MACLEAN’S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE IN INDIA

Join CUSO — and spend a weekend with a real live duck-hunting maharajah

Blair Fraser December 17 1966
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE IN INDIA

Join CUSO — and spend a weekend with a real live duck-hunting maharajah

Blair Fraser December 17 1966

BACKSTAGE IN INDIA

Join CUSO — and spend a weekend with a real live duck-hunting maharajah

Blair Fraser

BHARATPUR

OF THE 54 young men and women working in India for CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas), about half have already enjoyed a privilege for which the other half are eagerly hoping—a weekend in the palace of a real live maharajah.

His Highness the Maharajah of Bharatpur is a man who makes a hobby of playing host, and he seems to like Canadians for some reason. Not only has he been a friend and benefactor to Jim and Sheila Ward, a CUSO couple who are working in

Bharatpur as agricultural adviser and nurse respectively, but he’s equally hospitable to any friend, acquaintance or colleague of theirs who happens to turn up.

1 was one such more or less selfinvited guest (the CUSO co-ordinator in New Delhi arranged it for me) and took the three-hour train trip to Bharatpur in company with three Canadian girls and a young man who were working for CUSO in various parts of India. When I got to the palace, in the car His Highness had despatched to meet me, he asked if Jim Ward had got back yet, and whether he was alone. I said he was back, but not alone—he had four guests.

“What? Four guests?” said the maharajah. “He hasn’t room for four guests in that little house. They must come and stay here.” And thus it came about that three girls from Vancouver, Toronto and Brandon, Man., also spent an unexpected weekend in the palace. Everyone behaved as if this were part of the normal routine, as apparently it actually is.

Outside the door through which our host took us in to lunch are two stuffed tigers. Inside the door are two more, and the hide of a fifth hangs on the anteroom wall. Stupidly, I asked the maharajah if he had shot all five himself.

“Actually, I’ve shot 130 altogether,” he replied. “I have some of the others at my hunting lodge.”

After a post-luncheon siesta we all piled into a sort of bus, or rather a farm truck fitted with benches, to be taken on a tour of the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, 3,000 acres of artificial marsh laid out by the present maharajah’s great-grandfather, and a haunt of every local species of water bird. It’s not in fact a sanctuary for all of them—the maharajah took along shotguns for himself and any guests who cared to shoot, and he brought down half a dozen ducks in the course of an hour or less. (Nobody else hit any.) Bearers or gamekeepers waded out to get the birds, most of which they were unable to find; dogs can’t be used because they get tangled in the weeds, and drown.

Back at the palace, we all had another rest before some 10 or a dozen

other guests arrived for dinner—several young officers from the local garrison, two American Peace Corps boys, Jim Ward and his remaining house guest, several of the officers’ wives. The young people danced, the elders sat about and talked until about 11 p.m. when we sat down to an elegant Indian meal at a banquet table that seats 22. At each end of the table stood a magnificent battle standard, apparently trophies of war won by the maharajah’s ancestors.

After dinner the dancing resumed, and so did the conversation. The maharajah is running as an Independent candidate in the general election in February, so we talked politics for a while.

“I’ve always been a member of the Congress Party,” he said, “and if I’m elected I won’t oppose the government. I know too much about the problems of governing to want to oppose for opposition’s sake.” Apparently the only reason he’s running as an Independent is that the local Congress member, who happens to be the Minister of Information, was disinclined to move to another seat and make room for the maharajah, who had always supported him in the past.

Next day, talking to some Bharatpur students of vehemently radical views, I asked if they thought the maharajah would win. The question was rhetorical, I thought—surely these boys at least would never admit that such a relic of the feudal age would win in a free election. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Yes, of course he’ll win,” the boys said, looking astonished that anyone should ask such a silly question.

Why were they so sure?

“He is not corrupt,” one of them answered simply. “Ministers try to make themselves rich; he is rich already. Also he is a good landlord who looks after his people well. They will all vote for him.”