March 2013 – GQ India*
It’s not quite 11pm, but we’ve already been at Centre Point – Shillong’s best-known nightspot – for at least three hours. Despite the brilliantly backlit bar, the room glows with a dim, lurid light somewhere between crimson and burgundy. It’s a cold weekday night in early winter and most of the tables are empty save for a cluster of presumptive tourists looking out large picture windows over the illumined labyrinth of Meghalaya’s hill station capital. I step outside for a minute or two, and by the time I come back in, I find not one, but two extra shots sitting next to my still half-full gin and tonic.
His Royal Highness the Maharajah Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barman, the 186th Maharajah of Tripura, is presiding with spectacular generosity over his not-quite-round table, occupied by a photographer, a PR guy, a friend, her cousin and me. He regales us with stories of his varied escapades with Axl Rose (yes, that Axl Rose), including an ignominious early jaunt to LA that involved a 10-hour binge and nearly being off-loaded from a home-bound flight because he was ‘reeking of alcohol – but then, how do you say no to Axl?”
“You should go out and drink with Axl,” he grins, toasts and laughs (is he joking or serious?) with pretty-much-literally irresistible bonhomie. I throw back my drink, pour the next one and bite into a pork momo. If I wanted to, I could tell him with complete impunity that I can’t stand Guns N Roses (for instance), but I’ve learned in the last couple days not to bother with ‘No, thank you’.
Since sitting down, the Maharajah has expounded on the merits of American higher education (he’d given a talk at Harvard a few weeks earlier) and of maintaining a good sense of humor about yourself, something he does expertly. He’s made sweeping gestures with an apparently auto-replenishing Jack-and-Coke, sketching out the borders of his native state, which sticks like a thorn into Bangladesh’s eastern flank, and lamenting the sorry state of immigration policy there. “It’s infiltration,” he says with wide eyes and a dramatic pause, “not immigration.”
Back in Tripura he wears a somber poker face to match his politician’s kurta pyjama, but in Shillong, over emptying plates and accumulating shot glasses, he’s dynamic, jocular and courtly, a Jack-of-all-Trades and a Master of Ceremonies.
The next morning, not quite as bright and early as we’d intended, Pradyot asks with an insinuating laugh and raised eyebrows, “How’d’you feel this morning?” I respond with a chuckle that may sound more like a groan as he lopes jauntily toward the Palace; I’m doing my best just to keep up. The Maharajah lives according to a schedule that exists only in his own head – if it exists anywhere at all – and despite being frequently surrounded by other people, he moves essentially in isolation, as he has since childhood. The best you can do is tag along.
“Sometimes I get the whole silver spoon thing. But what can I do? I’m a royal – I didn’t send in an application. But do I behave like a royal?” he asks. Consider, he seems to say, the earring and the leather boots, the palace rooms full of music and sports memorabilia, the easy manner and accessibility and total lack of snobbishness.
After a pause, he answers himself: “I don’t,” he says, as though no one else were there to respond.
* * *
Pradyot certainly grew up like a Maharajah. Though technically the family title went into retirement in 1949 when Pradyot’s grandmother, acting as Regent for his father, signed a merger agreement with the new Indian state, those close to Pradyot and the tribals who once fell under the jurisdiction of the Tripuri crown still use it.
The family’s summer palace in Shillong, where Pradyot spent most of his boyhood, is a splendid, 116-room Art Deco showpiece. An enormous carpet stitched together from square tiles of tiger hide – from beasts hunted by his grandfather before that sort of thing was totally verboten – runs the length of the entrance hall, and the handful of rooms in regular use house centuries-old engraved elephant tusks, Balinese murti and signed portraits of Rabindranath Tagore and FDR, Hitler and Mussolini. (“When my grandfather traveled, he met some nice people and some not-so-nice people,” is the standard, obligatory quip.) These days, he’s the only member of the family who takes up regular residence here. When he’s away, his once-and-future caretaker, Peggy, puts everything under lock and key.
A crumpled old woman swaddled in a heavy woolen shawl, Peggy nearly disappears into her surroundings. Entering the palace for the first time, I might have missed her completely had it not been for Pradyot’s greeting of “Peggy Maaaaahtin!” bellowed down the hall. He strides up to her with typical swagger and throws his arm around what I guess must be her shoulders, though it’s hard to say beneath all that fabric. Her round face is haggard but bright, her laugh splintered but mirthful, as he beams down at her. She refers to Pradyot as “my son”.
Peggy has been with the family for decades and personally oversaw Pradyot’s upbringing while his parents, both of them politicians, traveled between Delhi, Agartala (Tripura’s dusty, paddy-fringed capital), and Calcutta, with visits to Shillong when time allowed. Of his four older sisters, now all married outside the Northeast, only the two youngest played any regular role in his youth. And while the King (if asked) cites his father as an important role model, he also says he never fully appreciated him until inheriting his title in 2006 at the age of 34.
His official duties now take him more and more often to Tripura, but here in his childhood home in Shillong Peggy still cooks for him every night, and he keeps 107 dogs for company. His favorite – the late Mixu, an Alsatian and Doberman mutt – is tattooed on his left shoulder. A trio of massive St. Bernards stay with Peggy in her room and keep her up all night; she frets more about finding trustworthy staff to help her manage the palace. And, of course, there’s the question of heirs.
“I say, I will die and you will not get married. I want to see the little thing,” Peggy says once the King is safely out of earshot; she no longer broaches this topic with him. When I ask later, Pradyot tells me he’ll start looking for a bride in 2014 – after (smirk, laugh, nudge nudge) his trip to see the World Cup in Brazil.
Peggy worries, too, about who will care for her boy once she dies. She has, after all, committed the better part of her 86 years to raising Pradyot practically on her own.
