The Misadventures of an Indian Prince

Dec 15, 2008
*Special to asia!
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One of the most interesting facets of the story of the 8th Nizam of Hyderabad, His Exalted Highness Prince Barkat Ali Khan Mukarram Jah Asaf Jah VIII, is its literary nature. This might sound strange at first, but closer scrutiny reveals how closely it resembles a classic piece of tragedy.

A loose definition of Classical tragedy involves the downfall and reversal of fortunes of a great personage, due to some serious mistake, culminating in acts and moments of self-discovery, pity and personal catharsis. Aristotle in his 'Poetics' espoused the view that good tragedy has five fundamental elements, hamartia, hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis and catharsis. The Nizam’s story has it all.

Prince Mukarram Jah’s harmatia, or fatal mistake, is painfully obvious. Naively trusting his fa

wning legions of courtiers (14,718 to be exact), he gave them free rein to cheat, swindle and steal from his immense inheritance and was forced into selling heirlooms to stay solvent. His hubris, or pride, overshadowed any possible belief that the money could ever run out. Eventually, disillusioned by the greed, politicking and legal wrangling with estranged relatives over his inheritance, he fled to Australia in 1973.

The Nizam's abandonment of Hyderabad for his Australian adventure is in a sense his peripeteia, or turning point. He indulged in ill-conceived fantasies of heavy machinery, sheep farming, gold mining and all sorts of frivolous enterprises, and when these failed and when the money ran out in 1996, he fled into self-imposed exile to escape having to deal with creditors in the courts. From a royal family once the richest in the world, to a sheep farmer in Perth, and finally to a reclusive diabetic living in Istanbul, how the mighty have fallen!

Good tragedy though, as Aristotle suggests, leaves room for redemption, and to an extent, perhaps the Nizam has achieved this. Perhaps we can see anagnorisis or self-realisation in the way he no longer cares for any of his earlier pomp, circumstance, wealth and ambition. These days he merely seeks to live out his days in Istanbul, simply and humbly, pursuing his passion for Roman ruins.

Perhaps catharsis, or purification and cleansing, have been undertaken already. On his part he has left his past behind him and to quote his ex-wife, Princess Esra, he "lives simply, (and) doesn't love extravagance". On another level, the restoration of his family’s legacy undertaken by Esra has begun to bear fruit. She has settled all the Nizam’s debt and legal conflicts, and with the money from the sale of his jewels, has restored some of the family homes to their past glory.

My teacher once said that "literature is relevant today, because it is a reflection of life." Perhaps she was right after all.


Lim Jin Li is (among other things) a post-graduate student in History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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