(My column in Mint Lounge, January 13 2018)
She lies buried amidst sepulchres that house the remains of many who are still famous. There is Jim Morrison on the premises, the American rock legend whom trains of tourists come to pay homage, like pilgrims bearing flowers. Edith Piaf, the waif who sang her way to greatness, finds her peace nearby, as does Frederic Chopin, the composer whose pickled heart is in Warsaw but whose body dissolves in the French capital. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson rests here, and in the vicinity there is a man believed to have been sired by Napoleon. Oscar Wilde’s sculpted grave competes with Marcel Proust’s neat bed of stone, and many more still are the artists, writers, and persons of esteem who crowd the hillside cemetery that is Père Lachaise in Paris. And yet, between them all, under a platform of rugged rock, lies this tragic Indian woman. Her name and cause have been largely forgotten, but since 1858, she has been here, longer than many of her revered neighbours. Tourists walk by with cameras, oblivious to her unmarked square existence. But every now and then there is a stray visitor who arrives on a quest: to locate the final resting place of that remarkable woman, the last queen of Awadh.
I was that visitor a few days ago, when I trekked up Paris’ most famous graveyard to look for this forgotten tomb. The lady appears in yellowed old books by several names. She was to some Malika Kishwar, while others knew her as Janab-i Aliyah, Her Sublime Excellency, mother to the ruler of “Oude”, Wajid Ali Shah. In 1856, when the British deposed this nawab from his ancestral seat in Lucknow, his family departed for colonial Calcutta, with all the money they could gather and what dignity they had left. But while the son (a “crazy imbecile” in the eyes of his sneering oppressors) prepared to fade quietly into history, the mother was determined to win back that which was her family’s by right. That very year, this woman who knew little beyond her sequestered palace, set foot on a ship, determined to sail to England so she might speak—woman to woman—to the English queen in person. After all, declared the middle-aged begum, Victoria was “also a mother”; she would recognize the despair her people had unleashed, and restore to the House of Awadh territory, titles, and its rightful honour. And so proceeded Malika Kishwar, her health already in decline, braving cold winds in a foreign land, to plead the cause of royal justice.
The mission was doomed from the start. Advisers were many and much was the money they sought for the privilege of their counsel. The results, meanwhile, were nowhere to be found. As historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones records, Kishwar discovered quickly enough that Queen Victoria, in her “circular dress”, had little power to bestow anything more than polite conversation on her and her Awadhi line—when an audience was granted, they spoke about boats and English mansions, not about imperial treacheries and the unjust business in Lucknow. In the British parliament, things got worse. A prayer at long last prepared was dismissed on spurious bureaucratic grounds: the begum was to submit a “humble petition”, words that she failed to use in the document laid before the House. While her son accepted British imperium, the mother was obstinate in battle. So, when she wished to travel, they sought to dragoon her into acknowledging their suzerainty—if Malika Kishwar and her ménage wanted passports, she would have to declare herself a “British subject”. The begum refused to do anything of the sort, prepared, at best, to be under “British protection”, but never anybody’s “subject”. And legal quibbles aside, the Great Rebellion of 1857 compounded matters—there was now no prospect of relinquishing even a fragment of British power when the hour called for a demonstration of obdurate strength alone. Awadh was lost forever.
The tide having turned, in 1858, the begum decided to return at last, defeated and unhappy in the extreme. But in Paris she fell ill and died on 24 January. The funeral was simple, but there was yet some dignity and state—representatives of the Turkish and Persian sultans gave this Indian queen the regard the British denied her and her line. A cenotaph was constructed by the grave, but it has long since fallen to pieces—when decades later the authorities at Père Lachaise sought funds to repair the tomb, her exiled son decided from Calcutta that it was simply not worth his pension, while the colonial state was even less inclined to honour a difficult woman lying several feet underground in an alien European country. And so, since that time, in a graveyard full of magnificent memorials, the queen of Awadh has remained, a shell of broken stone sheltering her from the weeds and overgrowth that alone have made a claim upon her and the story that she tells.
Others of her suite also suffered. A younger son had come with her, Sikandar Hashmat by name. He died in England, and was carried to join his mother in her unmarked grave. A grandson’s infant child was also buried within, turning the tally in Paris to three. But it was in London that one more of the delegation fell, this one a baby princess, born to Sikandar Hashmat from his Rajput wife on British shores. I walked around a dull little place called Kilburn to look for this grave. And there, in a cemetery, after an hour between tombs set in the soggy English ground, I found a memorial to the child: Princess Omdutel Aurau Begum, “who died 14th April 1858”, months after her grandmother who was once a queen. But Omdutel, all of 18 months, had a minor triumph where her royal grandmother had none—lying by a pathway in that cemetery in Kilburn, her grave at least bears her name. The begum, on the other hand, has become to the passing tourist at Père Lachaise in Paris a plinth on which to rest, smoking a cigarette and looking on to a horizon full of the dead, till a stranger might appear to tell how they have under them pieces of a fascinating woman, and the remains of one of Indian history’s most unhappy tales.