My Muslim Prince Iqbal
My first encounter with Iqbal was at the farewell party of Phil’s predecessor, on the 3rd floor of the Windmere apartments in South Bombay. It would be our home for the next four years. We were still living in Sydney at the time.
Iqbal was sitting in an arm chair at a corner, with lots of cushions around him. His walking stick was on the floor next to his chair. Iqbal looked out of place at the party where beautiful people dressed up like Bollywood movie stars, drinking wine and smoking cigars. Iqbal was Muslim but he didn’t seem to mind the excessive alcohol around him.
When Iqbal realized we were to move into Windmere in a couple of months to become his neighbour upstairs, he handed me his name card and grabbed my hands tightly: “This is wonderful. Most welcome. If you have any questions about Bombay, don’t hesitate, just pick up the phone and call me. Or send your servants downstairs to my door.”
I looked at his card: Iqbal Mohammad Khan, Nawab of Palanpur. Windmere, Cuffee Parade, Bombay.
I thought: “Is this what people do here? If I had my name card printed like this, will the postman find me among 20 million people?”
It was the fourth day after I landed chaotic Bombay from picturesque Sydney, after seeing shoeless child beggars wondering everywhere and the “untouchable” picking through garbage piles. I looked at the dandruff on Iqbal’s worn jacket and wondered: “A royalty? Is he for real?”
It turned out Iqbal was the first, and only, royalty I’ve ever known in my life.
Iqbal’s English was excellent without much of an Indian accent and he carried some kind of air which showed his upbringing. But still, I was a little uncomfortable being held by his dry snake skin like hands.
It was difficult to have a conversation with Iqbal at a noisy party. His hearing was almost gone and he could not sit for too long due to the old age. After a while his servant came upstairs to pick him up.
Iqbal struggled to get up from the arm chair and stood for a few seconds to find strength on his legs. I didn’t think I’d met anyone physically older than him. Before we parted, he emphasized again that I must ring him if I ever needed anything.
The term Nawab came from Urdu. It meant deputy originally, meaning the deputy of God. Muslim rulers adopted the term to show respect to God. During the British colonial time, Hindu Maharajas and Muslim Nawabs were rulers of the Princely States, managing India for the British Empire until India’s independence in 1947.
These Princely States were independent from each other, with their own laws and currencies, and were categorized by the number of gun salutes up to 21. Iqbal, who was the crown prince at the time, said his father’s state Palanpur had 13 gun salutes.
The last ruler of Palanpur, Iqbal’s father, was so respected by the people that Iqbal was even coronated as the Nawab ten years after the Indian independence. Palanpur is the origin of most of Idian’s diamond traders so Iqbal was still highly respected by many Palunpuris, especially in the diamond business.
A lot of these I only came to know quite a long time after I met Iqbal. At the time I thought there were so many royalties in India and anyone could call himself some kind of royalty. Little did I know he was a real prince.
After we moved into Windmere, Iqbal called every now and then to check if everything was all right. He liked to say: “Is everything ok? If you need anything, just tell me. Don’t forget I am your best friend in Bombay.” So this best friend of ours in Bombay got us into the posh Cricket Club of India just like that.
Iqbal knew everything about us, although he could hardly move or hear. His servants were his spies watching for him from his balcony, for every movement of everyone in Windmere.
He knew exactly when Phil was on a work trip. He called to say hello regularly, timed precisely ten minutes after I stepped into our flat. His servant bowed to me with great respect in the lobby: “Good morning madam!” I was the new girlfriend of the Nawab!
I bet Iqbal missed his time as the crown price. The spoiled, carefree and flirtatious prince would go on a shopping trip in London, play tennis with the Malaysian King and have high tea with the Queen… Now he sat in an armchair, counting on his servants who would came to him on the ring of a brass bell.
Iqbal became the Nawab in 1957, 10 years after India’s independence. There was no fun being a Nawab in a republic! I’d still like to think he was the crown prince. After all he lived the life of a prince but only had the title of a Nawab. More importantly, “prince” fitted better with my silly romantic imagination.
One day Iqbal invited me for tea. His flat was about the same size as ours. The huge living room was full of European style furniture and the carpet, which Iqbal told me later was from his palace in Palanpur, was bigger than the gigantic living room that it curled at the edges. Everything was old, but it was not hard to tell their history and value.
It was a bit surreal after I followed Iqbal’s servant into the living room on my first of countless visits in the next four years. The curtains on the balcony were drawn as Iqbal’s eyes did not agree with the strong Indian sun. Sitting with his back against the blocked sunlight, Iqbal was a dark shadow sunk in an armchair. I rushed forward to shake hands with him after he tried in vain to stand up to greet me.
