The book “Really, Your Highness!” by Jyoti Jafa is set in the 1900 in erstwhile royal Rajputana.
This novel tells the story of three Princely States – Chattargadh, Pisshengunj, and Fateypur – linked by centuries of kinship and conflict. Into this they drag British Viceroys, Residents, Military Secretaries, Memsahebs and visiting Royalty.
The utterly different Rajput and English frames of reference, attitudes, upbringing, and conduct in the council chamber, sports field, battlefield, and the world at large result inevitably in muddles and misunderstandings.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The combined cacophony of competing kettledrums, bugle fanfare, war horns, sentries presenting arms and Charan bards eulogising his warrior ancestors, was just another of those daily routines for Maharajah Jai Singh of Chattargadh. But it imposed an endurance test on his normally easy-going Military Secretary, Colonel Claude-Poole, every time the latter accompanied the Maharajah out of the charming sandstone palace he had enjoyed designing just to prove his aesthetic-cum-engineering skills to a sceptical prince, who liked dispensing commissions but was perennially short of cash. Above its impressive Bengal arch pavilions, domes and double marble jharokha windows, fluttered the 1400-year-old saffron and crimson Rathor standard, smartened up with a coat of arms created by the Royal College of Heralds in London.
As the well-known green Shooting Chevy passed through Chattargadh, a colourful Rajasthani town dominated by a magnificent medieval fort, children on the roadside ran to greet their Maharajah. He smiled, waved at them, and stopped the car several times as people passing by on cycles, tongas, cars or motorcycles dismounted as a mark of respect. People on foot immediately gathered round, folding their hands and shouting greetings in the local dialect: ‘Khamma, Baapji!’ or ‘Raj amar ho Jai Singh koh!’ Women in bright veils, silver jewellery, and ivoryand-glass bangles leaned out of windows and balconies lining the narrow bazaar lanes, calling out to sisters and mothers-in-law: ‘Dekkho, dekkho, Rajaji!’ To them he folded his hands politely in greeting. Riders on camels and horses conceded right of way, while bullock carts creaked to a stop, and the Maharajah’s ADC (aide-de-camp), Zorji, urged their driver to keep as many donkeys as he possibly could on the left, because it brought good luck.
If driving off the road to honour an old superstition could change their luck, Jai Singh would have gladly instructed good old Dhonkalji to do so. But only a modern canal system capable of providing adequate drinking water and irrigation facilities to his people could turn the veritable tide of bad luck that had ruined all his efforts at nurturing a windswept desert into the most enviably prosperous princely state in India. Only his daft ancestors could have abandoned their wealthy Kanauj kingdom, with its fertile wheat fields, mango orchards and rose gardens to the tiny Turko-Afghan army of Mohammed Ghori in 1194, to conquer and colonise this vast wasteland called Marwar. And take great pride in such a silly swap.
‘Really, Your Highness, it’s about time the Maharajah of Pisshengunj conceded our reasonable request for water-sharing.’
‘Colonel Claude-Poole, have you ever seen Nutty being reasonable?’ demanded Jai Singh.
Colonel CP smiled. ‘Then I suppose we’ll have to mobilise support through the Viceroy.’
‘If it wasn’t for His interfering Excellency and the British Government, I would have sorted Nutty out long ago, and built my canal,’ Jai Singh retorted with a martial spark in his splendid black eyes.
‘Perhaps, Your Highness. But let’s look at the bright side. One day, Pisshengunj will revert to the Chattargadh branch of the Rathor dynasty…’
‘Only if Nutty continues to remain childless and the British honour our ancient adoption customs. But by then it will be too late. We need water now!’
The Maharajah and his Military Secretary-cum-Chief Engineer continued studying the chart and canal blueprint as they drove along the narrow metalled road that connected the state capital to several thikanas (districts) and villages. Sand dunes rose in shimmering mounds under a hot sun even though summer had scarcely begun. Goats nibbling on thorn bushes, and a few thatched huts surrounded by low mud walls decorated with ochre and white geometric designs, broke the stark monotony of that inhospitable land.
Colonel CP kept his handiwork from being blown out of the window as the Maharajah spoke eloquently about introducing cash crops like sugarcane, cotton and citrus fruits to Chattargadh. Both wore well-tailored, comfortable khakis without any rank insignia. But the similarity ended there. While the Maharajah ignored his ADC except for instructing him to stop at the Jobner lake for lunch (even if it was almost dry), the Englishman couldn’t help feeling irked by Zorji’s constant turning and peering back.
Questioned, Zorji in turn very politely asked: ‘Then who will strain his neck keeping an eye on the follow car? Durbar or his Mil-tree Shakey-tree?’
CP made a point of pointing to the rear view mirrors, suggesting that that’s what they were there for.
But the ADC had the last word. ‘Kernull Saab’s bilayati eyes might penetrate through desert dust, but my poor Rajput hawk eyes cannot.’
Scattered among the ancient Jobner township, visible through the afternoon haze, stood small canopied chattris, and lavishly carved Jain temples built in more prosperous times, when Chattargadh derived rich revenues from the trade caravans passing between north-west India and Arabia, Persia and Egypt. Wealthy Marwari and Jain merchants had confidently parked their families and fortunes under the dual protection of their upright Rathor rulers and their impenetrable desert, amassing and repatriating more and more wealth home as India rapidly industrialised under the British. Jai Singh couldn’t help reflecting that it was all very well for Congresswallahs to moan and groan about the threat to cottage industries and swadeshi handicrafts, but any responsible ruler could see that only cheap mass-produced items could satisfy this country’s growing mass consumption.
It was nearly teatime before they spotted the blobs of green on the horizon which signalled that they were about to reach Koodsu, the thikana located 69 miles from Chattargadh, and just 16 from the river in Pisshengunj. The Maharajah had summoned all the local chiefs, choudhries, tehsildars, and patwaris there to hear his plans, and submit their suggestions before actual work on his pet scheme could begin.
Excerpted with permission from Really, Your Highness!, Jyoti Jafa, Roli Books. Read more about the book here and buy it here.