I am, because my mom wanted another child. Out of remorse. She might still have been around had she not wanted to see me in the family portrait. I am, and thus my mom is not. The cross of guilt became mine to bear. Even though I had no say in a past I was not even conceived in.
We lived in an extended joint family, and my parents were hosts to their parasitic ways. They sucked them financially, and then they messed with their psyche. They took away my parents’ jewels, their house, their health, their peace, and their second son. My parents took it all in their stride, but the burden of parting with her child weighed too heavy on my mother. I was needed as the counterbalance.
It was a blunder, a fatal one. My mother carried me despite her frail state, and could not nurse or even hold the three kilos of the newly born me. My first meal was formula milk. From what I have been told, my mother’s feet rarely touched the ground for a year before she passed on. I was not destined to have a mother who I could have had one conversation, just one that could have been the touchstone of my life. To keep me from making mistakes, or knowing how to tackle them when I did.
Our family was one notch below the royals of Jaipur in social status. We had served them for generations, and my father continued the tradition. Even though his masters no longer held any political sway except those who got elected democratically to the state and national assemblies.
We were the confidants of the rulers. With extremely strict rules and protocols. At any given time, only one member of our family was allowed to work at the palace. The baton was handed over to my father from a granduncle who lived and served long. No one from my grandparent’s generation got the chance to hold the position.
My father worked closely with the rajmata, the queen of the state without a crown. He had access beyond doors closed to most of the royal family members, and was privy to information he could be killed – or handsomely rewarded – for. But he was not entrusted with this role because someone pulled his name out of a hat. He was groomed and tested by his granduncle for years. He had to prove not just his aptitude for the job, but his trustworthiness to exercise utmost discretion in whatever he did. Everything had to be kept a secret, even from his own family. Despite his proximity to the palace, we saw no more of it than a tourist to the city.
My father never, ever spoke of his work. We broadly knew what he did from what our uncles and aunts told us, but much of their accounts were guesswork too. He was the royal family’s Man Friday, having his fingers in all their pies. He oversaw their finances, ensured the security of their massive collection of jewels and valuables, kept track of their vast real estate holdings, lobbied with the government to protect the family’s interests and assets lest they be nationalised, and managed election campaigns when any of the family ran for office. He was the event manager of their opulent weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Every festival had to be a grandiose celebration. He was the gatekeeper who let guests in for these occasions. The stables were his responsibility, the well-being of horses and elephants vital for polo matches. He sat on the table – and often dictated terms – for business collaborations including those with hospitality brands who took over palaces and forts to run them as hotels and museums. Every will, every family settlement, every legal agreement was vetted by him in consultation with lawyers and would bear his signature as a witness.
He was the perfect employee, not even sharing trivia about the royals lest he let slip any confidential information. The employers were not necessarily ideal though, as paymasters at least. They paid my father well, but he should have been rewarded better. He was steeped in idealism and the tradition of the position he held, and could never get himself to demand more than what he was given. He could have but did not make anything for himself on the side. He had enough insider information to create wealth for himself – and for us – by investing in land, gold and stocks before their values escalated. It would have done his employers no harm, but he still regarded it a crime on his conscience.
In earlier times, his ancestors would benefit from the occasional largesse of the king or the queen of the day; the massive bungalow or haveli we lived in was granted to us in the nineteenth century. As were vast tracts of agricultural land spread across the state of Rajasthan. Such bonuses became scarce after India gained independence, the new republic stripping the former royals of much of their assets and sources of income.
There has been another distasteful tradition in our family. Most lived off the one serving the royals. But as income fell, some made themselves useful by being gainfully employed elsewhere. Others started selling off land and jewellery to pay for their ever diminishing lifestyle and even renting out a part of our haveli. But that was never enough. My father had the most modest income amongst all his predecessors, and that too was largely mooched off him by his brothers.
I came in late into the story, but by the time I did, my father’s spirit was already being squeezed of its juice. I only heard from others of how he was the charmer amongst the city’s youth, a man so good-looking to have attracted my mother, herself a head-turner at Jaipur’s parties. But someone cast an evil eye on their union; their marital bliss was short-lived as domestic politics, financial stresses and resulting poor health dominated the time they were together. And yet, they stood firm with their feet on the ground, as pillars of strength for each other. They weathered the gale around them for as long as they could, till my mother could not take it any longer. Leaving my father – and us – forlorn.