I sat down next to Iqbal and he pointed to a picture on a side table: “This was my wife. She passed away a few years ago.” I waited for him to carry on talking but he stopped, looking at the picture without a word. I sat still, looking around the room from the corner of my eyes.
Next to his late wife’s picture was one of a young Iqbal in navy uniform. With his Afghan roots, he looked handsome and dashing. There were also a few portraits on the wall. I guessed they were his father and grandfather, both in lavish royal outfits holding big curved long swords.
Iqbal came back to reality after a while and rang the brass bell on the small table next to him. A bare-foot servant with a towel on the shoulder appeared at the kitchen door. Iqbal nodded at him and he quietly disappeared into the kitchen.
The servant soon came out again with tea and biscuits on a big silver tray. European tea set, cocktail napkins, butter biscuits, totally English. I was hoping for steamy masala tea and some oily Bombay chaat!
We sipped tea and chatted, very civilized. Iqbal asked after Phil, work at Reuters, my family in Taipei and Phil’s family in the UK. He also wanted to know if Alka and Asha worked for us as hard as his servants for him: “They are your servants. You do not let them go early every day,” he said.
Iqbal once scolded me for letting the maids go at 5pm. He said they should stay until after 8pm, at least after we had dinner. He said we were too soft
I did not expect such good memory and alertness when I reached 90 like Iqbal, but even now I could not remember as much as he could! I think he had two sons and a daughter but I could not remember where they were or what they did. I quickly asked in return: “How’s your family? Everything’s ok?” That should cover everyone.
Moving from domestic affairs we started to talk about problems in this messy world. It was a time when tensions between India and Pakistan were running high. Iqbal sighed: “I never agreed with the Partition. They should never have separated India and Pakistan. I voiced my objection at the last dinner I had at Lord Mounbatten’s residence and I still maintain this view. That was a wrong decision.”
I was not convinced. Lord Mountbatten? He was talking about having dinner with the last British governor in India?
I told Phil about my tea with Iqbal that night. He thought I should ask Iqbal to show me some pictures to confirm what he said. To see is to believe! I loved talking to Iqbal over tea. The only thing I did not like was holding his hands which never failed to remind me of dry snake skin.
This was the beginning of my four-year affair with the Muslim prince.
I still remembered those countless afternoons in the Indian summer heat. I sat in Iqbal’s dark living room, with the giant old ceiling fan squeaking for oil, cedars singing in the mango trees and cars honking on narrow, bustling streets outside Windmere. Iqbal would tell me story after story during his royal days in his palace.
In those afternoons, I boarded Iqbal’s time machine slowly travelling back in time, through Bombay slums and garbage piles, through child beggars clinging to open taxi windows, through bare-foot boys playing cricket by some half-collapsed buildings. All of a sudden the dust settled and all the garbage disappeared. Everything around me turned tidy, clean and beautiful, and I was back in Iqbal’s India half a century ago, in his palace and his life as a crown prince.
One day I asked Iqbal for some old pictures. He rang his brass bell to call a servant to bring me some. There was one with Iqbal walking behind Queen Elisabeth and Prince Philip. In another he was standing behind Prince Philip. I was very sure at Iqbal’s age he could not do photoshop. He did not even know how to use a computer. The faded, worn red leather covers of the photo album told the past glory of Iqbal’s life. These pictures were real!
After India’s independence in 1947, Iqbal, being tall, handsome and familiar with royal protocol, was assigned as one of the five ADCs (Aide-de-camp) to the Indian President. I could not believe my eyes when I first looked at the pictures. The old man with dandruff on his worn jacket in front of me was the dashing ADC receiving royalties for India?
Iqbal, very flattered by my unpretending surprise, smiled: “It was not just royal families I received for the President. Once I received Eisenhower for him. You know Eisenhower right? He was the American President. “
In Phil’s eyes, 90-year-old Iqbal was extremely clever, in addition his incredible memory, that he showed me just two pictures each time so I would go back to him again and again for more.
“You want to see more pictures?” he would ask me. I beamed: “Yes Iqbal. Show me some more next time.”
Iqbal had bad knees and he blamed the frantic tennis playing when he was young. Since I stopped doubting Iqbal’s royal blood, I could sense some trace of his background in our conversations. Who could afford playing tennis in India more than half a century ago?
Once the Malaysian King visited India and heard that Iqbal was a keen tennis player. He asked Iqbal for a game before some formal function. “The Malaysian King did not bring his tennis shoes with him so I had to lend him mine. We quickly had a game before his function. It was a good game we had,” Iqbal said while I listened with my mouth open.
