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From princes to paupers

Prasanta Paul is shocked by the plight of the great grand descendants of Tipu Sultan, who are lugging rickshaws in the mean streats of Calcutta.

Anwar 38, is just another faceless rickshaw-puller, among the thousand others lugging their three or two-wheeled vehicles in Calcutta and its neighbourhood.

Yet the thin, lanky Anwar is not really a nobody; he is one of the sixth generation descendants of Tipu Sultan, the great freedom fighter from South India who laid down his life in a bloody fight against the British, in the battle of Srirangapatnam, in 1799.

As ill luck and irony would have it, Anwar and his brothers have been pulling rickshaws on the very road named after one of their ancestors, Prince Gulam Mohammed Anwar Shah, one of Tipu Sultan's 12 sons! Never mind if Anwar or the members of his family pine for what is not, as their brush with history is a distant memory now, a tale almost forgotten. It was from their grandmother that they came to know about the historical connection, or rather, about the link with Srirangapatnam and subsequently, Prince Anwar Shah.

Notwithstanding the recent brouhaha by the West Bengal government over the commemoration of the bicentenary of the glorious martyrdom of Tipu Sultan, Anwar, Anwar's mother Chamanwara Bewa and her three other sons and two daughters do not rue their fate, or the phenomenal indifference towards their plight by the powers-that-be.

We are ashamed to speak of our past; that we are descendants of the great man makes us shrink further, because it wont help to restore our fortune or mitigate our poverty, says Anwar Shah, as his eyes search for a passenger in the scorching, humid day. The sad reality is that talking to the correspondent here about their plight is less important than earning his daily wages, to fend for himself and the family.

And Anwar Shah is quite candid about confessing it.

We have earlier spoken to many people, narrated our woes to them; but all in vain. Nothing helps unless we help ourselves, he regrets. More than a decade ago, when R. Roshan Baig, the then Waqf minister and a special emissary of the Karnataka government met his father, the late Mohammed Akhtar Shah at their godforsaken dwelling in South Calcutta in 1989, Baig was moved by the wretched living conditions of Tipu's great grand descendants. Mr. Baig, who had been specially depicted by the Karnataka government to look for original descendants of Tipu, for their honourable rehabilitation in the southern state, urged Anwars father to migrate to Karnataka and promised all help, once he did so; but for reasons best known to him, Akhtar Shah declined to quit the city and pleaded with Mr. Baig to arranged for some funds to enable him to lead a decent life, Anwar claims, puffing a beedi.

I feel that my father made a terrible mistake; he ought to have gone to Karnataka. Perhaps, he was afraid, as we don't know Kannada. But that was no logic, argues Anwar, as his brother Dilwar, 36, also a rickshaw-puller, arrives after a round.

Sheer poverty has prevented them from going to school and all the four brothers are completely illiterate. Taking a peep into history, in the aftermath of the death of Tipu Sultan, during the battle of Mysore, the then British rulers threw all the dozen sons of Tipu into prison at Vellore, from where they were shifted to another prison in Calcutta in 1807, suspecting that they had powered an abortive rebellion in Vellore jail.

Since then, the descendants of Tipu's dozen sons have been scattered into various parts of the city. Anwar is the eldest son of the late Mohammed Akhtar Shah, the direct descendant of Tipu's eldest son, Nawab Fateh Hyder Sultan.

Anwar only thanks his stars that he was able to quit the dark life the four brothers had led in their teens, to help his father run the family, as Akhtar Shah could not ensure two square meals a day just by running a tiny cigarette stall. Before taking to rickshaw- pulling, admits Anwar, they used to earn some fast bucks by selling cinema tickets in black. Dilwar, sitting beside him, gives a wry smile of approbation, because it was he who had the longest stint in the trade. Their two younger brothers - Shanu and Hussain Ali - make a living by pulling rickshaws and running a ramshackle tailor shop, respectively.

If their claims are to be believed, more than 500 bighas of prime land, besides real estate strewn in the city, actually belongs to the Tipu clan and owing to protracted litigation and other reasons, it has become a messy affair. Even the building with the corporate office of Shaw Wallace in Central Calcutta, which was originally given on a 85 year lease, belongs to the clan. The lease expired in 1985, but we could do little about it, Anwar claims.

So, when his mother Chamanwara Begum returns home everyday after her routine engagement as maid-servant from various apartments in the posh locality of Prince Anwar Shah Road in South Calcutta, eyebrows are not raised. Because without this, it is difficult to arrange money for the marriage of one of her two daughters, let alone make both ends meet.

--- DECCAN HERALD - Friday - May 19, 2000