant of the last Nawab of Oudh is treated,” she says. “I do not feel ashamed. Why should I? The government should feel ashamed.”
The family complains bitterly about the rumble of trains at night, the suffocating clouds of diesel smoke and the lack of privacy amidst the throngs of “commoners.” Even in such reduced circumstances, however, they cling to vestiges of a royal life-style. The Begum has carpeted her tiny quarters with Persian rugs, erected a makeshift throne with velvet bolsters and hung family portraits around her. Royal meals—cooked on braziers outdoors—are served on heirloom china. The tea sets are silver and the napkins hand-embroidered. When not writing abusive letters to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth, the Begum prays and reads the Koran. Her habit of commandeering the second-class ladies’ rest room for a three-hour bath every day infuriates the commoners queued up outside. Authorities have shut off the fans and electricity in the waiting room, and once even turned a garden hose on the royal family, but forcible ejection seems unlikely. As a powerful figure in the Shiite sect of Islam, the Begum is lionized by India’s Muslim minority as a symbol of resistance to the Hindu-dominated government.
Despite her royal birth, the Begum’s life has been hard. Married at 13, she was widowed when her children were youngsters. Her oldest son died last year at 24, “from stress and strain,” she says. Her youngest, Prince Mehdi, 18, is in boarding school. Her only companions are her two other children. Her daughter, Princess Saheena Mahal, 21, looks after the six Dobermans, two Labradors and five Great Danes that patrol the portico. Her son, Prince AM Reza, 22, handles appointments for the Begum and acts as her food taster. “Her Highness must be protected at all times,” he explains.
The family has enough money to pay the servants and feed all those dogs ($50 a month), but the Prince got worried recently when they had to sell their horses and elephants. “I hate to disclose this, but everything is ebbing financially,” he says. “We are selling the tea sets and the carpets. But even I do not have the courage to ask Her Highness how much money she has left.” The family disdains other noble houses which have entered business to survive. “We are rulers,” the Prince explains loftily. So, rather than seek lesser employment or accept the government’s offer of a real home, the Begum is determined to stand her ground. “The House of Oudh will not accept disgrace from the government, but we shall accept death gracefully,” she says. “They will have to slaughter us in this railway station.”