The Palace of the Maharaja of X was going to be our home for the next few nights, while we explored the region.
“This should be fun,” we told each other, and the sprawling two-story palace with its central dome and wide, multi-columned verandahs, looked promising as we approached through the Elephant Gate and front garden. Then, we were taken to the great hall under that dome.
Architecturally, the vast 80 foot tall Darbar Hall in the center of the palace certainly was impressive. The upper floor of the palace (the private quarters of the royal family, we learned) circled around us under the huge dome, doors opening onto the open hallway supported by Corinthian pillars extending up to the dome, itself. However, the atmosphere was rather gloomy, since there was very little light and the few lamps positioned here and there in that vast space couldn’t have held bulbs of more than 40 watts.
After our long drive to the palace, it felt good to stroll around the circular great hall, examining the glass-fronted cases, old furniture, and artifacts. The overstuffed sofas and chairs, we discovered, dated back to the 1930s and had not been recovered since then. Scattered among them were older tables and chairs from the early twentieth century and the years when Victoria still considered India the jewel in her crown. None of them had been particularly well maintained. Black and white photographs, presumably of different generations of the royal family, stared out from the cases and from the tops of tables and cabinets. They seemed to be a good-looking bunch, but they all looked rather mournful. Most of the objects and much of the marble floor were covered with a fine layer of dust.
In a place of honor, near the entrance door, grinned a large stuffed tiger. We didn’t need to examine it too closely to see that he was somewhat dusty and moth-eaten, that one ear had been chewed on, that one eye was missing, and that his long tail was severed from his body, dangling by a few threads. This was not a happy tiger.
A tall middle-aged man appeared in the large doorway through which we’d entered. Wearing what seemed to be a version of the long jacket called a kurta, he might have been handsome if his features hadn’t appeared so soft and rather bloated.
“I am your host,” the Maharaja announced, offering us a half-hearted smile. “Welcome to my family home.”
He walked among us for a few minutes, grinning and muttering a few words from time to time, then left us to his manager, an energetic man a few years younger, who turned out to be British, and who really ran this palace hotel, such as it was.
Our room was impressive in size, but oddly furnished. For the two of us, we discovered three narrow beds that had been pushed up against each other. A small table with a lamp (and one of those 40 watt bulbs) stood on one side and three beds away stood a cabinet with another lamp. Cabinets and tables and chairs were scattered here and there, along with an art deco piece of furniture with a tall mirror and many drawers that seemed to be an overgrown version of what my grandmother had called a “vanity.” The first thing we did was rearrange the furniture. Since the staff seemed minimal, we figured there was no point calling for anyone to come.
Crunching over the not very clean floor, we found the seven-foot tall door to the bathroom. It could’ve been a marble-sheathed bowling alley, one wall all windows, with a huge antique wardrobe at one end, a small sink, and at the far end a marble platform about a foot high. Several feet farther on the platform stood an old-fashioned toilet with a string from a tank on the wall for flushing and a shower. After using the toilet, I felt as if I should walk to the end of the stage and take a bow. We could see that getting up in the night could turn into an adventure.
Usually, the palace offered only one meal: something they called breakfast, which was served in a banquet hall. Two young servants, one of whom spoke a few words of English, set out some boxes of juice and began putting slices of white bread into a toaster while our little band stared at the huge table, wondering how we could arrange ourselves or communicate without megaphones. Finally, we huddled at one end. Even so, if we wanted to pass salt or pepper or the little packets of jam, we had to get up and hike to the opposite side of the table.
“Eggs?” asked one of the young men. Since it was the only option, besides toast, boxed orange juice, and instant coffee, we all said yes.
Half way through the meal, the Maharaja himself joined us, red-eyed and clearly hung over. He murmured a greeting, sat down with us, drank a little fruit juice, muttered a few words, then ambled out again, staring at a mobile phone in his shaking hand.
Ever the gracious host, he had honored us with his presence, but obviously he had important matters to deal with.
All of the hallways of the rambling main floor led to the open exterior corridors that circled the palace. Exploring, I discovered the back “gardens,” over-grown, weed-choked plots, with some broken-down out-buildings and a small, rusty automobile at least 30 years old, almost smothered in vines and weeds.
Each morning, the Maharaja staggered into the dining room, beamed at us, and staggered out again. The manager did his best, however, to entertain us. One evening, after our explorations, he arranged for a group of tribal dancers to perform for us. Another evening, we were served a fairly adequate dinner as we gathered around a large bonfire in a side garden.
The Maharaja still was considered the king of his province and still possessed some authority, we were told. Even more important, he was the largest landholder in the province and collected the rents from his tenants. We had no doubt that this was kept him in business, not the income from his palace “hotel,” since we were his only “guests.” His grandfather had built this palace in the 1930s, he told us one morning, but the family still owned the original palace.
Odd though the experience was, we enjoyed our time with the Maharaja of X. Much of India is changing faster than the eye can see, but in his own corner he seems to still be living in the shadow of the pre-independence glory days, when his ancestors could boast of their family’s lineage and their connections to the British Raj.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, and available from:
University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722),
Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble,
by order from your local bookstore,
and as an Amazon Kindle book.