Feasting on the Maharaja’s meal

First Print 28 Oct 18

 

NK SINGH

Madhavrao Scindia was one of the most charming political personalities of Madhya Pradesh. The scion of Gwalior’s former royal family was suave and cultured, with a twinkle in his eyes and an easy smile. Once you knew him, it was impossible to dislike him.

He was also one of the wealthiest politicians of his times. The Scindia Empire was the biggest and the richest princely state in MP. They enjoyed the highest 21-gun salute under the British, a privilege they shared with only four other princes in the country.

The Member of Parliament from Gwalior lived in an imposing palace and flew a chopper, making his election campaigns irresistible to journalists looking for colourful copy and glamour quotient in an otherwise drab landscape.

That is how I landed in the one-horse town of Dabra, near Gwalior, early that winter morning in 1998. I was working for India Today then. My photo journalist colleague Sharad Saxena accompanied me on that trip.

We had left our hotel in Gwalior before dawn, without having even a cup of tea, as the campaign trail was supposed to move from Dabra at 7.30 in the morning. Scindia emerged from his room in Dabra’s government guest house at 8, ready to hit the road, and was apparently surprised to see us waiting.“It is too early in the campaign,” he said, “you should have come after 10-15 days.”

“We have an early deadline for the magazine,” I explained.” I requested for an interview and he promised to meet us later in the day.

I had known Madhavrao Scindia for more than two decades, covering his politics, including his journey from Jana Sangh to Congress to Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress and then finally back to the Congress before his unfortunate death in an air crash in 2001.

I had also written extensively about his protracted and bitter battle for the vast property and riches of the erstwhile princely State with his mother.

Chasing the Congress candidate from one dusty town to another, from one non-descript village to another, soon it was close to noon. We started getting hunger pangs. But there was no time to find an eatery as the entourage was moving at a breakneck speed.

“Does not this man feel hungry,” Sharad wondered.

“May be, he had his breakfast at the rest house,” I told him.

It was well past midday when the candidate needed to use the loo and freshen up. He decided to stop at a dak bungalow. He also called us to his room for the interview.

As we sat down for the interview, Scindia asked his personal security officer, who doubled up as assistant, to serve food. I felt so happy. Sharad also perked up. But the Maharaja dropped the bombshell: “Do you mind NK if I finish my food while we have this interview.”

“No, Maharaj, please go ahead,” what else I could have said! I always used to address him respectfully as Maharaj in an association that spanned over two decades. Despite being in politics for over a quarter century, Scindia was a typical Maharaja, who liked to maintain his distance from the hoi-polloi.

The burly security man produced a huge basket that contained at least a dozen food packets from Usha Kiran Palace, the 5-star hotel that shares the royal campus with Scindia’s Jai Vilas Palace. Scindia opened several of these, peeked inside and selected a packet that contained finely cut cucumber sandwiches and finger chips. He had his first bite and said: “Shoot.”

The security guard/ attendant hovered in the background, uncertainty writ large over his face, hoping that Scindia may ask the food to be served to others. But the Maharaja kept eating and answering my questions.

As the interview was about to conclude, he beckoned the security guard who again produced the basket for the royal inspection. Scindia rummaged through it, looking into one packet after another and then finally, dissatisfied, asked the basket to be removed.

As I shut down my notebook, he asked me the question that every politician on election trail asks journalists after the formal interview is over: “How do you find the situation?”

A reporter learns the art of survival quite early in his career. Following the VIP politicians on whirlwind election trails in the dusty hinterland has its challenges. At times it becomes as important to arrange for food for oneself as it is to ferret out information for your readers. I was a shameless veteran.

“Maharaj, you were telling us that we have come early for the coverage. But I feel that you have come early too.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have already won the election, Maharaj. You nurse your constituency so well. There was no need for you to start the campaign so early. You can win even if you don’t come here at all.”

The prince was visibly pleased with the feedback: “No, no NK, an election is an election. I take all elections very seriously.” A nine-time Lok Sabha member, Madhavrao had never lost an election. He had once defeated even a heavyweight like Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, the former Prime Minister.

Suddenly the Maharaja turned his gaze towards the waiting security man: Inko khane ke liye nahi pucha? Packet bache hai?” He asked us: “Will you like something to eat?”

Needless to add, we devoured his food.

First Print 28 October 2018

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