4 Stories of Everyday Royals

While the masses coo at Kate’s dresses and wink at Harry’s antics, there’s a world of colorful royalty that never makes the tabloids. From a crafty prince who scalps movie tickets for pocket money to a TV-obsessed royal who believes Star Trek can jump-start the economy, these are the new faces of royalty.

1. The Hardest-Working Kings

By Matthew Schneeberger

On a Friday morning in August, during the holy month of Ramadan, Sanwar Ali Shah, 48; his son Sanu Shah, 22; and his brother Dilawar Shah, 50, pack their way into the Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid. It’s not raining, but a monsoon looms near, its thick humidity folded into the warm Kolkata air. Inside the mosque, working-class Muslims stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for prayer.

At first glance, Dilawar, Sanwar, and Sanu are indiscernible from their fellow congregants. But as Sanwar walks out, then throws a calloused hand onto the rickshaw he pulls, the people around him know the difference. Over a 10-hour shift, he will pocket 300 rupees ($6). “I work 30 days per month,” he says in Hindi, shaking his head in disbelief. “There are no holidays.”

This crushing grind isn’t uncommon in Kolkata. But Dilawar, Sanwar, and Sanu aren’t like the others filing out of the mosque. Through seven generations, these three can trace a direct lineage back to Tipu Sultan, the legendary 18th-century ruler of Mysore, the man for whom the mosque is named. Of the roughly 15 million people stuffed into the city, these three princes should be surveying their kingdom. Instead, they’re pulling rickshaws.

In India, being related to Tipu Sultan is a mark of distinction, like being a descendant of a more ferocious George Washington. Back in 1782, Tipu took over the leadership of Mysore from his father. The kingdom, centered about 90 miles outside Bangalore, stretched to the southern banks of Kerala and encompassed much of South India. But the timing of his ascent was unfortunate: Tipu gained power just as the British launched an aggressive land grab on the subcontinent. Back then, India wasn’t so much a nation as a loosely stitched heap of principalities and kingdoms. When British eyes turned to Tipu’s territory, he fought a series of dogged wars to protect his land. His ferocity—which famously included rocket attacks against would-be conquer- ors—earned him the nickname “the Tiger of Mysore.”

Although Tipu Sultan died in 1799 during a decisive British victory, his legend had been firmly established long before. Hearing of his valor, Napoleon had once hoped to join forces with Tipu, uniting French and Indian armies against the British. And despite the Muslim leader’s cruel streak toward India’s Hindu and Christian populations, he remains fixed in the popular imagination as one of the nation’s most important freedom fighters. In the years following his death, Tipu Sultan became so revered in South India that the British were uneasy letting his relatives live in the area. Fearing another uprising, the government displaced his extended family—including 12 of his sons— about 1,000 miles northeast to the then capital of the British Raj, Calcutta.

Tipu’s family was stripped of its status, but the British government made concessions to make sure his descendants were taken care of. His family received healthy stipends, which they used to acquire large tracts of property. Some of Tipu’s sons invested well, and their descendants live comfortably—or better.

But Dilawar, Sanwar, and Sanu Shah—descendants of Tipu’s first son—haven’t been as lucky. Two hundred yards from the mosque, along the same stretch of road, Sanwar, his three brothers, an unmarried sister, and their families reside in a ramshackle house. They end their work shifts bone-tired, with just enough money to put food on the table. As Sanwar once told the Indian newspaper the Deccan Herald, “We are ashamed to speak of our past; that we are descendants of the great man makes us shrink further.” But the blood of the Mysore Tiger still flows in their veins, and whatever scars the family bears from this fall from opulence, the Shahs still know how to fight.

Dilawar Shah and his brothers have spent their lives hustling. They’ve scalped movie tickets for spare cash. They’ve biked rickshaws through Kolkata’s gridded streets for 11 hours at a stretch. When the money from the fares wasn’t enough, the brothers carved a cigarette stall into the front of their dilapidated home and put their mom to work. Today, the Shah home also houses a family-run leather upholstery shop, where Sanu stitches colorful leather rickshaw seat covers by hand. The Shahs are the hardest-working royal family in the world, but how did they fall on such hard luck? It starts with their father, the eldest of Tipu’s sons, who insisted on living like a king, even when he couldn’t.

“My father, Akhtar, was an educated, worldly man who could read and write in several Indian and European languages,” says Dilawar. Akhtar never worked, hoping that the family’s regal position would be reinstated after two centuries and that the trusts of the other branches of Tipu Sultan’s family tree would come to his aid. Those cash infusions never came. When the southern Indian state of Karnataka offered to transport the family to rehabilitate them in Mysore, Akhtar refused to leave Kolkata, holding out for a better offer. And when his inheritance slowed to a trickle, he sold off whatever valuable assets he had to maintain his lifestyle.

But in his selfishness, he never schooled his children. In fact, all his children are completely illiterate. “It may be surprising to see us employed in such basic professions, but nothing more was possible,” says Dilawar, who has worked dozens of odd jobs. “Before you can feed the mind, you must feed the stomach. So we were left uneducated.”

