The Last Nizam is the story of an extraordinary dynasty, the Nizams of Hyderabad, and how the heir to India’s richest princely state gave up a kingdom and retired to the dusty paddocks of outback Australia. With vivid detail and anecdote John Zubrzycki charts the rise of the Nizams to fabulous wealth and prominence under the Mughal emperors of India, giving a rich and vibrant portrait of a realm soaked in blood and intrigue. Above all he describes the strange – sometimes comic, sometimes tragic – life of Mukarram Jah, His Exalted Highness, the Rustam of the Age, the Aristotle of the Times, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VIII, the Conqueror of Dominions, the Regulator of the Realm, Nawab Mir Barakat Ali Khan Bahadur, The Victor in Battles, the Leader of Armies, the last Nizam, the man who left behind the diamonds of Golconda and the palaces of Hyderabad to drive bulldozers in the Australian bush.
A delicate and detailed work, The Last Nizam adds a crucial chapter to the history of India, capturing the very scent of wine, women and wealth whose appetites kept the Nizams in news and scandal while simultaneously deepening their legend.
John Zubrzycki is an award-winning journalist who has travelled and worked in India over the past thirty years. He is currently a senior writer for the Australian in Sydney.
The Elevator Rose Slowly and unsteadily to the sixth-floor apartment. The whitewashed tower block was indistinguishable from the hundreds that lined this part of Turkey’s coast like an advancing army. Nothing on the nameplate hinted of the extraordinary man who lived within. In an earlier chapter of the dynasty he belonged to, royal bodyguards carrying damascened swords, belts of gold and tulip-shaped turbans would have lined the steps leading to the Palace of the Four Pavilions. I would have been led around rooms of Oriental splendor, marveling at the jewel-studded furniture, priceless Persian carpets, Bohemian glass candelabras and Belgian chandeliers, while the ladies of the zenana glanced shyly from behind heavily embroidered silk curtains. Attired in a dandruff-encrusted fez, a rumpled sherwani, bedroom slippers and yellow socks sagging around his ankles, my host was once considered the richest man in the world.
For years I had read stories of the eccentric ruler of a Muslim state who counted his diamonds by the kilogram, his pearls by the acre and his gold bars by the tone, yet who was so frugal he would save on laundry bills by bathing in his clothes. I had listened to improbable tales of a darbar in the desert of Australia where an Indian prince preferred driving diesel-belching bull-dozers than riding in the howdah of an elegantly caparisoned elephant. And I had heard rumours of a recluse living in Turkey who had arrived carrying two suitcases and a load of shattered dreams. I was about to meet the man whose life and times defied any straightforward description.
Mukarram Jah, the Eighth Nizam of Hyderabad, Regulator of the Realm, the Victor in Battles, descendant of the Viceroys of the Deccan and heir to India’s greatest dynasty since the Mughals, was waiting at his door as I came out of the elevator. My favourite photograph of him had always been of a courtly gentleman with a neatly clipped silver moustache, balding hair, short sleeves and braces, sitting barefooted on the veranda of his outback home-stead, taken in the mid-1990s. It was a frail and much thinner man who shook my hand and shuffled me inside. After asking if I minded, he took out a cigarette, lit it with an unsteady hand, and settled down in his favourite sky-blue armchair from where he had an uninterrupted view of the placid waters of the Mediterranean. Although he suffered from diabetes and smoked heavily, Jah insisted he saw no reason why, at 71, he would not out-last his chain-smoking grandfather who had consumed 11 grams of opium a day and made it to 80.
The two-bedroomed apartment was furnished with glass cases filled with royal seals and amulets, fine crystal vases and bric-a-brac. A curved sword sheathed in black leather and gold was suspended from the wall alongside silk banners embroidered with silver filigree. The study contained an eclectic mix of books on Hyderabad’s history and airport novels by Robert Carter and Alexander Kent. The dining room was given over to formal family portraits. Next to a framed letter from King George VI, making excuses for Britain’s betrayal of its ‘most faithful ally’, hung a photograph of a woman who bore a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn but was in fact a cousin from the Turkish side of the family. There was a picture of Jah as a stoutly built soldier, with a full head of hair and a chest full of medals, taken at his commissioning ceremony at Sandhurst; and a small portrait of his first grandchild.
Dominating the display was a photograph of his father, Azam Jah, whose square-rimmed glasses gave his eyes a rather startled look. Then came his Indian grandfather Osman Ali Khan, the Seventh Nizam, whose impertinent gaze was accentuated by his high-collered sherwani and tufted turban. Next was a sepiacoloured portrait of a man with a long, white beard and monocle – Jah’s Turkish grandfather Abdul Mejid, the last Caliph of Islam, who was unceremoniously sent into exile in 1924. To one side was a soft-toned study of Mejid’s daughter and Jah’s mother, Princess Durrushehvar, and on the other was his aunt, Princess Niloufer, who was described as one of the most beautiful women of her time.
The most poignant photograph showed a child in royal garb bending backwards in fright as an elderly man in spectacles and a long coat held him by his shoulder. The man was Osman Ali Khan, who, as ruler of India’s largest princely state, was being honoured with a customary 21-gun birthday salute. The young boy was Jah. He had been so scared by the salvo that the Nizam ordered a sword-waving horseman to risk life and limb by galloping in front of the cannons and ordering the gunners to cease firing. ‘It was probably the first time a 21-gun salute has ever been stopped’, quipped my host as I paused in front of the photograph. ‘I think they got to the seventeenth gun.’
