The Maharajah’s castle (continuation and conclusion)

The Maharajah’s castle (continuation and conclusion)

In our last episode, I told you about our arrival at Fort Begu, in the Singoli region, near the borders of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. I had insisted that our young guide Shailendra stay with us for dinner, whereas all the other Indians who came with us had left, on various pretexts. I finished my post by admitting I had made a mistake by asking him to stay, and that I would explain why in the next episode. A promise is a promise, here is the conclusion.

Jean-Marc Réa

It is very hard for a Westerner to understand the caste system. Moreover, our ignorance and critics hardly encourage Indians to talk freely about it. In 1950, the Indian Constitution instituted egalitarian and democratic principles which officially prohibit this social stratification. One must admit that this system is not democratic and, on the contrary, promotes inequality. Yet, a vast majority of Indians is deeply attached to it, including people from the lower castes. It is important for an Indian to know its place, to be accepted by his people, to whom he will remain loyal, whatever happens. Our personal ambitions confound them.

After a quick visit to our rooms, we are invited to join the Maharajah and his son Ajay, on the central terrace of the castle. They are sitting on majestic armchairs, around a fire where their court is busy preparing the meal. It feels like we left the real world: this huge castle where we are the only guests, the great number of servants wearing outfits both outdated and rusty, the majestic attitude of our hosts, it looks as if the luxury is falling apart and only a nostalgic memory remains.

Shailendra, usually very talkative, is now quiet and I can feel his uneasiness. Another thing strikes me: only one table is set on this big terrace, for only four people. We are three, so I assume that either the Maharajah or his son will dine with us. It is already past 11 pm and we woke up at 6:30 am, so I try to politely speed up the process so we can start dining.

The Maharajah explains that we will eat together: himself, his son, Marie-Charlotte and me. I ask him about Shailendra; “he is going to eat on a small table, near the fire”, he answers. I tell him that in any way he is going to eat alone: he accompanies us and we will dine together. “But he is a vegetarian”, the Maharajah argues, and, addressing Shailendra: “you prefer to eat alone on the small table, don’t you?” Shailendra, who had been proud and self-confident until now, suddenly looks like a hangdog and agrees! But I stick to it, he has to sit with us. I am so stubborn that the Maharajah and his son end up leaving the terrace and let the three of us eating at the table. Shailendra, still petrified by the discussion, will leave after a little while to join his family. Ajay then comes back to explain that it is impossible for him and his father to share a dinner with someone from a lower caste.

The following morning, everybody is in a good mood, nobody talks about last night’s incident. The Maharajah is a charming host and proposes a visit of the surroundings with Ajay and an escort. They do their best to make us feel comfortable and I feel a bit guilty about my attitude last night. During this walk, we witness the gap between modern India and its Western-like lifestyle, and the rural life, more peaceful, where people look poor but happy.

Governments’ laws do not change the fact that India remains true to its customs. Looking back, I understand that by remaining stubbornly attached to the principles I thought were fair, I embarrassed everyone; I should have let Shailendra leave with his uncle and his friends. Was it right to force him to stay? Is it right to try and convince everybody that something is fair? A question to explore.

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