It seems she had her work cut out for her. “Very naughty he was in the school. He used to fight and all,” Peggy shakes her head. She recalls the phone calls she received from Pradyot’s instructor at St. Edmund’s School, Brother Eric D’Souza, who would complain that the young Maharaj used his title as an excuse not to perform simple tasks. “The father used to say ‘Why he says he’s a Maharajah?’ and I say, ‘Why not? He is a Maharajah’s son.’ ” (When we spoke, Father D’Souza would only comment: “His favorite part of school was the field, there’s no question”.) When Pradyot’s father questioned her coddling, Peggy says she’d tell him “Don’t interfere! Let me raise my child.”
Some combination of Peggy’s indulgence and Pradyot’s dubious scholasticism endowed him, as an adult, with an extraordinary confidence that he applies to a stupefying array of interests. His five-year-old regional news magazine, The Northeast Today, has a circulation of about 50,000, the largest of any magazine in the region. At various points in our conversations he describes himself as ‘a journalist’, at others as ‘a businessman’. According to his Wikipedia page, he is “an upcoming political leader and media magnet” [sic].
He’s just as likely to refer to himself as a musician. Like nearly everyone in the Northeast, Pradyot grew up with rock and blues; unlike others, he’s had the means of establishing friendships with some of his heroes, namely Axl Rose and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, who performed at St. Edmund’s for Pradyot’s 30th birthday. In his rooms at the Shillong Palace – white-walled and strewn with papers, more like a college dorm than a King’s sitting room – he keeps a guitar signed by the original line-up of Guns N Roses.
He is an old-fashioned hobbyist King – dabbling also in photography and sports, history and law – and a remarkably successful one at that. He may not be a master instrumentalist (I watched him stumble wincingly through a few bars of Für Elise), but he has cannily targeted the regional audience for his publication and established a successful boutique hotel adjacent to the Shillong Palace. He has a small financial stake in a local football club and has begun an expansion of the palace property to include a café, performance space and small rock’n’roll museum.
This serves him well in Shillong, where he resembles an eccentric millionaire more than an aristocrat. In Tripura, he sheds his slouchy hill station sweaters in favor of a politician’s kurta pyjama. “Politics is not a profession,” he tells me in Shillong, but in Agartala he leaves behind some of his less kingly hobbies. Heavy Metal is hardly polo, after all.
* * *
It takes over two weeks and at least three changes of schedule – his, not mine – for me to arrive in Tripura. When I turn up at the Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala, I find the Maharajah holding court once again. He sits with at least eight members of his team (a euphemism for entourage) amidst the regal asymmetry of his drawing room, surrounded by stern oils of three previous Maharajahs, shabby couches with rumpled slipcovers, carved lattice screens and big vases from a dynasty ending in –ing. He’s not gesturing so much now and there are certainly no drinks on the table; instead of warm and mischievous, his face is stoic and wan. The King is at work.
Today, the role of the Northeast’s last surviving dynasty is largely ceremonial, save for jurisdiction over territorial and cultural disputes within the indigenous communities that historically fell under the crown. Like his mother and father before him, Pradyot entered politics as a member of the Congress Party, despite the better part of the State government being ruled by the Bengali-dominated Communist Party, in order “to bring a certain amount of change in the lives of our people,” Pradyot says.
“In the northeast we have the problem of alienation. Not from the rest of India, but from our own history and our own past,” he had told me weeks earlier in Shillong. In Tripura, indigenous peoples constitute an ever-shrinking minority, now barely a third of the state’s total population. Tripura has better connectivity with Bangladesh than it does with the rest of India, its political leadership is largely of Bengali descent, and until five years ago, towns and villages just 30 kms outside the capital had no electricity and served as bastions for a tribal secessionist movement.
Today, that movement has been largely quashed, yet the only national highway that enters the state – a strip of broken asphalt through lush hills bristling with stubbly green pineapple plantations – is still overseen by armed guards and military checkpoints. With the collapse of the so-called underground about a decade ago, the indigenous population lost what little political clout it had left.
In his capacity as King, the Maharajah contributes funds out of pocket for ambulances, schools and monasteries in the indigenous hinterlands, and has personally funded the higher education of a few promising indigenous youths. Pradyot’s role in Congress (recently resigned due to issues with local party leadership) allows him to serve as “the bridge between the tribals and the non-tribals,” says Sunil Kalai, Pradyot’s right-hand man in Agartala and one of the recipients of his largesse.
All this translates to a pretty punishing schedule. On my first full day in Agartala, Pradyot holds at least five long meetings before noon, with regional Congress leaders encouraging him to reconsider his resignation (he doesn’t), and with local tribal groups seeking funding or intercession with the powers-that-be on their behalf. By mid-afternoon we’re running nearly an hour late for a program at Holy Cross College that the King has already cancelled twice before. At least I know not to take the constant rescheduling personally.
More than 200 students, a majority of them from tribal communities, have assembled, each intoning “Welcome Your Highness” as we ascend the stairs to the fourth-floor auditorium. The kids fidget loudly throughout the program (I fidget when the school Principal publicly solicits the King for a gift of land to expand the school), but when Pradyot stands to deliver his remarks, something changes: they quiet down and he becomes as vivid and charismatic as he had been that night at Centre Point, perhaps because this audience is possessed of a youthful vibrancy that reflects his own. Particularly for a man who happily admits to his lack of early academic distinction, Pradyot remains a perpetual student, energetic and sometimes goofy and infectiously optimistic.
“If you’re not good at anything, look at Maharajah,” he tells the kids partway through his remarks. They laugh, the kids and the Maharajah together. “I’m joking,” he adds, “but I’m serious.”
*Above is my final edit, about 300 words longer than the final version that appeared in GQ.