Once the "open sesame " was obtained, however, the writer found that the Begum was one of the most delightful of women. She is a brilliant conversationalist, and talks English fluently. Wearing a beautiful dress of white silk material, and closely veiled, the Begum chatted about her travels and impressions of this country.
" This is only the second time I have left Bhopal," she said, " the first being on the occasion of a pilgrimage I made to Mecca, about which I have written a book. Yes," she replied, in answer to another query, "I have also written my autobiography, which has been translated. I have already written two volumes, and in the third I hope to give an account of my visit to Europe, and especially of England. Do I like travel ? No, I shall be glad to get back to my people again; but I felt that I must attend this great Coronation of King George and Queen Mary, who were so kind to me when they visited India in 1905, when I had the great honour of being received by her Majesty at a private audience. For no other reason would I have left my people.
"I am, however, amazed at your women. The freedom of their lives, the independence of their characters, their seeming ability to hold their own in the business world have all deeply impressed me, and I shall go back to Bhopal with many new ideas for the development and the education of the native women. I am particularly interested in the education of girls, and have already visited some of your schools and colleges. They are wonderful. 1 think it is so important that girls should be well educated. It was my grandmother who impressed this principle upon me, and it was really through her that our first schools were opened. In addition to the ordinary school subjects our girls are taught needlework in all its branches, and they are remarkably good at the most delicate embroidery and lace work."
And then her Highness very kindly introduced me to her third and youngest son, Sahidzadah Hamid Ullah Khan. She has two other sons, the eldest of whom, Prince Abaidullah Khan, is Commander-in-chief of the Bhopal forces. His son and two daughters also accompanied their grand-mother to this country.
The second son remained at Bhopal to look after the affairs of State until his mother's return.
The Begum is about fifty years of age, and when, shortly after her arrival in this country, she was received by the King and Queen in the White Drawing-room at Buckingham Palace, she made a most imposing figure. Her magnificent blue silk burhka, which consists of a robe made in one piece, something after the princesse style, with long sleeves, richly adorned with hand-painted flowers, the upper part being trimmed with gold embroidery, the headdress - a round cap - being of the same material, with a long, black veil, back and front, made her a prominent figure at the first Court of King George's reign. The veil, falling over the face, had two eyeholes, so that the inquisitive were unable to see the features of the Begum. In addition, she wore a small jewelled coronet over her headdress, a few bracelets, and white kid gloves, without which she never appears in public. During her visit to London her Highness stayed at an hotel, and the strictness with which she follows the customs of her country was emphasised by the fact that a number of the hotel chambermaids took the place of waiters at dinner in order that no man should look upon the face of this unique ruler.
Furthermore, when she arrived in this country she was practically smuggled ashore. A special train was brought up to the ship at Dover so that the door of the saloon faced the gangway, and not even the captain of the mail packet was allowed to be near as the Begum hurried to the saloon.
Of course, the Begum never travels without her own servants, and her party altogether numbered about twenty persons, including her Highness's physician, astrologer, cooks, and other officials connected with her Court; and here it might be said that her physician is Mrs. Barnes, M.d., of Edinburgh, a lady who has been in attendance on her Highness for some considerable time, and who is held in the highest esteem by the Begum.
Many stories have been told concerning her Highness. It was said, for instance, that when she left India she was bringing with her to England all the water she would need for drinking and washing purposes, since so venerable a personage could not pollute herself; and among the adventures recorded of the Begum is one to the effect that during her pilgrimage to Mecca she and her bodyguard were attacked by the Arabs. Directed by her Highness, however, the troops gave the marauders a bad beating, after much bloodshed.
The Begum lives like most other Europeans, and her food does not differ from what may be found on almost any English table. Then, again, she delights in English hobbies. Music with her is a passion; so is painting; in fact, she has remarked that she loves her people and country first, and painting next. Hardly had she arrived at Patterson Court before she began to make inquiries about where she could purchase the best paints, saying that she intended to paint a picture of the beautiful valley which lay, quiet and beautiful, at the foot of her abode.
A Versatile Princess
"As soon as I came here," she said, "I made up my mind that I must try and paint a picture to take back with me, for your wonderful soft English colouring appeals to me so strongly."
