The Last Nizam

As the battle for Hyderabad heats up with the Central Government’s proposal to carve out the new state, Telangana, the city might see yet another turning point in its 500-year-old history. A lot has changed in the city of pearls since it became a part of the Indian Union, yet little of the events that preceded and even followed its forceful takeover have ever been documented. And it is this simple fact, if not anything else, that makes you want to read The Last Nizam by John Zubrzycki.

The Sydney-based author is one of the very few people who have met the last Nizam of Hyderabad who is officially known as His Exalted Highness Rustam-i-Dauran, Arustu-i-Zaman, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VIII, Muzaffar ul-Mamaluk, Nizam ul-Mulk, Nizam ud-Daula, Nawab Mir Barakat ‘Ali Khan Bahadur, Sipah Salar, Fatah Jang, Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar, Honorable Lieutenant-General. The titles are plenty, but Zubrzycki finds Mukarram Jah, the heir to the once richest kingdom in the world, in a two-bedroom apartment furnished with glass cases containing royal antiques in Turkey.

Zubrzycki writes, "The Nizams became the most faithful allies of the British Raj and amassed more riches than all the other princely states in India put together. And then, in one man’s lifetime, almost all would be lost. Not on the battlefield; not in Hyderabad’s attar-scented palaces – but among the dusty red paddocks of a sheep station that bordered the same Indian Ocean the Nizams’ Dominions once touched."

Through The Last Nizam, Zubrzycki traces the history of Nizams and Hyderabad – of a state the size of France that was known for its grace, glory, grandeur and gastronomical delights. It talks about how the Nizams built their kingdom, bit by bit, piece by piece with the aid of the Marathas, Mughals and the British. It exposes the rampant corruption and the excesses of the ruling classes – wine, women and wealth – even as the servants and peasants toiled to feed their masters. In 1947, when India became independent, Hyderabad was the last preserve of the Mughal-style feudal aristocracy that seemed straight out of The Arabian Nights.

The state crumbles as the seventh Nizam Osman Ali Khan sees the end of British Raj in India. Keen on self-preservation, he hoards more and more wealth and often extorts it from his visitors in the form of gracious nazars, even as he moves around the corridors of his palace in tattered clothes. The rich man’s quest for an independent nation spoils when India invades Hyderabad. Operation Polo, which killed over 20,000 people, is one of the least documented episodes following the Indian independence. Though Zubrzycki has done well to go through the dusty state archives, he hasn’t managed to get too many details of how the operation took place and the casualties.

From this point the book turns more biographical, documenting the life of the next Nizam, Mukarram Jah, who became a king without a state. Since his taking over as the Nizam in 1967, Jah’s career as a ruler and then a farmer has gone downhill. Plagues by lawsuits, hawked by relatives and misled by his financial advisors, the heir to the world’s greatest fortune fights it out first in the Australian outback and then in a quiet apartment block in Turkey. As the battle for the Nizam’s jewels makes slow progress in courts, Hyderabad sees a quest of a different kind of regional politics.

Zubrzycki’s book is a great way to step back in time and see what went miserably wrong with a state so wealthy and powerful. Hyderabad could be the lesson for democratic India’s political leaders – of how without infrastructural development and internal security, even the best of states can crumble at the show of power. For those who love history, The Last Nizam’s a must-buy. But if you expect a William Dalrymple, you may be left a little disappointed. The book talks a lot about money (especially about how it was swindled or lost), which does tend to get tedious at times. Nevertheless, this well-researched biography of India’s greatest princely state should be on your rack.

Title: The Last Nizam
Author: John Zubrzycki Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 
Pages: 382
Price: Rs 395 

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