Monday, 20 April 2015

Tripping down Memory Lane – My Mother’s Childhood in Dholpur State

Portrait of a Man they don't build any more 

We children have grown up listening to our mother's stories of Baba Saheb from the days when she spent her pre-school childhood years of early 1940s in Dholpur State, Rajasthan. One of the most popular stories was how Baba Saheb would bring back hunted deer and in the evening there was a feast of Deer Pakoras! Of course, she is a vegetarian now. On other days, the bus would be packed up with food for day long picnics by Chambal. While the food was being cooked, Baba Saheb would go hunting for gharials and crocs. The kids would be asked to pose atop the dead reptiles. On other occasions, the Citroen would drive the family for dinner in the lawns of Taj Mahal, sixty kilometres away. And of course, all the childhood pranks mother in company of Baba Saheb’s son would play including crank telephone calling.

Major Kunwar Brijendra Singh of Dholpur State

A Few Good Men

Baba Saheb was my Maternal Grandfather’s Mother’s Brother. In other words, he was my Nanaji’s Mamaji. Baba Saheb or Major Kunwar Brijendra Singh headed the Narsingh (Dholpur) Infantry, Forests, Mines and Zakhira Departments of the erstwhile Dholpur state. Narsingh is the Kuldevta of Dholpur. Baba Saheb's family were Jagirdars who had assumed royalty which continued until 1972. Those days my Nanaji was posted as a Subedar in the Dholpur Army and lived with Baba Saheb. After independence, my Nanaji was absorbed in the Indian Army.

So finally, after all these years it is time to make real connections with the stories. You are in Dholpur and the next morning you visit the Haveli where all the stories took place. My mother last visited the haveli when her childhood friend and Baba Saheb’s son died in October 1995.

The neighborhood Kali Mandir still stands though the construction is modern. On the side of the temple is a Piao. Piao is a modern day water cooler where travelers in the old days would stop for a cool and refreshing drink of water. An inscription says the piao was built by Baba Saheb in 1945.

Next to the piao, the gate opens into an open Bada. And in the middle is the haveli. Kids play cricket in the apparently run-down premises. So while modern construction surrounds the bada, here it seems you have stepped back into time. I can actually see my mother playing in a pram with servants fussing over her.

In the early Sunday morning, I knock on the door and sleepy eyed descendents open the door. I introduce myself and I am led inside. The haveli has an open courtyard with rooms overlooking on three sides. We climb the steps to enter a room which overlooks the Bada. The doorways are real low and I am cautioned not to bang my head.

As we sit and chat, stories come out tumbling: The time when Shah of Iran came to Dholpur to hunt tigers, Baba Saheb who was trying to bring a tiger in play to enable the Shah to shoot; and in the melee the tiger jumped on Baba Saheb who fought with the tiger bare handed. Finally, the Shah was able to shoot the tiger. Baba Saheb returned home all bloodied. Dholpur was a favourite place for the English to come hunt tigers. Englishmen reportedly wet their pants just looking at the approaching tiger as they sat safely high up on the machans while Baba Saheb and his men tried to shoo the cats towards the waiting hunters.

Some Dacoit Kill!

How can we talk about Dholpur without mentioning the legendary dacoits of Chambal. Along with tigers and gators, Major Saheb bumped off so many dacoits that the dacoits declared an reward on his head. As part of plan, a dacoit entered the services in the haveli, but was found out and Major Saheb finished him off.

Those Were The Days - Maharaj Rana of Dholpur (in turban) and Maharaj of Bharatpur

Maharaj Rana Udaibhan Singh of Dholpur

And then the photos come out. All this time I was wishing they would have some. The photographs are Black & White – some are damaged while some are stained. Baba Saheb has a towering personality. I have never seen him before. He looks splendid in full military regalia and that awesome turban. His grandson while speaking to my mother on the phone remarks that I look like Baba Saheb – same height and build! And I figure, even the nose that I inherited from my mother is uncanny! My mother recalls his Amitabh Bachchan like deep baritone voice calling her Bitiya; but mostly his voice scared the kids.

Then there are photos with Baba Saheb posing with felled tigers, cheetahs / leopards and dacoits. Children would be roused from their sleep to come look at the killed cats.

Thank You Letter to Baba Saheb from the Military Secretary to the Viceroy

Invitation to Dinner at Viceroy's House Dated Oct 1st 1945

The British were really thorough - Table Diagram with Seating Order on the Invitation Card - Baba Saheb is seated on the table along with Maharaj of Dholpur

Farewell - To the Viceroy or British?

