Seeking the Nizam


John Zubrzycyki

MANI VENUGOPAL talks to John Zubrzycki about his new book, The Last Nizam, on the intriguing and dysfunctional life and times of Mukarram Jah, Nizam of Hyderabad.

Mani Venugopal: Other than the Australian connection of the last Nizam, what inspired you to write this book?
John Zubrzycki: Hyderabad was India’s richest, most powerful and most populous princely state. It had enormous strategic importance as well, determining the early fortunes of the British Raj in India.  After the fall of the Mughal Empire, Hyderabad attracted the cream of Muslim scholars, writers, musicians and artists creating a rich cultural heritage. As individuals, the Nizams ranged from brilliant strategists to complete imbeciles, but each one left his mark. Despite this rich historical tapestry, very little had been written on India’s premier princely state, at least for the general reader and I wanted to fill this gap

Mani: In the book, Mukarram Jah comes across as a self-absorbed and indulgent person who was preoccupied in tinkering with mechanical objects.  It appears that he had no interest in preserving his heritage, wealth and palaces.  Do you feel any sympathy for him?
John: I have a certain amount of sympathy for him in that he was born at the wrong end of a very dysfunctional dynasty, raised in a totally artificial world with very little contact with his father, and almost none with his grandfather. He spent very little time in Hyderabad, and became very westernised while in the royal court as it existed at the time of his father’s death - very little had changed since the days of the Mughals. It was no wonder that he turned his back on all that, but undoubtedly had he stayed or spent more time there and invested his energy in preserving the heritage of Hyderabad rather than tinkering with his big toys, things would have turned out differently for the city and for him.

Mani: Are the relatives of the Nizam in financial distress too?
John: Some of the surviving members of the seventh Nizam’s court are, because the value of trust funds from which they get their income and their pensions have declined over the years. Others only claim they are. One nephew I met claimed he was in distress even though he owned a car of the latest model, wore copious amounts of jewellery, was very fashionably dressed and refused to get a job, saying why should he as he was entitled to large handouts and to a certain standard of living, by virtue of the fact that he was a close relative.

Mani: What kind of a life does the last Nizam lead now, and does he have any regrets about his dwindling wealth and failed marriages?
John: He leads a very quiet life, he is in poor health and keeps to himself. He sees everything in terms of Kismet or fate, as for his marriages, he regrets what happened to his Australian wife who died of AIDS. He explained his other failures with the line that “no woman from Istanbul can live anywhere, but in Istanbul”. Certainly he would be a difficult man to live with, given his obsession with his farm and machinery, and his total disinterest in being the Nizam.

Mani: In 1971, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi abolished titles of the Maharajahs and privy purses.  Was this fair in view of the fact that many of them had wealth which could have supported them for many generations, if invested properly?
John: Mrs. Gandhi was heading what was essentially a socialist government and it was an anachronism to have hundreds of princes on the payroll. Perhaps it could have been done less brutally, but the princes had money to invest, property etc; those who were smart prospered, and those who weren’t, went under.

Mani: Do you think many descendants of the Maharajahs still live in a world of fantasy, foolish arrogance and extravagance and as a result have squandered their inheritance?
John: Many have used their status to create a career in politics, government, diplomacy or business. Others have sunk to the status of being tourist attractions. I don’t think many can afford too much extravagance. I believe they have to take some responsibility for maintaining what’s left of their heritage. If after that, they have plenty of money left over, let them be foolishly extravagant, they have just as much right to as anyone else.

Mani: Is there any interest within India about the Maharajahs?  Are the Indian public and media mainly interested in negative stories about them?
John: There is huge interest in their lives. When Mukarram Jah’s third wife won a court battle over their divorce settlement recently, it was widely reported in India. If Jah made a political statement or announced he was entering politics, it would be front page news.

Mani: The India under Maharajahs and modern India are grossly unfair societies.  Only a small part of the population has benefited from globalization.  India still remains a class-ridden society in which your status is determined by your wealth and position.  Has anything changed for the majority of Indians who still remain poor?
John: Very little has changed for the current generation of impoverished Indians, but their children stand a good chance of improving their lot. Even in rural Bihar there are thousands of private schools operating, where the official education system has collapsed. The shackles of bureaucracy are being gradually dismantled, population growth is slowing and democracy for all its failings, remains strong. Some aspects of globalisation are positive, such as the communications revolution and if more is invested in infrastructure, India can make great strides.

Mani: You have had a 30-year association with India.  What aspect of India, good or bad, has made a lasting impression on you?
John: India’s self-reliance, the strength of its culture and its ability to hold together despite its sheer diversity impresses me. Ingrained caste and social prejudices, the lack of a strong civil society and the obscene disparities between the rich and the poor depress me.

Mani: What sort of memories do you and your family carry back to Australia of India from your stint there as a journalist, Hindi student, diplomat, consultant and the time you spent researching this book?  I am aware that you lived in New Delhi with your wife and 3 children….
John: I have mostly fond memories of deep friendships, incredible experiences and the privilege of living in a unique and ever-changing society. I found value in each of my “incarnations”…. as a student because I really wanted to interact with common people and was fascinated by the culture, as a diplomat because it gave me access to the highest levels of government and enabled me to travel widely and see a side of India that visitors don’t experience. As a journalist I found India to be a paradise for stories, human, political, economic etc. I had a front row seat witnessing India at its most exhilarating and exhausting, watching everything from Phoolan Devi on the election trail, to seeing huge ships being torn apart by unskilled labourers on the beaches of Gujarat. I interviewed victims of caste violence in Bihar and leading industrialists, I saw the worst of India’s slums and the most opulent of its palaces, I followed in the footsteps of everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Laloo Prasad Yadav. In short, it was never a dull moment.
My family also found it unforgettable, whether observing daily life from our flat in Delhi with the endless streams of hawkers and entertainers, kids loved parties that featured real elephant rides and snake charmers. The travel was always amazing particularly to India’s national parks where we were fortunate enough to see tigers, bears and rhinos.