The princess diaries
From Indian to London, Pakistan, Spain and finally America, life has been a journey of privilege, passion and pitched battles for Mehrunissa of Rampur, discovers Vatsala Kaul
The princess of yesteryear walks in unannounced. You have been conjuring up a morphed image of a bejeweled princess, caged in India, feted in London, celebrated in Pakistan, persecuted in Spain, and finally freed in America. But Mehrunissa of Rampur aka Begum Rahim Khan is not going to fit into any mould of your making. As she walks into the room, all 71 plucky, eventful years of her, clad in a chrome yellow salwar-kameez shining off her translucent skin, a multitude of thin gold bangles on one wrist, and the mascara carelessly leaving her eyelashes to settle on her lids, you can see that she is willing to be only what she is.
She carries her heritage like a treasured bauble from childhood, often throwing it up mischievously and always catching it back in her cupped palms with proud delight.
"I have led an interesting life," she announces in impeccable Waverley-Convent English. Then she corrects herself. "I AM leading an interesting life." Of course, you are not surprised to hear that she is writing her autobiography – in unusual third person though – with lines like 'Mehru said this' and 'Mehru did that'. Her life as the only child of the beloved but unofficial third queen of the Nawab of Rampur, growing up in the Nursery Block of the Khas Bagh Palace in Rampur, has no linear link to her now teaching Urdu and Hindi at the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington DC. Instead, her life goes spinning and spiraling like a wondrous whirlwind through a bad marriage in Lucknow, a sudden ticket to London, a huge and deep love for a Pakistani Air Force officer, a forced fleeing to Spain and at last asylum in America.
Now she is back in India after 10 years, after briefly visiting family and friends in Pakistan. "My life as a princess was so computerized," she says. "Everything was controlled – who you met, when you went to see your father for adaab, when you would read, or shoot, or play." But it was also a privileged life. "We were brought up with the classical ragas and gayaki of Ustaad Mushtaq Hussain and Ustaad Ahmad Jaan Thirkwa. We grew up in cotton wool, and never heard anyone raise their voice. Of course, I never saw the inside of a kitchen. I can pick up a gun more easily than a ladle!"
Part of the programming meant that the princess was groomed to marry whoever was chosen for her. Her marriage in early 1954 to Sayed Ali Naqi, a Lucknow attorney, was as lavish as a royal wedding could be – her jewellery box was two feet high and four feet wide, with trays of gold, silver and precious gems. However, it turned out to be a miserable marriage between two incompatible people and her husband kept asking for keys to her dowry box. After the birth of two children – a girl, Zeba, and a boy, Zain – she rebelled and left her husband, upsetting her father. A bitter three-year-long divorce case later, she flew to London in 1962 where her younger brother lived.