More folders and albums are brought out. I can see old British correspondence including invitation cards.

 Invitation to Wedding of Maharaj of Bharatpur

 Invitation to the Wedding of Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje to Maharaj Rana of Dholpur dated Dec 13th 1972
Apparently, the current Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje who belongs to Scindia family of Gwalior was married into Dholpur Royal Family.

All this is so overwhelming. My mother who was the first child in the household was Baba Saheb's favourite and he doted on her. He thought of her as his lucky mascot when his own kids arrived shortly thereafter. When my mother lost two fingers in a freak fodder machine accident, it was Baba Saheb who issued an ultimatum to the doctor; he will weigh the doctor in coins but the little girl should not lose the fingers. The middle two fingers were reattached though they are a little crooked now. 

For a change walking back in to the past is so joyous. I ask the family members to scan the photos and the memorabilia before it is lost. I also ask them to document the stories and life of Baba Saheb. His life certainly deserves a book. They don't make like him anymore. There is a talk to build independent houses for the different families. Maybe by the next time you come visiting, the haveli will be gone and some horrendous modern construction will come up as what is happening in the neighborhood.

In the days after coming back from Dholpur, I am still trying to thread together the pieces. Phone calls with Dholpur and seeing my mother excited like a child is priceless. Dholpur has been a revelation both in terms of heritage and personal connection. On tripping days like these I truly feel blessed. 

Photos Courtesy - Kunwar Vishwajeet Singh Rana


  1. So nostalgic!
    Dholpur and Chambal... That is the combination...
    When I was in school I read a book on Chanmbal Dacoits... it was the most exhilarating things I had ever read... I need to hit the beehads soon...

    1. Hi Jitaditya,

      Yes do take walk in Dholpur and a boat ride in Chambal and do Ater Fort in Bhind on the other side of the river! It was a great experience being in Dholpur. Time to hit the beehad and become a Baghi!


  2. Nirdesh This is just too good!
    The sentiments expressed throughout the blog touched the various corners of the heart. These memories should be recorded before they are lost and forgotten as the time flies by. And the one who inherited Baba Saheb's looks should write the book!

    1. Hi Anuradha,

      Thanks Much! I am not sure I was able to bring all the emotions but the way my mother fondly remembers her years here are really priceless. I would love to go back in time and spend some time with Baba Saheb! If you ask me, all the events can make one great period movie. Maybe I will write the book one day!


  3. You took after him in one more aspect. Yes Nirdesh, your love for your mother is shining throughout :)
    The book would be a true tribute to her and her priceless childhood memories. Do it and give her one more shining moment!

    1. Ok Anuradha - I will give it a serious thought! Cheers

  4. Your Mum would have certainly experienced a feeling of fulfillment after you visited Mamma's mayka. I could visualize her sentiments. Well done. God bless you.

    1. Hi PN Sir,

      As always thank you for accompanying me on my travels. Yes mother was quite happy, but more than her, the visit was personally exciting and satisfying in the sense it enabled me to put faces and place to the stories.


  5. Giant footsteps to follow. But you can do it, Nirdesh. Because you have the looks and the goods-keypad is mightier than any sword or bullet.Just take care of one thing, no more big game hunting!!

    1. Hi Aparna,

      Dont know about the keypad, but yes i have the looks - Hahahah!

      Book on Baba Saheb would be an ultimate gift to the extraordinary life he led. Until that happens I will focus on travels and shooting big game with camera.

      Thanks for reading!


  6. I am adding some more comments posted by friends on Facebook

    Gitanjali Mohanty A truly towering personality [ in all true sense of the word].................... So beautifully narrated Nirdesh... You totally transported me back to the days of the Raj...All the memories, anecdotes, and the sepia-toned photographs adds such a personal touch, so much life, into the narrative...

    Nirdesh Singh Thanks Gitanjali - Yes those were beautiful times! And Major Saheb an incredible person and professional. I feel the visit and this piece my homage to my mother's memories. Thanks for reading!

    Shankar Bhattacharya Very well written ..Interesting place to grow up in ..

    Vidya Murali Wow ! What an interesting Biopic ( with all those quaint photos, it is a silent biopic ! ) told so lovingly ! You have made Baba's bitiya very proud by preserving his memory in golden words. Cheers !

    Nirdesh Singh Thanks Vidya! Yes Major Saheb was indeed an interesting personality. I am just happy that I was able to make this visit to my mothers childhood