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The Maharajah and Me: Memoir of an Ugly American

maharajah of jaipur II

Sawai Bhawani Singh, the Maharajah of Jaipur, aka "Bubbles"

Recent events and experiences have put me in a nostalgic mood.

The ongoing takeover of Wall Street by unemployed college students and other young people reminds me of my own radicalism in college when I was a Trotskyite, which put me slightly to the left of Lenin and Khrushchev.

Another thing that has put me in a reflective mood occurred when I recently began rereading William L. Shirer’s The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940, the journalist’s memoir of his days reporting from Nazi Germany for the United Press, the precursor of the wire service United Press International.

The third thing that has made me wax nostalgic was the death earlier this year of Sawai Bhawani Singh, the last maharajah of Jaipur.

This is the “back story,” as they say in screenwriting classes, that triggered my Proustian recollections:

By 1973, the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam, but I continued to attack "the system" while attending the University of Chicago. With thousands of other young demonstrators that year, I marched down State Street in Chicago. We were protesting President Nixon’s price and wage freeze which we considered unfair. Our rallying cry was, “Freeze corporate profits, not wages!”

It was the last gasp of my youthful idealism, which gave way to grad school then the obsessive pursuit of a career as a writer which didn’t leave time for marching in the streets during the work day.

But philosophically, if not in practice, I remain on the far left of the political spectrum.

In 1984, I was a business entertainment reporter and a columnist for UPI. My five million readers worldwide gave me access to just about anyone I wanted to interview – if the celebrity had something to sell, like his latest film or new line of budget apparel.

Because of UPI’s clout and global reach I got invitations to movie premieres, gala charity fundraisers, lunch with the rich and famous.

I interviewed Charlton Heston when he was chairman of a film festival in Monte Carlo because he wanted free publicity for the non-event.

I can’t remember how many times I had lunch with Bob Hope, often on one of the many press trips I went on to exotic locales where he was taping highly-rated TV specials for NBC.

The comedian always liked to bring with him a large press entourage, and he picked up the tab for first-class hotel accommodations and airfare for journalists who dutifully gave his TV specials ink.

Shirer’s The Nightmare Years begins with an egregious bit of namedropping that reminded me of my own run-in with royalty decades after his:

“One stifling October day in 1930, at a party in Bombay, I ran into the crown prince of Afghanistan.”

The American foreign correspondent wanted to cover an uprising in Afghanistan for United Press. Because of security concerns in that part of the world which remains in turmoil today, the British refused Shirer’s repeated pleas to enter Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, which Britain controlled.

Then the reporter had the good luck to meet the 16-year-old heir to the Afghan throne who made Shirer a member of his official party, guaranteeing the Shirer’s entry into Afghanistan.

His anecdote reminded me of my own experiences with Asian royalty except that I met a king, not a mere prince, although I also met a prince and a princess.

It was an eerie coincidence that when I met the royals, I was working for the wire service that had evolved from Shirer’s United Press, United Press International.

In 1984, because of my huge UPI readership, I received a complimentary ticket to a charity banquet for the British Olympic team during the Games held in Los Angeles, where I worked. In return for the freebie, the event’s organizers expected me to write an article about the gala, and I did.

Prince Andrew was hosting the fundraiser for the British Olympic team along with then California George Deukmejian at the Regent Wilshire in Beverly Hills. Before dinner, the prince hosted a cocktail party for a few people who would attend the banquet afterward. My affiliation with UPI also got me an invitation to the more exclusive cocktail party.

The prince was in the middle of a bad-will tour of the U.S. at the time. His antics in America had created a minor scandal, and because of the world-wide fascination with royalty, his faux pas generated world-wide headlines.

The American media had not been kind to the prince, especially after he picked up a can of spray paint at a construction site and squirted the camera lens of an accredited photographer, not some intrusive street paparazzo. The Queen was not amused and the day after the incident wrote a check to cover the damage her errant son had caused.

When I shook hands with Andrew at the cocktail party, he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was a reporter, he pulled his hand away and ordered me from the room. He was joking and soon moved on to meet and greet other guests.

My experiences with royalty went downhill from there.

