Friday, May 4, 2012

Queen of the Manor - Gautam Sen

Isotta-Fraschini (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I've never written a story before - in fact, I've never written before - but the editor of this magazine insists that I should be the one telling this story, that I would be the best to do so. And that no one else can quite tell it the way that I can. And I guess he's right! As I have lived in many parts of the world, I have known many interesting people intimately - and I have outlived many of them - that I do have a story to tell, I've decided to tell my tale.

Though I was born in 1929 - and in those days they didn't keep exact records of our births and deaths, somewhat like how it is in certain parts of the world even today - I can't quite tell you exactly the day that I was born. I just may have been born in 1928, but I was surely around by 1929. And in our times, the birth was a little complicated. What we were born with was a heart and a frame. The body came later. So it is quite possible that my heart, with my frame, was born in 1928, and to that my body was enjoined by 1929. And I was born in the city of Milan, in Northern Italy, famous for fashion and football.

Ah, my parentage, you wanted to know about that? Well, one was called Cesare Isotta and the other was called Vincenzo Fraschini. Yes both were men, but for our species it was not unusual for the male in pairs to go forth and procreate some great families: Armstrong and Siddeley, Austin and Healey, Chenard and Walcker, Daimler and Benz (though there a woman called Mercedes kind of butted in), Graham and Paige, Lea and Francis, Panhard and Levassor, and of course the most famous of them all, Rolls and Royce. All aristocratic names with much gravitas, my family name too is a stylishly exotic double-barreled Isotta Fraschini. Try that again - it sounds good, no?

Well to explain my antecedents - my lineage - Isotta and Fraschini got together (in the year 1900) to essentially, import, sell and repair cars. Soon after they started assembling Renaults, and followed that up by launching a 24hp car with the name Isotta Fraschini. In 1905 Vincenzo Fraschini went racing with a 17.2-litres 100bhp racer. In 1912, engineer Giustino Cattaneo designed a straight-eight engine that finally went into production in 1919, soon after the end of the First World War.

Luxury-car buyers wanted smooth, flexible multi-cylinder engines and there was nothing that could quite match the straight-eights for smoothness, refinement and power. The heart of the Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8 was an eerily silent 5.9-litre eight with overhead valves that developed 80bhp. In 1925, the heart became bigger, to 7370cc for the Tipo 8A and max power went up to between 110 and 120bhp. And if today you young 'uns are not that impressed by the power, remember that those engines had huge torque.

So, with a big torque heart and a mighty long frame (a wheelbase of 3.68 metres!) I was born a very healthy Isotta-Fraschini 8A Roadster (Photo credit: Chris Wevers) baby. (My heart and frame had numbers incidentally - 115- and 1135 respectively). Soon thereafter I received my body, a magnificent Sedanca de Ville style coachwork - painted in two shades of green, with the interiors in beige and green leather at the front and rear respectively - by none other than famous Milanese coachbuilder Cesare Sala. One of Italy's most prestigious coachbuilders from the pre-war era, Sala, along with Castagna, was the two that bodied most Isotta Fraschinis, though a few did get bodies by Carrozeria Touring and others. (You see, in our times no two automobiles from the more prestigious carmakers were alike - each had a specific body style, specially ordered colours, different upholstery; even if our parents were the same, no two siblings were alike. Yes, we had a heart, a frame, a body AND soul!)

I was taken delivery of by a gentleman by the name of Franco Pacchetti, the scion of a wealthy Milanese family, who I understand, had bought me on behalf of another gentleman. That gentleman was awaiting me in London and so off I went to the UK. Just 19-year-old, Syed Sajid Hussain, the Raja of Kotwara, was waiting for me eagerly.

I was picked up in London as a lot of money changed hands - I was too young to ask and didn't quite understand the value of things, but I must have been worth a lot. From what I gathered later, the young raja paid Rs 73,000, which at that time was the equivalent of about $ 20,000 or so, worth more than a Rolls-Royce or a Duesenberg then!

