I could solve the mystery of the hookah. One morning in March 1931 when I was a schoolgoing boy of 16, I saw a conclave of maharajas standing in the circle adjoining Parliament House on Sansad Marg. There was no mistaking Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. He was the only Sikh in the circle. He was very portly, turbanned and bedecked in jewelled regalia. And he was smoking a massive cheroot. I was taken aback. In later years I discovered that many members of the Patiala ruling family, including Bhupinder Singh's son and successor Yadevendra Singh, the author's father-in-law, were not averse to smoking. Only they avoided doing so when in company of Sikhs. Quite a few Sikhs were, and are, bathroom smokers. In Patiala they don't bother with such niceties. Any evening in the Patiala Club you can see sardars at their card tables puffing cigarettes as they down Patiala pegs of whiskey.
Most Indian rulers regarded themselves above common rules and conventions. Without exception they swore loyalty to the Sarkar-e-Inglishia and were allowed to build large palaces and stock them with wives, concubines and maidservants-cum-mistresses and sired scores of children through them. They owned elephants and thoroughbred horses, kennels of dogs of high pedigree and celebrated matings of dogs and bitches with lavish parties; they amassed jewellery, periodically went to Europe taking large staffs of servants with them. They ran into heavy debts and had to be bailed out by the government.
They enjoyed powers of life and death over their subjects and had no qualms about having people they didn't like bumped off, their estates confiscated, their wives or daughters forced into their seraglios. They did not find it too difficult to host viceroys, governors, residents and visiting English aristocracy, arranging tiger or duck shoots, pig sticking, polo matches, nautch and load them with expensive parting gifts.
The prime example of the princely order at its worst was Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. He was a headstrong bully, a debauch, drunkard, womaniser and philanderer. Nevertheless he became chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, represented India at the Imperial War Council during World War I and the Sikhs at the First Round Table Conference. He also put Indian cricket on a firm wicket, encouraged wrestling with handsome stipends to the families of wrestlers like Gama Rustam-i-Hind and patronised classical music under Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana.
Bhupinder Singh had many traducers. Natwar Singh employs a clever trick of quoting the nastiest things they had to say to arouse the reader's interest and then condemning them as muck-rakers. So right in the first few pages he quotes Freedom at Midnight: "Until the end of the century, it had been the custom of the Maharaja to appear once a year before his subjects naked except for his diamond breastplate, his organ in full and glorious erection. His performance was judged as a kind of temporal manifestation of the Shivalinga. As the Maharaja walked about, his subjects gleefully applauded, their cheers acknowledging both the dimensions of the princely organ and the fact that it was supposed to be radiating magic powers to drive evil spirits from the land. "
Earlier, John Gunther in his Inside Asia had this to say: "If the Nizam of Hyderabad is known as His Exalted Highness, the old Maharaja of Patiala was called his Exhausted Highness. He had a prodigious harem and a considerable part of his activity was the acquisition of young ladies to freshen it. In 1930 the Patiala Enquiry Committee appointed by the Indian State's Peoples Conference wrote a strong report charging the old Maharaja with most crimes and sins in the calendar, from lechery to murder."
Though Bhupinder Singh was exonerated of these charges by a one-man committee of his choice, there was nothing loveable about His Highness. He supported General Dyer's killing of 379 innocent men at Jallianwala Bagh, he wormed his way into the top echelons of the Akali party only to sow seeds of discord and keep the government informed of their plans. All he wanted in return was to have the 17-gun salute given to him raised to 19, a few more medals and titles to go with his name. He ended by being Lt Gen, His Highness, Farzand-i-khas, Daulat-i-Inglishia, Mansur-i-Zaman Amir-ul-Umra, Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajesh-war Sir Maharaj-i-Rajgan Sir Bhupinder Singh Mahinder Bahadur GCSI, GCIE, GBE, ADC, Maharaja of Patiala.
Natwar Singh does not tell us how may wives, concubines and mistresses adorned the Maharaja's seraglio and how many children he sired. His acknowledged progeny numbered over 80: any healthy man given the same opportunities to service as many women could have easily matched this.
Bhupinder Singh was a complex character, an excellent subject for a psychiatrist or a writer of fiction. Unfortunately, his biographer is neither. Natwar Singh is the chronicler of events with far too many interests to be able to do justice to as colourful a character as Bhupinder Singh. So we are told how many times the Maharaja went to Buckingham Palace, heads of European countries he called on and the upcoming fascist dictators he met. Some of the speeches he delivered are reproduced and make for tedious reading.
Unfortunately Natwar Singh is an incorrigible name dropper. Besides the letter "K" standing for Kanwar (prince) he is forever reminding us that his wife is a princess, the grand-daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. Being members of the diplomatic corps and because of his closeness to the Nehru-Gandhi family, they too were the elitest of the elite. His self-important air only succeeds in irritating the reader.