His ancestors ruled India’s greatest princely state, his grandfather was the only prince to be proclaimed His Exalted Highness. By the time he became the eighth and last Nizam of Hyderabad in 1967, Mukarram Jah had inherited one of the largest fortunes in the world.
Yet he would spend much of the next three decades creating a durbar in the desert on a remote stretch of coast in Western Australia, only to flee to Turkey in 1996 when his finances — and the world he loved — collapsed.
A fortune teller in Geneva once told Jah that he would live past the age of 86. When he died at his home in Istanbul on January 14, he was aged 89.
In 2005, I tracked this notoriously private and media-shy man to Antalya in southern Turkey, where he was living in a modest two-bedroom flat overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
None of his neighbours knew that his maternal grandfather was Abdul Mejid II, the last Ottoman sultan and caliph. In 1924, Mejid and his family were unceremoniously bundled on a train and sent into exile to Switzerland by Ataturk, where their plight caught the attention of Jah’s grandfather, Osman Ali Khan.
His grandfather was the richest man in the world, but the titular ‘last Nizam of Hyderabad’ ran through that fortune in his own lifetime
Seven years later, the seventh Nizam arranged for his son Azam to marry Mejid’s only daughter, Princess Durrushevar, in an opulent wedding in Nice on the French Riviera. Jah, their first son, was born on October 6, 1933.
Private schooling in Hyderabad was followed by several years in Harrow, where his classmates included King Faisal of Iraq and his cousin King Hussein of Jordan. His upbringing was unconventional, even by princely standards. His Doon School teachers despaired at his lack of aptitude in maths and English but noted, somewhat optimistically, that he “was very keen on carpentry and spent a good deal of his spare time in the workshop and this can provide unlimited scope in the future.”
In September 1952, Jah began reading English and History at Peterhouse, Cambridge University’s oldest residential college, where his close friend George Hobday described him as a person who was courteous and generous, never flaunted his wealth and enjoyed “playing with explosives.”
After graduating with third-class honours in 1955, he joined the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he could finally indulge in his greatest passion – engineering.
While holidaying in Istanbul in 1958, he met Esra Birgin. The British-educated daughter of a research chemist, she lived on one of the Princess Islands in the Bosphorus Straits, a favourite playground for the Turkish elite. The pair married secretly at the Kensington Registry Office on April 12, 1959. Khan was furious; Durrushehvar was disapproving.
By now Khan had decided that Jah would become the next nizam over his father Azam, who had turned into a chronically inebriated womaniser and gambling addict.
After graduating from Sandhurst, Jah briefly served as Jawaharlal Nehru’s ADC. When I interviewed him, he told me he counted among his greatest achievements crawling behind a dais to refasten a safety pin onto the lungi of Burmese Prime Minister, U Nu, while he was giving a speech, without the audience noticing.
By the time his grandfather died in 1967, Jah had spent more time in jazz clubs on Oxford Street in London than in the durbar halls of the Chowmahallah Palace in Hyderabad. When I asked him what was uppermost in his mind while he was standing on the palace steps after his coronation, he said he was not thinking about what he would do with his grandfather’s wealth, but why the imported V8 Oldsmobile that was meant to whisk him and Esra away was refusing to start.
As for the president’s proclamation making him the Nizam, Jah was indifferent. “I think it was a case of someone dragging out some files marked ‘Succession’ and saying, ‘Let’s use this one.’ Officially I was the Nizam, but since 1948 there was nothing to rule over.”
Surrounded by obsequious servants and relatives angry that they had been cut out of the Nizam’s will, Jah sought refuge by tinkering with the 56 mostly broken-down cars in his grandfather’s garage. “I inherited a scrap yard. I have a lifetime’s work before me,” he told a journalist at the time.
In 1972, Jah took up an invitation from George Hobday to visit Australia. The arid landscapes of Western Australia reminded him of the Deccan. He instructed his private secretary to buy a ‘small’ farm where he could escape the mediaeval intrigues of the Hyderabad durbar.
At half-a-million acres, Murchison House Station was larger than many of India’s nine-gun princely states. The land was unproductive and located in the most isolated part of Western Australia — the capital Perth was a bumpy nine-hour drive.
