The book begins like a fairy tale. Three boys playing in their courtyard. Three visitors arrive and after talking to their parents, take them to the city of Baroda. After a few days, Queen Jamnabai asks the boys if they knew the purpose of their visit. ‘To see the sights of the big city!’ say two of them. But when his turn came, the 13-year-old Gopal looks the queen in the eye and says: ‘I have come to rule the place.’
The queen draws the little boy closer to whisper: ‘For sure you will be king one day, my son.’
From humble beginnings emerged Gopalrao Gaekwad to be renamed Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III at an adoption ceremony. It was the dawn of a new era—an era of happiness and contentment for the people of the state of Baroda that lasted between 1878 and 1939. Not only did it usher in happy times but also raised awareness regarding the importance of education and the power of possessing knowledge.
Sometimes, the narrative teeters dangerously close to becoming a heliography of the House of Baroda but somehow survives the plunge narrowly. How I wish the author had seen the Maharaja of Baroda, Fatehsinghrao Gaekwad’s two palaces in Mussoorie: Dunseverick and Guthrie Lodge atop a hill, 7,200 ft above sea level.
By the 1970s, the abolition of privy purses and the de-recognition of kings was in the air. They decided to demolish the buildings, sell the rubble and try to hold on to the land. When the dust finally settled, our narrow lanes were choked with the remains of the day: beams, cast iron stoves, carpets, crockery, door frames, furniture, metal fireplaces, sofas, timber, tin sheets and all the accoutrements of a house. At an auction, Abdul Salaam, the kabaariwala, bought two side tables, topped by mosaic terracotta brown tops.
‘Kitnay paise? (How much?)’ asked Robert Manning, a geologist passing by.
‘Five thousand!’ haggled our antique dealer, more than happy at the possibility to double his money.
‘Done!’ said the old man. He got a coolie and took them home. Next day, doubt gnawed Salaam. Making his way to Falcon’s Nest, he tried to buy back at least one of the tables. ‘Definitely not!’ said the buyer, adding: ‘These are the largest pieces of Tiger Jasper I have ever seen. How can you possibly put a price on them?’A reasonable read.