The Nawab's Last Sigh
The Indian Quarterly|April - June 2020
Rudely awakened by the fact of independent India, an aristocrat in Meerut clung to his past. Now, he tells Sunaina Kumar, all he has left are his memories of a glorious age.
Sunaina Kumar

The Nawab and his wife

WHEN Afzal Ahmad Khan was 11 years old, his older brother told him, in no uncertain terms, that he could never be seen in public informally dressed. To this day, 80 years later, he steps out of his home, whether under the scorching sun or pelting rain, impeccably clad in one of his three sherwanis, all black and buttoned up to the neck. He wears it the only way a sherwani should be worn, with a topi and handmade shoes.

When we met one December morning, in the dying embers of the year gone by, the cold weather had taken its toll on his health. Fluridden, he had been mostly confined to his bed, not unusual perhaps for most nonagenarians, but Khan is still sprightly, still active. Dressed in a sweater, a crisp white kurta and pyjama, he was surprised by my arrival and complained about being underdressed. “I am the last nawab of Meerut,” he said grandly, “and I bear some responsibility. Please wait, so I can dress appropriately.” He returned, of course, in a sherwani, finally ready to grant me an audience.

Starched and stiff, the aristocratic title of ‘nawab of Meerut’, masks, even mocks, the reduced circimustances in which Khan finds himself. His haveli in Khair Nagar, the densest part of the city, is nondescript. All around him is chaos, houses and shops cheek by jowl, rickshaws, hand-pulled carts, and everywhere people and cattle—a working class ghetto, populated in the main by Muslim welders, carpenters and plumbers unlikely to have time to spare a thought for their illustrious neighbour.

A regal bearing

Khair Nagar, these hard-working people might be interested to know, is named after one of Khan’s famous ancestors: Nawab Khairandesh Khan, who lived through the reign of three Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and Shah Alam. Legend has it that the Nawab lived 120 years. He was part of an illustrious line of Kambohs, nobles who migrated to India from Afghanistan in the 10th century and settled across northern India. The Kamboh nawabs were the largest landowners in Meerut and their history stretched past the Mughals and the British right up to Indian independence.

Dressed in a sweater, a crisp white kurta and pyjama, he was surprised by my arrival and complained about being underdressed. “I am the last nawab of Meerut,” he said grandly, “and I bear some responsibility. Please wait, so I can dress appropriately.”

Under the Mughals, Nawab Khairandesh was appointed governor of Bihar, Etawah and Bengal. He built the Khair Nagar Gate, one of the nine gates of the walled city of Meerut. The gate was once glorious; today it is battered, its walls defaced, surrounded by garbage and ramshackle storefronts, the goods on display mostly odds and ends, used tyres and sundry parts that might have belonged to a computer once.

The area is perhaps a metaphor for Meerut, a city torn between its past and its shabby, industrial present. Located on the periphery of Delhi, Meerut is resolutely unglamorous, with all the charm of a vast factory. How out of place its aristocratic history must seem. As a long-time resident of the city told me, “We should be relieved that the age of entitlement is gone, the nawabs never did a day’s work in their lives.”

Mustafa Castle built by the family of Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta in Meerut

But, argues Amit Pathak, a writer and historian of Meerut, the Nawabs do not deserve their contemporary reputation for lassitude and decadence. “Apart from the physical structures they built,” he says, “the Kamboh nawabs had a great part to play in creating the culture of the city. They gave us the foundation around which the city has grown over the centuries.” Pathak has made audio and video recordings of Afzal Ahmad Khan, whom he calls the “last storehouse” of information on the history and culture of Meerut.

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