Such moments of intimacy were rare. The rigidly observed rules of etiquette in the royal household were not conducive to grandfatherly affection. Jah spoke to his grandfather directly on only a handful of occasions. All conversations were through courtiers and chamberlains. But, ultimately, it was Jah who would become the next Nizam. Osman Ali Khan broke with tradition and decided to nominate his favourite grandchild rather than Jah’s fathr, Azam, as heir. The world’s richest ruler was not about to entrust for little else than polo, gambling and dancing girls, even if he was his eldest son.
It had been almost a decade since the man who inherited that fortune told his office secretary he was going to the local mosque to pray, secretly boarded a fight out of Perth and left Australia for good. And it was around that time that, as a correspondent based in New Delhi, I first came across stories in the Indian press about a pauper prince bled dry by his advisors, barred from entering his palaces, blocked by the courts from claiming his inheritance and, strangest of all, being forced by dept collectors to sell the half-million-acre sheep station in Australia that had been his home for more than two decades. Since then his family, lawyers and few remaining friends and gone to extraordinary lengths to protect Jah’s privacy; and it was on the basis that I would never reveal his whereabouts that I was finally meeting him now.
Jah had always disliked the press. When The Time ran a 1000- word obituary portraying the Seventh Nizam as a miser who ‘shuffled around his palace in a battered fez, worrying about the grocery bills for his three wives, 42 concubines, 200 children, 300 servants and ageing retainers, including his private army armed with muzzle-leaders’, Jah shot back an equally long letter to the editor. It was ‘unjust…to conjure up the image of a shabby man shuffling through his dream world’, asserted Jah. ‘If he shuffled it was because he was a frail man advanced in age. But in that frailty and in that stoop there was the nobility and the dignity of character of a man who had done as he had considered best throughout his long life, and who felt that now he need answer only to God.’
After spending several days interviewing Jah, walking around his favourite Roman ruins, sipping tea in vine-covered cafes and talking about why even in his old age a man needs to feel the heartbeat of a woman next to him at night, I began to understand why he had turned his back on Hyderabad. Jah certainly inherited some of his grandfather’s eccentricities, but he also had the nobility and dignity that came with being part of a remarkable royal family. An although Jah became the ruler of a kingdom that had ceased to exist, his life was in many ways more extraordinary than that of many reigning or titular monarchs in modern times.
I also realized that there was more to the Nizams and the man now living a lonely life in an adopted land than the lurid headlines and the handful of historical studies I had seen so far. Anecdotes abound about Osman Ali Khan’s enormous wealth, but they only serve to obscure his role in some of the most momentous events of India’s roadto independence. There was a paucity of serious academic work on the Nizams compared with the volumes that had been written on other Indian dynasties and princely states. Much of the primary source material in Hyderabad’s state archives was so poorly preserved that the ceiling fans would scatter brittle fragments of Residency records around the room before I could read them. Many back-issues of the city’s oldest English daily, The Deccan Chronicle, were missing, and the remainder were often covered in so much filth in the newspaper’s storeroom that the staff point-blank refused to put their hands on what I needed.
But there was no shortage of nawabs and begums, relatives and old school friends living in the last outpost of the Mughal Empire who could talk about the Seventh and Eighth Nizams. A 94-year-old woman who had trouble remembering what she had done yesterday could still vividly describe holding Jah on her shoulders as Princess Durrushehvar played tennis on the clay courts of the Maharajah of Kashmir in the 1930s. a blind 90-year-old nawab could still point to each person in every photograph on the walls of his study and describe how he had shot the dozen or so panthers mounted in the hallway as if it had all happened only yesterday. He could also remember tales his grandfather had told him as a boy, thereby giving me a 160-year sweep of history over sweet tea and cucumber sandwiches in his rambling old mansion.
Other key characters, however, were dead: including the three men who had managed Jah’s affairs in India until the late 1990s. As if struck by a curse, those who knew the most about what really happened to the Seventh Nizam’s incalculable fortune had carried their secrets to the grave. Of those still living, most were reluctant to divulge all they knew, and, barring a few, would tail off the conversation with the words, ‘I was the only one who was loyal, it was those others…’ As for Jah himself, I began to doubt if he had revealed everything he knew even to the closest members of his family or those few friends who had remained truly loyal to him throughout his long and eventful life. I also wondered whether he fully understood how it was that he still owned some of the most magnificent palaces in India, but lived in a two-bedroom apartment largely forgotten by the once loyal inhabitants of a city his family ruled for more than two centuries.
Interview by interview, room by musty room, document by faded and brittle document, the largely unwritten story of the rise and fall of India’s foremost princely state began to emerge. Jah was not the first Nizam to pawn the family jewels when the treasury ran dry. His was not the first royal succession to be mired in dispute. In the late nineteenth century The Times described Hyderabad as ‘perhaps the greatest hotbed of intrigue in all India.’ When Jah came to the throne in 1967, little, if anything, had changed.
Over seven generations from 1724, the Nizams created a state that would rival Mecca in importance as a centre for Islamic learning, and eclipse Constantinople as a repository of the Islamic world’s cultural and spiritual legacy. In the detritus of the Mughal Empire arose a kingdom that played a central role in the struggle for supremacy in south India between the British and the French, determined the outcome of the Mutiny and challenged newly independent India’s right to impose its sovereignty over its princely states.
The Nizams became the most faithful allies of the British Raj and amassed more riches than all the other princely states in India put together. And then, in one man’s lifetime, almost all would be lost. Not on the battlefield; not in Hyderabad’s attarscented palaces-but among the dusty red paddocks of a sheep station that bordered the same Indian Ocean the Nizams’ Dominions once touched.
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