But to Jah it was perfect. There he could indulge in his favourite pastime, clearing tracks with his D9 bulldozer, repairing machinery bought in scrapyards, including a British-built amphibious tank that he intended to use to ride down the Murchison River and a 1938 Leyland Scammel tank-recovery vehicle fitted with an oversized radiator from a Perth bus. His most prized possession was a converted minesweeper that had seen service in the Korean War.
In the pub at nearby Kalbarri, the locals referred to him as ‘the Shah’ — his extravagant spending had been good for the economy. Jah once boasted that he could earn $500 a week as a bulldozer driver. Instead, he was eating away at the fortune he inherited faster than anyone thought possible.
It was said that the Nizams of Hyderabad had more jewellery than all of India’s other royal houses combined. Khan counted his diamonds by the kilogramme, his pearls by the acre and his gold bars by the tonne, yet he was so frugal that he saved on laundry bills by bathing in his clothes.
Jah smuggled much of the jewellery he inherited to Geneva, where it was kept in a massive Swiss bank vault, with pieces being auctioned off for a fraction of their value to meet his constant need for cash. In Hyderabad, the steady slide in his finances quickly became a rout.
He left the management of his inheritance in the hands of people he thought he could trust, with disastrous consequences. Hyderabad’s heritage was being sold to Saudi sheikhs, Hollywood actresses and Bond Street jewellers, to pay the wages of his farm workers and penthouse suites at the Metropole in Geneva.
With Murchison House Station running at a loss and Jah flatly refusing every plan put forward by his financial advisors to invest money in such things as shares or bonds, offloading his movable assets was his only source of income.
By 1990, Jah was unable to pay his bills. An old family friend, the late Hyderabadi jeweller Sadruddin Javeri, lent him money and briefly put his affairs in order. But the damage had been done and, in 1996, Murchison House Station and his mansion in Perth were put on the market to pay off his debts to Javeri.
His personal life also was in tatters. When Esra divorced him shortly after he bought Murchison House, he married a local girl from Perth, Helen Simmons, who converted to Islam and changed her name to Ayesha. A fairy-tale romance that provided gossip columnists with plenty of fodder turned to tragedy when Helen contracted AIDS in 1987, after an affair with a bisexual man. When she died a few months later, Jah was devastated.
In late 1996, he told his secretary in Perth he was going to the local mosque for Friday prayers. She never saw him again. Fearing he was going to be arrested as a debtor, he fled Australia for Turkey, where he lived a life of anonymity.
In 2002, after several long legal battles, he received a paltry US$22 million sum in compensation from the Government of India for the ‘Jewels of the Nizams’ collection that he had tried to sell through Sotheby’s — a collection conservatively valued at half a billion dollars. The amount was immaterial — his spending was on a drip-feed, strictly being managed by his lawyer and private secretary in case he squandered those funds too.
When I met Jah in Antalya, I found a man who felt relieved that he could at last tell his story. As he showed me his favourite Roman ruins, sipping tea in vine-covered cafes and talking about why even in his old age a man needs to feel the heartbeat of a woman next to him at night, I began to understand why he had turned his back on Hyderabad.
He saw his life in terms of kismet or fate. Fate had willed that Helen should die of AIDS and that his finances would collapse and fate had determined that he would never fulfil his dreams of living in Australia. He was trained to be an engineer, not to manage a multi-million-dollar estate that had more than 14,000 staff on its books. He admitted he couldn’t tell the difference between a diamond and a piece of glass.
Although he revelled in the freedom of being able to hop in his old Mercedes and drive for days through the backroads of Anatolia or to the slopes of Mount Ararat, I found him to be a lonely man. He was cut off from his friends and deeply missing life in the Outback, where the rusty bulldozers he had abandoned a decade earlier stood like sentinels to dreams gone awry.
Jah spent his final years in Istanbul being looked after by a carer. He leaves behind four children – Azmet his eldest son and a daughter Shekhyar by his first wife Ezra; Azam his son by his second wife, Helen; and Nilofer by his fourth wife Manolya Onur.
John Zubrzycki is an Australia-based writer and the author of The Last Nizam: The Rise and Fall of India’s Greatest Princely State.
By arrangement with The Wire
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 22nd, 2023