Colourful birds fly out of cake at dinner hosted by Sixth Nizam for Austrian Duke

Zeenath Khan

Mumbai: I came across an interesting article on Winston Churchill’s Hyderabad connection the other day. It was in the year 1896, the twenty-two-year-old Winston served as a subaltern with the British Army in Secunderabad. He fell madly in love with Pamela Plowden, daughter of the British Resident. The pair toured the streets around Charminar atop an elephant. Mutiny and its horrors, still fresh in Winston’s mind, he told Pamela they would be safe from the natives that way.

Duty was soon to part Winston and Pamela.For Winston left India to fight in the Boer War in South Africa.They kept up a prolific correspondence, with Winston giving Pamela updates on the progress of his novel The River Wars. So smitten was Winston that he wrote to his mother Lady Randolph Churchill that he’d found the ‘one’. Seven months younger than Pamela, Winston was neither a wealthy man nor did he display qualities indicative of future greatness. Pamela spurned Winston to marry the son of the Viceroy and became known as Countess Lytton. Despite their ill-starred love affair Winston and Pamela remained the best of friends till the end of their days.

Above photo is of the bungalow in Picket, Secunderabad where Winston Churchill stayed.

As a humble sub-altern, it’s unlikely Winston met Mahboob Ali Khan, Nizam VI. Fabled for his limitless wealth and fabulous hospitality, the sixth Nizam entertained many a foreign dignitary during his reign. Seen in this photo is Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria with the sixth Nizam in the splendid Durbar Hall of Chowmahalla Palace. 

His brother the Prince of Wales, the future George V also visited with his wife Princess Mary of Teck. The parade of European Royalty to visit Hyderabad in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth century includes the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, the Duchess of Battenburg, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, the Duke of Hesse, the Grand Duke Alexander of Russia and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria whose assassination sparked the First World War.

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his diary My Journey Around the World describes his stay in Hyderabad in vivid detail. Knowing his visitor to be a shooting enthusiast, the Nizam erected a town of tents in Tandur located at about 115 km from Hyderabad. Despite the best efforts of four hundred beaters not a single tiger appeared. The party of five hundred soon forgot the shikar’s failure at a lavish dinner party where amid a thick jungle champagne flowed like a waterfall. And, as for pièce de résistance—from inside a cake emerged, to the delight of all present, a flock of tiny birds in all the colours of the rainbow.

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Although mighty pleased with his reception, the Archduke had one complaint. The orchestra who attempted to play the Austrian national anthem with screeching clarinets was so off-key that he failed to recognize the tune. As a parting gift, Mahboob Ali Khan’s Prime Minister Asman Jah presented Hyderabad’s royal guest with a pair of tiger cubs who eventually found a home in Vienna Zoo.

It would be interesting to know how these gentlemen got along. For the Archduke spoke German and French and knew no English. In these pandemic blighted days, attending a dinner party in which rainbow coloured birds flew out of a cake seems like a dream. As I write, I wonder if someone dyed the birds…

Zeenath Khan is a Mumbai-based writer

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