If there’s hope for Dilawar and his family, it’s that other branches of Tipu’s family tree have been able to reverse their fortunes relatively recently. On the very same Prince Anwar Shah Road, about midway between the mosque and the Shahs’ run-down home, stands Fort Mysore Towers, a modern apartment complex that dwarfs the surrounding architecture. There, secured behind the compound’s high concrete wall and security guards, Maqbool Alam, 82, who belongs to another of the family’s strands, owns three apartments. Although he’s living comfortably, he explains in the Queen’s English, “Not long ago, we too had financial problems.” His nephew Shahid Alam, 48, who also owns three apartments, agrees. “Money was a major concern. Thankfully, in the late 1990s, we were able to make an agreement with a property developer to demolish the 150-year-old building and raise these towers.”

As secretary of Mysore Family Fateha Fund Wakf Estate (which handles property matters for those shifted from Mysore by the British), Shahid has taken a particular interest in the family’s fortunes. He blames Indian bureaucracy and a painful litigation process for contributing to the disparity among Tipu’s descendants. “So many documents have been filed on our behalf to various minority welfare boards; committees have come from as far as Karnataka to write reports; there are numerous property cases which remain pending—but nothing happens.”

To illustrate his point, Shahid cites a family burial ground located about two miles away. “This plot was active and in use until 1979. That’s when the illegal encroaching began.” By 1985, Shahid says, the eight-acre burial ground had transformed into a slum, overrun by 4,000 squatters and more than 400 shanties. “When we tried to evict them ourselves, the thugs who’d helped settle them threatened us.”

For two decades, Shahid has been formally petitioning various police and government departments to help his relatives. “It’s an untouchable area for the politicians. They get votes in this district from the squatters, and they don’t want to anger them. So they smile in our faces with promises to help.”

While Shahid now has the luxury of worrying about abstract matters like legacy, the Shah family is still focused on more tangible concerns. “Proud of the legacy?” Dilawar asks. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to give my three daughters some education,” a gift his father never gave him. He continues, “Now my only hope is to have my younger two married.”

If history is any indication, this rickshaw-pulling prince will hustle and sweat to pay for those weddings. His family will band together to make it happen. And once they have, Dilawar will look to fulfill his final wish: “I’d love to see Mysore, the ancestral homeland. Just to visit would be nice.”

As for Sanu, 22, he’s focused on earning enough money stitching rickshaw seat covers to start a family. “If I save my salary and work hard, I’ll be able to marry by 30,” he says.

And so instead of lounging in palaces, three princes who should have been born retired instead earn each rupee the hard way, placing calloused hands on the rickshaw’s handlebars, taking a deep breath, then eyeing the crowded streets for the next passenger.

2. King of the Trekkies

With increasing unrest in the Middle East, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has a curious plan to buoy the region’s plummeting tourism sector: Star Trek.

After attending school in America, King Abdullah became an unapologetic fan of the TV series. He even appeared on Star Trek: Voyager as an extra in the 1990s. In 2011, he took his fandom to the next level by securing the funding to create a $1.5 billion Star Trek theme park in the city of Aqaba. While most of that money goes to licensing fees, Abdullah has worked hard to create a sustainable business. The park would need only 480,000 visitors a year to turn a profit—a fraction of what it takes most parks. And instead of trying to compete with the likes of Disney World, which stretches over 30,000 acres in Orlando, he’s content with a measly 183 acres. Wisely, the king isn’t alone in his ven- ture. CBS and Paramount are involved in planning rides. And it will have more than just luxury hotels and Klingon restaurants; the king wants his park to include a healthy dose of Jordanian history and culture too. While jet-setting Trekkies may wonder what that means, they won’t be able to find out until 2014, when the park is scheduled to open.

3. Lost and Found: The Unbelievable Hunt for the Last King of France

The name Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon sounds French enough. And if you were told the gentleman bearing the name was next in line for the French throne, it might sound reasonable. But staring at a jovial and portly Indian lawyer/farmer from Bhopal, you can see why people are skeptical. While Balthazar always knew he was of French origin—his last name and Catholic faith are an easy giveaway—he had no idea of his royal heritage until Prince Michael of Greece knocked on his front door.

In doing some family research, Prince Michael, who also hails from the Bourbon clan, discovered that a swashbuckling nephew of Henry IV named Jean de Bourbon had worked his way to India. Jean had fled France after killing a nobleman in a duel. But on his journey, he was kidnapped by pirates, sold as a slave, and served in an Ethiopian army before eventually making his way to Goa, India. From there, he met the Mughal king Akbar and served in his royal court. Over generations, Jean de Bourbon’s descendants assimilated into the culture—marrying Indians and abandoning their mother tongue for local dialects. In fact, Balthazar de Bourbon’s command of French is incredibly poor. But since the guillotine put a stop to Louis XVI’s direct line, Balthazar is his closest living relation. Today, this Indian crown prince laughs about his distinctly middle-class lifestyle, dubbing it “Bourbon on the rocks.” But he has a message for the people of France: If they’re ever itching for a return to monarchy, he’s more than willing to warm the throne. Even if he doesn’t speak the language.

4. Taxicab Confession

George Tupou V, the Oxford-educated former king of the Pacific Island nation of Tonga, told The Telegraph, “A London taxi has the right proportions and makes it easy for you to get in and out whilst wearing spurs and a sword.” Laughing, he continued, “I realize that these criteria are not everyday considerations for the ordinary mum and dad.” The king liked his chauffeur-driven, custom-leather-lined cabs so much that he used two of them to cruise the island.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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