After the cocktail party, we all moved on to the hotel's cavernous banquet room. The fundraiser was an A-list event with British stars in Hollywood attending. I remember seeing Julie Andrews there, and Cary Grant, who was immediately in front of me as we descended a staircase from the cocktail party to the banquet room.

I found my assigned table where I was greeted by a friendly silver-haired gentleman who volunteered to play host. He introduced himself as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company whose name I immediately recognized but have since forgotten.

The executive introduced me to his friends seated at our table. They were all very, uh, large Asian Indians. The women wore saris and an Ali Baba's treasure of jewels and the men wore Nehru jackets and almost as much jewelry. The CEO introduced the maharajah and maharani of Jaipur and the rajah and rani, also of Jaipur.

I sat down next to the maharani, whose clothes and physical appearance looked alien, like something from another planet rather than from another part of this world.

I presumed that such an exotic creature probably wouldn’t be fluent in English. The first thing that came to mind – the only thing – was a question I delivered in pidgin English or at least in the pidgin I had learned from film adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's tales of the British Ray.

“Maharani? Is that like, uh, duchess?”

In perfect Oxford-accented English, the maharani replied, “No, it is like queen.” I felt like a genuinely ugly American for condescending to my dinner companion in pidgin.

Although the royals looked magisterial in their silk garments and jewels, they weren’t snobs. The maharajah told me to call him “Bubbles,” the nickname he got while a student at Oxford because of his love for champagne. Bubbles' reference to Oxford, also in perfect English, made me more embarrassed about talking to his wife in pidgin.

The evening continued its descent from there.

The maharani was polite but didn’t talk much, so I tried to chat her up. I  only further embarrassed myself by asking her if her native tongue were Sanskrit, the only thing I could pull out of my knowledge of India at the moment. She explained that Sanskrit was comparable to Latin, both "dead languages," and that she spoke one of India's many modern languages, Hindi.

She also told me the difference between a maharajah, a king, and a rajah, a prince, one of whom was sitting at our table with his wife, the rani or princess of Jaipur.

As my downward journey and the evening progressed, our self-appointed host, the CEO, got a bit tipsy and started denouncing Castro’s Cuba out of the blue. Ten years out of college, I was no longer a Trotskyite, but I still paid ideological lip service to left-wing politics.

As the CEO’s denunciation of Fidel dragged on, I couldn’t bear any more of his paleoconservative polemics and interrupted him. I mentioned the factoid that despite Cuba’s poverty, due in part to the U.S. embargo of the island, Cubans enjoyed the highest standard of living in Latin America.

Climbing on to my virtual soapbox, I explained why. “Castro took from the rich – mostly by confiscating the property of rich Cubans and American business interests.”

The reason other Latin American countries were dirt poor, I added, is that a tiny minority owns most of the wealth.

That’s part of the philosophy behind the current takeover of Wall Street. A leaflet handed out during the protest said, “The few who control wealth have bought off our democratically elected leadership.”

The CEO may have been too drunk by now to quote Milton Friedman or some other scholarly capitalist tool because all he could do was sputter with increasing rage but no convincing counterargument.

I dropped the subject after I saw the horrified look of the royals at our table. They represented the tiny minority in India who own most of the nation’s wealth – the same kind of fat cats I had criticized during my Trotskyite flashback about Cuba’s relatively high standard of living paid for by expropriations from the rich.

The CEO calmed down and eventually apologized. I didn’t feel the need to return his apology because I hadn’t lost my temper while proclaiming the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Since then, I’ve occasionally thought about that memorable if  embarrassing evening.

Years later, I was channel surfing when the perky hostess of a TV travel show said, “When we come back from the commercial break, we’ll meet the richest man in India.”

When she returned, the show’s hostess was standing in front of an immense urban palace the height of a skyscraper and talking to His Majesty, Sawai Bhawani Singh.

Or as I fondly remember him, “Bubbles.”

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One of the sillier things done by Mrs Gandhi was to abolish the Princely States.

Fortunately the people largly ignored her edict, and the Indian Royal Families are just as revered now, as they ever were in the past.

So much for her.

Thanks for that very interesting, and entertaining article. It's what I expect to get from your pen anyway.