When Iqbal felt up to it, we were his guests to all his clubs in Bombay, including the Cricket Club of which we were members because of him. He once said jokingly: “Try and see if anyone will let you pay when you are out with me.” I knew I didn’t have to try. Everyone knew the Nawab of Palanpur and I was sure I would not be able to do anything without his consent.
A friend just moved to Bombay and I arranged a dinner with Iqbal. Phil joked about it all the time that I was the pimp for Iqbal. Iqbal liked to make new friends, especially journalists and it would be even better even it was a lady journalist! I did not mind that at all. People were always thrilled to meet Iqbal anyway. What was the chance to meet a Nawab in real life? Not to mention that he had so many interesting stories to tell.
We met at the Cricket Club for dinner and were really enjoying the conversation about Iqbal’s life as a crown prince in Palanpur. As the waiters presented some succulent kebabs, I asked him what the best meat was he’d ever had.
Iqbal wiped the yellow dahl off his hand and pondered: “Let me think… You see, I am Muslim so I do not eat pork. Therefore I can only compare meats other than pork…” I was puzzled. This was not rocket science!
We started to talk about a recent incident that panthers were found in the northern suburbs of Bombay and killed a few people. This was nothing unusual to local people but to us it was extremely strange. In a crowded city of 20 million people, there were panthers running around killing people?
As we started to make up all sorts of ridiculous theories why it happened, Iqbal stopped his hand reaching out for a chapatti. He said loud and clear: “Peacock.” What did peacocks have anything to do with panthers killing people in the suburbs? Iqbal took a chapatti from the basket and said slowly: “Didn’t you ask me what the best meat was I’ve ever had? I say peacock. It is the best meat I’ve ever had in my life.”
It was not just the friend but Phil and me as well, we all dropped our jaws.
“How do you eat it?” I asked stupidly. Iqbal dipped his chapatti in the mutton curry and said patiently, as if he was explaining to someone from the countryside: “Of course you cook it before you eat it. You can make kebabs or curries and all sorts of dishes. I think peacock kebabs are the best. Peacock meat is so tender and juicy…”
Our friend had just landed Bombay and had no idea how different India could be from the world she was familiar with. Was he talking about peacocks in the zoo, on the Discovery Travel and Living channel, on postcards? I thought the friend was about to throw up.
Iqbal knew very well that none of us had ever tried peacock meat so he started to describe in detail how to choose the peacock, how to marinate the meat and what kind of herbs to cook it with. Phil and I tried very hard not to laugh. We knew very well that Iqbal could not stop now. A small prompt of his past could lead to three hours of story-telling. We could be sitting at the Cricket Club all night.
I tried to divert the conversation after a while and asked: “Iqbal, what do you think about the panthers in the northern suburbs? Have you seen a panther before?” Iqbal wiped his mouth and reached for another chapati: “Of course I have. My wife’s favourite sport was panther hunting.”
Our friend from America was about to faint now: “What hunting did you say?” Iqbal’s eyes brightened straight away, his story-telling passion was rejuvenated: “Panther hunting!”
“You see, my wife at that time was a young lady, just like you two. I wouldn’t want her to work too hard on that. I told my servants to arrange a few goats on the path panthers would normally come and we just waited. Very soon the panthers came for the goats and it was easy for my wife to shoot them.”
I remembered once Iqbal showed me a picture of one palace banquet. There were a few pieces of animal skin on the wall. Tigers or panthers?
Iqbal continued: “Once we shot 13 panthers in one hunting trip. That was a good day.” Our friend looked politely disgusted as Iqbal carried on: “You see, my wife was a little nervous when she first went panther hunting. Once a panther showed up and she shot straight at the poor goat next to the panther!”
“But she was not afraid at all and got better and better in panther shooting,” Iqbal said proudly. “Still I told my servants to leave more goats there on the path otherwise it was no fun for my wife. What’s the fun to shoot goats only?”
Our animal-loving friend at this point pushed away her knife and fork and did not touch any food for the rest of the dinner.
After dinner Ravi, Iqbal’s driver for 20 years, spent five minutes to sit Iqbal into his car outside the Cricket Club. Iqbal rolled down the window with great effort to wave us goodbye vigorously, as if we lived in another city though we were both going back to Windmere, to the 2nd floor and the 3rd floor.
We waved back at him heartily until his car disappeared into the polluted, bustling Bombay night. Phil turned to me and asked: “You are not going to call him a dirty old man anymore are you?”
Of course not! He is my dearest Muslim prince!