4 Stories of Everyday Royals

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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.

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July 23, 2013 - 4:00pm
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