‘India thinks Hyderabad cannot be independent, landlocked as we are, surrounded by India on all sides.’ ‘That would be a fair assessment, Your Highness,’ Walter Monckton agreed on a nod.

‘Fair!’ The Nizam harrumphed, slapping a thigh with his right hand. ‘You are aware, Mr Monckton, that we once had a seaport? At Masulipatnam? On the Coromandel coast. From where ships set sail for Burma, Bengal, Cochin, China, Mecca...Of course, Asaf Jah II, in his wisdom, rented it out to the East India Company and that was the last we heard of it.’

The eyes of His Exalted Highness, Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi, Asaf Jah VII, bored into his constitutional adviser with their usual intensity. At such disorienting moments, Walter had a tough time reconciling the sharp knowingness of the Nizam with his general slovenliness. A threadbare sherwani, limp jodhpur trousers, a fez that surely had never been replaced since it first alighted on his exalted head – all encasing a small, spare man with a brush moustache and a mouth full of carious teeth.

His first sight of the Nizam in 1936 had bewildered Walter Monckton, attorney-general to the Prince of Wales. Familiar with the British monarchy, acquainted with Indian royalty – be it the Maharaja of Patiala with the Sans Souci diamond glittering on his clothes, or Dholpur in his gold coat studded with pearls – Walter had travelled 8,000 miles from London to offer advice. Surely this unkempt man in slippers, stooped over a crooked stick, with yellow socks adorned with clocks pooling at his ankles, was not the foremost Indian prince exclusively conferred with the ‘Exalted’ title?

Eleven years on, Walter didn’t need lawyerly acumen to deduce that the Nizam of Hyderabad was intent upon being the Wealthiest Shabbiest Man in the world – which could well be another of his titles.


The Nizam’s high-pitched enquiry snapped Walter to the present. ‘HOW are the talks with the Portuguese progressing, Mr Monckton?’

With Indian independence looming, the Nizam had issued a firman of independence on 11 June. Aware of the danger posed to Hyderabad from being surrounded by Hindu-dominant India, he was anxious to acquire a seaport.

But the Portuguese, skittish at the ending of British colonial rule in India, were in no mood to sell or lease one of their Goa properties, certainly not a chief seaport. Besides, too much water had flown under that bridge since the Nizam had first initiated the idea. Now India would be independent in the coming month; Paramountcy, that ensured Hyderabad was subject to the suzerainty of the British Crown, would lapse; and the British – much to Walter’s chagrin – were abandoning their most faithful ally.

‘Your Highness,’ Walter began, ‘our focus needs to be on ensuring that Hyderabad can remain sovereign after 15 August. As you know, the Plan of 3 June does not clarify explicitly whether Princely States can claim independence. Sir Conrad Corfield of the Political Department was our ally, but the States Department of the Indian government now controls their relations with the princes. And Mr Patel, a most forceful man, is determined to bring the states into India. With the aid of his very supple secretary, V.P. Menon.’

The Nizam waved his right hand in the air, his slender fingers plucking at some unseen chords. ‘I have written to the Viceroy, reminding him that after a century of faithful alliance, I should certainly be able to remain within the family of the British Commonwealth.’ The Nizam’s stentorian voice filled the room, making him appear larger.

‘Even Jinnah says the states are FREE – free to join any dominion they wish, or stay independent!’ At his raised voice, a couple of heads thrust out from behind a heavily curtained doorway.

With their dark features, fierce eyes, and bristling weapons, the Nizam’s Arab Guards impressed Walter with their power and savagery. Wholly devoted to their master and his fabulous wealth – the Nizam’s annual income was purportedly 3 million pounds a year, tax-free – they added to the air of stealth and intrigue that pervaded the ill-lit room.

‘Your Highness, strictly speaking, the Princely States were never part of the Dominions of the Crown. They were in treaty relations to the Crown and under its protection – ’

‘Protection the Viceroy will NOT provide! So we must deal with half-penny, two-penny Indian politicians.’ The staccato bursts kept the Arab Guards’ ferocious heads buoyed within the curtain folds. Walter resorted to a study of his surroundings, an old ploy he’d developed to allow time for the Nizam to finish venting.

The room was redolent of cigarette smoke. Through a stained-glass window dim light, filtering through monsoon clouds, picked up dust motes in the room cluttered with furniture and bric-a-brac. A Victorian statuary of a mother and child was an incongruous sight. Walter couldn’t see what the Nizam saw in the rather deplorable piece, but it was placed in proximity to the Nizam’s chair ... The Nizam’s thinking on the lapse of Paramountcy couldn’t be faulted. When he himself had first heard of the creation of the States Department, he had remarked to Corfield: ‘Patel intends to inherit the rights, but not the obligations of the Paramount Power.’

However, what could also not be denied was that a storm was headed their way. A majority of other Princely States had read the storm signal and had scurried for safety – to India. It was Walter’s duty to
assist the Nizam in reaching the best possible conclusion for Hyderabad. Clearing his throat, he sought the Nizam.