"1 a.m., leap from bed, and begin playing piano to ladies; 2 a.m., panegyric on beauty of Surrey hills endorsed by ladies; 3 to 5 a.m., run round and round house without veil; 5 a.m., paint picture of Surrey hills, 30 feet by 20 feet; 10 to 12 a.m., run round and round house with veil to tantalise tradesmen; 1 p.m., luncheon off ordinary soda-water from ordinary syphon (no ad. no mention); 2 p.m., head procession of seventy motor-cars for drive through exquisite Surrey hills; 4 p.m., balance one perfect leaf of China tea on tip of tongue; 5 to 7 p.m., subtle cross-examination of ladies on appearance of Surrey hills - and tradesmen; 7 to 12 p.m., solo on sackbut for surviving ladies."
Her Highness is scarcely so energetic as this would imply; but, at the same time, for a woman of her age she possesses amazing vitality.
Patriotic to a degree, the Begum has never neglected an opportunity of displaying her admiration for the British rule, and her loyalty. At Delhi, eight years ago, her Highness insisted on being present at Lord Curzon's Coronation Durbar, being determined that no disability attaching to her sex should prevent her from publicly advertising to the world the loyalty of the reigning House of Bhopal. She did not, like most of the other native chiefs, make a little speech on the occasion, but she laid at the Viceroy's feet a presentation to King Edward, a richly jewelled casket containing an address, in which she assured the British King-of the loyalty and devotion of herself and her people, and also of the loyalty of the whole Mohammedan population of India, "for faithfulness and obedience to the ruler are both strictly ordained by the Mohammedan religion."
The Power of the Stars A curious sidelight on the character of this remarkable woman is furnished by the fact that in spite of her enlightened progressive ideas, the Begum of Bhopal is exceedingly superstitious. Among the attendants and officials who accompanied her to this country was, as already mentioned, an astrologer, on whose predictions and advice her Highness places the greatest reliance. As a matter of fact, the journey to this country would not have been undertaken had not this Astrologer Royal said that the stars were propitious. For it must be mentioned that this journey across the "black water " was a great event in the life of the Begum.
The fact that she personally supervises all the work of the many departments of her state naturally made her hesitate to leave that work even for such an historic event as the crowning of King George and Queen Mary. The Astrologer Royal, however, was able to assure her Highness that there were no disturbing elements in the firmament, and that the journey might safely be undertaken.
In great events of her own state, also, the Begum seldom acts without consulting her astrologers. To people in this country such belief in the signs of the stars may seem exaggerated, to say the least, but it must be remembered, however, that Bhopal is situated in a country whose people, both high and low, are steeped in ancient superstitious beliefs.
It might be mentioned, by the way, that the status of Indian princes is rigidly marked in the prescription of the number of gun-fire salutes to which they are entitled.
The Begum (or Nawab) of Bhopal is entitled to a salute of nineteen guns. Only three Indian chiefs receive higher honour - viz., the Gaekwar of Baroda, the Nizam of Hyderabad (ruler of the premier Mohammedan State), and the Maharajah of Mysore, each of whom is entitled to twenty-one guns. In her own dominions the Begum claims a salute of twenty-one guns.
The capital of Bhopal bears the same name and is one of the most beautiful cities in India. Its chief feature, however, is the beautiful palace of the Begum, which her Highness has built to the memory of her husband, which she calls Ahmedabab Palace.
Her Highness seldom leaves the palace, living an entirely secluded life. The greater part of each day is taken up with discussing the affairs of the State with her Ministers, the leisure hours being devoted to music and painting and walks in the beautiful grounds which surround the palace. The Begum, like the average Mohammedan woman, dislikes the society of man, and for that reason she prefers to remain for the greater part of the time in seclusion. She has gathered around her, however, a Court of women, who assist her in working for the advancement of her sex, and no question relating to their welfare is ignored by her. Her Highness, indeed, will go down to posterity as one of the most enlightened rulers of her time, who, in a country where the march of progress is, by force of circumstances, slow, has accomplished more than any other ruler in our Indian dependency.