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Pauper princess - Outlook

Shameem Akthar, Ratnagiri ()
October 12, 1998

Title: Pauper princess
Author: Shameem Akthar, Ratnagiri
Publication: Outlook
Date: October 12, 1998

What did the fey Burmese princess Fayas brood over as she paced
before the bare house built by her Indian husband? Did she
reflect over the vanished glory of her father Teeba, last king of
Upper Burma who, despite being a prisoner of the British, lived
here regally, displaying a generosity that bordered on
extravagance? Did she wonder if her munificence would shove her
only daughter Baisubai 'Tutu' into a morass of poverty? But Tutu,
gnarled with age-an estimated 105 years-is gifted with a
stubborn, death-thwarting life force. And so she sits rheumy-eyed
in her shed-house, awaiting the Grim Reaper.

She certainly has no use for the heartening news that her
grandfather's palace, where she spent a pampered childhood, will
finally recapture its lost burnish. Prof. R.A. Sathe, of Mumbai
University's subcentre now housed within the palace, says a
recent understanding between India and Myanmar ensures that while
Myanmar will preserve the Mandalay house where the British
imprisoned Lokmanya Tilak for his inspiring 'Freedom is my
birthright' lines, India will maintain the Teeba residence in
Ratnagiri. K.D. Kawadkar, state director of archaeology, says the
palace is now state protected, following a Central directive. The
subcentre will be rewarded three acres nearby for their Rs 9 lakh
clean-up of the derelict structure that's to become a regional

Misty-eyed locals, who remember the exquisite Fayas for her open-
handedness, call her daughter Tutu the Mother Teresa of
Ratnagiri. 'No offence to Mother Teresa, but Tutu is better since
she's poor. If Tutu has one roti, she shares half," says Sadanand
Salgaonkar, a local. Her slum-dweller existence and five
offspring do not deter Tutu from adopting several half-starved
waifs. Her eldest son Chandu, born of Indian husband Shankar
Pawar, carries forward Teeba's tradition despite subsisting as a
mechanic. If he hears of any death in the vicinity, he visits the
bereaved-whatever the hour-offering to do the chores. his is
true royalty," observes Salgaonkar.

Chandu, however, doesn't view this as a Teeba inheritance. For
him the tradition ends with his mother. With her he'll bury
memories of royalty that now glints feebly through the mould on
photographs and paintings scattered around his shed, or are lost
in the dust on the documents Tutu accumulated, trying to retain a
hold on the sliver of land where her husband lived. Memories
that are frayed, even forgotten, like the court papers of Tutu as
she tried, for her offspring's sake, to get 30 guntas of land
promised by the Indian government in the wake of the British

Visitors from Burma drop in occasionally, nostalgic about their
gentle king who died in a foreign land which has forgotten even
his tomb. His large grave lies forlorn in the nucleus of a
housing colony. Overgrown weeds smother it; unaware residents
fear such negligence can only breed vermin. Only two plaques, in
Burmese and English, sum up Teeba's history thus: "In this tomb
on 19th March 1919 were deposited the mortal remains of Thebaw
the last king of Upper Burma ... deposed on the 1st December 1885
and was removed to Ratnagiri where he died on 15th December 1918
at the age of 58. Also remains of Teik Supaa Gale Thebaw's minor
queen who died in 1912 aged 50.

Tutu's melancholy turns to fond remembrance as she fixes her
cataractmisted gaze on the line-up of portraits from the past.
Her grandfather is a young, unsmiling moustachioed man (Teeba was
in his 30s when he arrived) in his photograph; her mother a fair,
pink-cheeked childwoman, in a painting.

Fayas was an innocent teenager when she fell in love with the
already-married, handsome palace servant, Gopal Sawant Shivrekar
who, as village headman and landed gentry, was no opportunist.
She sneaked him, through the heavily-latticed female quarters,
right into her room. When her pregnancy was discovered, she
insisted on marrying him. Did she ever regret the decision of her
youth? One doesn't know. But she did overcome her self-imposed
isolation and local ostracism, with her overwhelming generosity
that ate into the Rs 300 privy purse, no paltry amount in newly-
independent India.

"I was just a child then but used to be absolutely fascinated by
her, Salgaonkar recalls, on his trip down memory lane. "Her
greatest pleasure was distributing food amongst poor children.
She'd have a beatific smile, looking up at the sky, interrupting
her sweet Burmese chanting, to talk to some presence up there. I
knew, though others believed she was mad, she was praying to god.
She matched her father in generosity, whose divine pleasure it
was to sell off his jewels to help the poor here.

As a child, Tutu was used to being driven around in the palace
Ford by Shankar Pawar (who she later married). Says local BJP
leader, C.K. Parulekar, who had her father Shivrekar as client:
"My grandfather, L.V. Parulekar, the then government pleader, was
not just his lawyer, but also Teeba's friend. Teeba used to lend
his car to our family. Seeing it, locals would prostrate
themselves, such was their love for him. It was the soukars
(brokers) who cheated him, buying for pittance the jewellery he
sold to sustain his large-heartedness which created tension
amongst his three wives. He had only two daughters. The first one
married Teeba's lieutenant, an Indian, and went off to

The British, worried that the then Kingdom of Burma would reclaim
Teeba, smuggled him into Ratnagiri on the west coast in 1886. He
was given just two hours to pack up all he needed, and was
secretly moved around in India, before being settled in two
bungalows here. The Teeba Palace, an indulgence the British
allowed him, was built according to Teeba's specifications.
Perched on a 23-acre promontory overlooking the green haze of a
sea-fringed horizon, the palace was finished after several years
in 1910, with Teeba residing in it for just eight years. After
his death, his vestigial family was packed off to Myanmar. Fayas
and later Tutu declined the Myanmarese government's offer to
return home. Fayas' death, in the 1950s, was a grand affair when
Burmese priests arrived to give her a royal send-off. Her ashes
still lie in the vaults of the district collectorate.

Sathe recalls the detritus of negligence as the glass-paned
palace doors were reopened in '97. The insides were caked with
pigeon droppings that wouldn't be scrubbed away. The Italian
coloured glasspanes had gone missing, and damaged Burmese teak
had, perforce, to be replaced by local sesame. But the house
that Teeba built-neither British, Indian nor Burmese-but a
strange amalgamation of all, retains his signature. Every sea-
facing wall is ventilated with coloured glass panes to catch the
glitter of the setting sun.

Several families here still own Teeba items-furniture, stone-
crusted jewellery, still-clear Belgian mirrors, non-electric
fans. One proud owner shows off his corner table, worth Rs 3
lakh. But Tutu, being human, doesn't command such priceless
estimation. With her will be buried India's bond with a gentle
prisoner king whose generous legacy Ratnagiri still remembers.

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