Palace intrigues and disdain of history

All kinds of hanger-ons abound the Governor's estate, enough to reduce it to no more than a five-star hotel

Palace intrigues and disdain of history

Recently I spent some time with a friend who happens to be governor of a state. I was always curious to know what a governor does, or does not do, and his invitation to deliver a lecture came in very handy. I stayed almost a week in his hideout, a palace really, and finished my book on which I had been working for years.

The state governor's job in India is perhaps the cushiest of them all, and, as I told my friend, his invitation is a kind of five-star holiday, all expenses paid. You are telling me, he said, as if the job is a kind of punishment, but I never saw him do anything except preside over some meetings and entertain assorted guests of meals which sometimes went on for ever. Incidentally, he had put on quite a lot of weight since I had last seen him in a bookshop in Connaught Place, Delhi, haggling with the owner over the price, but that was a long time ago.

Now he presided over a state from a palace that was strategically placed over an escarpment, with valleys on either side and turbulent rivers through them as they poured headlong into the Arabian Sea. There was much noise and, of course, huge mountains of spray as the rivers clashed and disappeared into the sea. Every morning, I saw the spectacle from my room, though my friend had no time for such frivolities just as he had no time for anything but politics.

The palace was about five hundred years old, but well preserved for all its years. The first man to conquer a piece of India had lived there but his portraits had now been removed, though some things remained. I was told that the room I slept in was actually his bedroom, and so perhaps was the giant bed. The idea I was sleeping in a foreign general's massive rosewood bed was enough to leave me sleepless, but gradually I got used to it.

I realised during the course of the week that my friend was actually running a five-star hotel, and many of his guests were unknown to him.

At dinner time, I met them all -- governors of other states, ministers from Delhi, including one who was not quite familiar with the knives and forks laid out before him and who begged to instruct him in the niceties of dining room etiquette, and, of course, the usual crowd of hangers-on who have an eye for freebies. I met them all at the dinner table, and sometimes at breakfast, when some of them seemed to be not quite awake, and were not too happy at the so-called "western" meal served to them which seemed a little too light in calories for the hard work they would put in as the day progressed.

Since I had not much to do except go over any book and correct the proofs, I used to wonder over the governor's estate, and, of course, the palace, under the watchful eyes of the armed constabulary which watched my every step. There were also signs of the previous foreign occupants. There was a church, a little out of place under the new dispensation, and armloads of guns and rifles, some of them going back to the sixteenth century. You felt you had suddenly skipped centuries and were carried back to the times Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in search of spices and the trade winds had transported him north along the Malabar coast to Goa and beyond. You fest you were back in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, among the Marathas lying in wait in the mountains to take their revenge on the foreign marauders.

But my friend had little use for such things and could not even speak the local language. His guests were so busy with their schedules they didn't much care for local history either. For them, one Raj Bhavan was as good as another, and the spectable of the two rivers at the bottom of the valley made no impression. Whenever I tried to draw them into history, they looked the other way, and left in their white Ambassadors!

The day I left, I felt I was leaving history behind, but my friend was relieved. He could now go back to his dinner guests and their scented ladies, and the usual gossip about Delhi. Politicians will always be politicians!

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