‘I think I can claim that, as a result of discussions I have had with the Viceroy and his staff, we have at the moment open to Hyderabad an offer of accession more limited than could have been expected before, and more favourable to Hyderabad than we can expect again after 15 August when the British have gone.’

From his pale, thin face, the Nizam’s eyes stared at Walter. His brown moustache quivered with some emotion. Walter’s legalese had not found favour, clearly. He was looking to simplify the thrust of his earlier argument when a titter sounded, before it erupted into loud laughter. The Nizam’s spare frame rocked with jollity in his chair, the crooked stick tapping a brisk tempo on the floor.

‘Mr Monckton,’ the Nizam shook his head, ‘that was no poetry, even you will admit. No Shakespearean iambic pentameter; no da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. Tell me, when you enter law school in England, do they leach you of all poems? What are the views of the Crown on poetry?’ He continued laughing and a small smile escaped Walter. They were an ill-assorted pair, as Dickie Mountbatten had remarked.

What the Viceroy did not know was the multitude of oddities the Nizam carried within himself. Besides being a world-class miser, who resided in the decidedly unlovely King Kothi when the grand Falaknuma Palace was available, the weird old fellow was a poet in Persian and Urdu, the founder of the great Osmania University, and the restorer of the ancient artwork of Ajanta. Yet, here they sat, the floor patterned with stubs of cigarettes the Nizam puffed like an engine, His Exalted Highness chortling while urgent matters regarding the fate of Hyderabad –

‘In Islam, Mr Monckton,’ the Nizam resumed in brisk fashion, ‘the ideal ruler should be a master of the pen as well as the sword. A poet is always appointed to teach his royal pupils the art of poetry. The Asaf Jahis, we have produced four poet Nizams!’

Walter acknowledged this with a slow, deep nod. ‘Your Highness, I believe, writes in both Persian and Urdu.’ The Nizam beamed. Walter recalled an anecdote he had heard. The Nizam had published his anthology at a young age. Despite its exorbitant price, it sold out immediately. None wanted to be seen as lacking in loyalty to the young ruler. Now, the Nizam urged him with one hand. ‘Perhaps not poetry, but try simpler language.’

The sound of rain lashing against windows picked up. The room had grown even darker. Walter felt like he was in an intimate mushaira with the Nizam, His Highness presiding as he spun legalese into couplets for an ashrafi, the gold coin inscribed with the image of the Charminar.

‘Your Highness, Hyderabad’s claim to dominion status has been disposed of by the Viceroy. And Britain will not preserve Hyderabad against democratic India, despite the treaties, “inviolate and inviolable” as the wording goes, between the Crown and native princes. My advice therefore is that we sign a treaty with India rather than signing the Instrument of Accession. This sends a clear signal that the two parties are equal. We surrender only the three main subjects – defence, foreign affairs, and communications.’ Walter adjusted his glasses.

‘I have even secured the Viceroy’s agreement of Hyderabad’s neutrality if Pakistan becomes involved in a war with India.’ ‘Ah! Pakistan.’ The Nizam leaned forward, his eyes alight. ‘Jinnah says that Hyderabad could give a lead to other Princely States by declaring independence. With Mysore and Travancore, we form an independent block to defend ourselves against India!’

Walter was aware that Mr Jinnah was writing to the Nizam in most honeyed tones, requesting HEH not to take any decision without his concurrence and knowledge. Having taken Hyderabad’s case to Mr Jinnah earlier, Walter was not sanguine about the leader of the Muslim League. Of course, it would be to Pakistan’s advantage to leave India with multiple stab wounds, one for each Princely State if possible ...‘Jinnah,’ the Nizam intoned, ‘is a friend of the Mussalmans of Hyderabad. Soon, I am sending a delegation under Kasim Razvi to meet with him.’

The mention of the rabid leader of the leading Muslim party in Hyderabad gave Walter pause. An image of the fiery man with flashing eyes popped up in his mind’s eye. Best, however, to stick to the agenda on hand. ‘Well, it’s perfectly understandable for Hyderabad to want to be closer to Pakistan, but there is the matter of geography. A large swathe of India between – ’

The Nizam had begun shaking his head, his right index finger oscillating in the air. ‘Not so soon, Mr Monckton, not so SOON. Junagadh will join Jinnah; so say my spies. How far then will Hyderabad be from Pakistan? From Karachi to Veraval to Marmagoa is our sea link. Junagadh will be a good base for planes as well. Now, I know we don’t have a seaport yet, but Jinnah will help us gain an outlet to the sea if it’s to his advantage.’

Junagadh joining Pakistan would be a master stroke for Mr Jinnah. A short distance separated the south-eastern corner of Junagadh from the western tip of Hyderabad. Additionally, it would rile up Mr Patel – a beachhead of Pakistan in Gujarat, his home state! Still.

Excerpted with permission from Hyderabad: Book II of The Partition Trilogy, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HarperCollins.

Also read:

Review – ‘Lahore’: The first part of a trilogy shows there are still stories to be told about the Partition

Excerpt – ‘Lahore’: This ambitious partition trilogy begins with negotiations and a love story