Orphans, at least in literature, write themselves great biographies. The absence of a personal history allows them, like the protagonist in Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence, to fill up their past with the fantasy of a great lineage, of being chosen and special. Then there are the orphans of historical ruptures, of tragedies so vast in scale that each individual’s alchemy of suffering is subsumed in a great sweep of generalities, their personal story mirrored so often that it becomes a cliché. The lost royals of Awadh, the ghosts of Malcha Mahal, the beautiful, fading eccentrics with the great dane — “queen” Wilayat and her children, Cyrus and Sakina — have been part of the folklore of North India for over four decades. And last week, when a report in The New York Times revealed that they were not royal at all, it did not so much uncover a fraud, or even a lie as it shone the light on an epic delusion, a tragic story.
For years, since Begum Wilayat appeared in New Delhi Railway station in the 1970s, demanding justice for the cruelties perpetrated on her “ancestors” by the East India Company, the family has been of great interest, particularly to the Western media. A matriarch, eccentric children, a lost royal house, colonialism — it is a tale full of the exotica that has long helped sell the India story. Wilayat was, in fact, the wife of a civil servant who left for Pakistan during Partition, and leaving Lucknow, the only home she loved, seems to have driven her to mental illness. Eventually, she returned to India with her younger children and made up a story of her descent from Wajid Ali Shah. Her children, to whom she bequeathed her fantasy, led tragic, lonely lives — Cyrus was the last one to die, alone, in 2017.
Bishan Singh, from Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, lies on the border, a lunatic without a home after Partition. Wilayat, too, was a victim of history. But without a Manto to tell it, she had to be both the character in, and author of, her story.