Monday, July 21, 2008

Dinner at the Jambughoda Palace

Dinner with Royalty at the Jambughoda Palace

Saturday, July 13. On our last night at the Jambughoda Palace resort we had dinner in the home of the resort’s owner, who on his elegant business card, complete with family crest, calls himself Maharana Vikrimsinh. Vikram is a descendent of royalty, one of hundreds of princely families throughout India who were given authority by the British colonialists to help administer their affairs. The Raj couldn’t have survived without them. These royal families had a pretty good deal under British rule. They lived a rich life, were cultivated and indulged by the curious British, and were able to exercise power in the areas over which they had authority. At independence these royal houses were disbanded in order to make way for democracy, and the families, while able to keep their estate properties, lost specific political power over their villages and, of course, the more general power they derived through being in the good graces of the British. Later, under Indira Gandhi, the financial stipends they had been receiving from the Indian government were revoked altogether. This meant they were left with huge estates but had little money to keep them up. These royals, who must be seen as complicit with Britain’s colonization of India, seemed bathed in a kind of dilapidated nostalgia for the days when they had stature and socialized with British officials. These days are documented in the array of old photographs and prints that cover the walls of Vikram’s large living room. There are regal family portraits and scenes from tiger hunts interspersed with huge, elaborately staged dinners in which the royal family entertained visiting British officials. It look like a pretty even trade-off. The Indian royals get to rub shoulders with the powerful western colonialists while the British get a close up view of exotic Indians. The more I looked at the pictures of these dinners the more connected our own dinner with Vikram and his family seemed to be to the earlier ones documented in the pictures. History was repeating itself as farce. Our little band of American educators in search of Gandhi’s legacy in India had quite improbably taken the place in the minds of our hosts of the British official of long ago. We came baring the imprimatur of the west and all of the trappings of “civilization” it had represented to Vikram, his father, his grandfather, and great-grandfather. To have us in their homes (bewildered guests though we were) somehow replayed those earlier times when their families consorted with western power and bathed in the illusion that real civilization somehow resided with these westerners and would rub off on them.

All of this called attention to the ruined state of the institution to which Vikram and his family once belonged, and the slow but steady decay of the house is a material embodiment of the loss of their stature and their power. Yet you couldn’t help appreciating their graciousness and hospitality (although we were presented with quite a large bill for food and drink at the end of the night, something I doubt happened to the Brits who dined there), and even having some measure of sympathy for their plight. They’re marginal victims of the very colonial system they helped support, attached to their estate and the illusion of their royal status, insistent that the country somehow owes them a living, or at least, ought to declare their estates “heritage” sites important to documenting the history of India and plow some money into their upkeep. I asked Vikram, politely, if he had a job (which I thought might help his family out), but he said no, struggling to keep the palace above ground was a full time job. And his children won’t be off to school in the U.S. or entering the IT sector in Bangalore very soon, for they’ve been called back by their father to help save the estate.

We were able to meet Vikram’s wife and some of his extended family, the most colorful of whom was his uncle, Rana Harishchandrasinji, who in his 79 years seemed to have failed successively at selling petrol at wholesale, running a painting contracting business, raising chickens, and running his own organic farm. He was an elegantly dressed man with huge muttonchops who spoke impeccable British English and spoke as fondly of his days at Cambridge as he did of his attempts to make a living at organic farming, a next to impossible enterprise, he claimed, since all of the surrounding tribal families now had their own land to work. This of course brought me back full-circle to thinking about Ganesh Devy and his work with the adivasi. What an irony that our group spent time being hosted by these two men, the one on the cutting edge of reviving historically oppressed indigenous peoples and trying to help them gain a real economic foothold in a new India, the other consumed in resentment and a decaying nostalgia for the very system that oppressed both the adivasi and himself.

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