Now why he wanted someone from my family, I really don't know, but I guess it must have been something to do with his anti-English sentiments. Whilst explaining his ancestry to a friend when travelling with me, I overheard that the raja was from a talukdar family, talukdars being essentially landed gentry. Their ancestry could be traced back to 200 BC, and the fact that the raja came from a bloodline that had been fairly rebellious. Apparently, one of his ancestors, Raja Baz Khan had refused to pay the imperial tribune in sheer rebellion. That was in 1704, during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, and Baz Khan had no choice but to flee and take refuge in the neighbouring forests as his lands was handed over to Syed Badar Khan. It was only in 1827 when Raja Madar Baksh Khan, the 28th descendant of the dynasty's founder Raja Sopi, who finally won back the throne of Kotwara.

I also learnt from various conversations that in 1924 my new master, the young raja, had ascended the throne, when he was just 14 years old. Four years later he was sent off to the UK for higher education, after having completed his schooling from Lucknow's famous La Martiniere College. In the UK when he encountered the arrogance of the British colonial masters the young affronted aristocrat decided to enroll instead in Edinburgh University, which was Scotland and not England. And also took the decision that the set of wheels he needed to tootle around town would surely not be English. Not for him a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley, nor even a flamboyant Hispano Suiza, but an Italian car, a car that was designed to take on the best of Britain and France. Whilst Rolls went around claiming to be "the Best Car in the World", we at Isotta Fraschini knew that we were "the Aristocrat of Automobiles", and so it came to pass that an Indian aristocrat with very refined taste became my master in 1929.

Raja Sajid Hussain though wasn't the only Indian aristocrat to own a member of my family. In time I learnt that in 1925, the maharaja of Patiala had ordered an Isotta Fraschini, with very special hunting body by Windovers in the UK, who as per the maharaja's requests, had lacquered the body in colours of khaki, yellow, green and blue for camouflage! The following year, the maharaja of Baroda had got himself one of my siblings too, and in 1928 the maharaja of Cochin too purchased an Isotta Fraschini. That same year the Aga Khan too acquired one of my siblings, and at least two more were imported into India via Bombay. I also heard there was another of my siblings with prominent lawyer P K Mitter in Calcutta.

In other corners of the world, my siblings were in the garages of the Empress of Abyssinia, the Queen of Romania, King Faisal of Iraq, Benito Mussolini, Hollywood actor Rudolph Valentino (who had just starred in a film called The Young Rajah - do you think Raja Sajid Hussain may have been influenced by that?), publishing giant William Randolph Hearst and even Pope Pius XI, whose car was painted papal purple, upholstered in cardinal-red leather, and shaded by curtains of white damask...

But I'd like to get back to my young raja who - naturally - was excited to try me out. On the first outing it must have become obvious to him that in some ways I was an easy drive, but in one way I was difficult. I was big and bony - and heavy - so to make me change directions called for a lot of effort. Those days they used to say that you could recognise an Isotta driver by the muscles on his arms!

My raja was strong and muscular. And tall, dark and very handsome! And though driving me called for a lot of muscle-power, the other aspects were easier. My heart was so big that all he needed to do was to get me going in first gear, get to walking pace, and then double declutch and get into top, which was third, and from then on just floor the throttle - and I would serenely surge forward, gathering speed quickly, quietly, and before you know what was happening I was doing about 140kph, which was a lot those days. In fact, we would cruise all day long in third, slowing down when necessary, picking up speed when it was possible, just a dab of the throttle and a jab at the brake pedal to modulate speed. Oh, yes, retarding momentum was easy with me too, because I had brakes on all four feet of mine, when most automobiles of the period had brakes on just two.

For three years we roamed the streets of Edinburgh, my handsome maharaja and elegant me, making an impression wherever we went. But then my raja completed his studies and it was time for him to head back to India and take on his monarchical duties once again. Bidding adieu to England, I set off on ship, to exotic India.

In the summer of 1932 I found myself in a strange and exciting land. My new home was the beautiful Anwalhare Palace, originally a mud fort rebuilt in bricks in 1892. With a garden of fragrant red roses, the palace was surrounded by four independent havelis: Mustafa Manzil, Sajjad Manzil and Sartaj Mahal. Kotwara, the town in which the palace is located is in the Tarai region of Uttar Pradesh - some 160kms north of Lucknow - and bordering Nepal from Dudhwa National Park. The nearest railhead is Gola Gokarannath, which has one of the oldest temples of Lord Shiva built by the rajas of Kotwara. Set amidst an undulating landscape of ancient mounds overlooking an oxbow lake - dating back to the Mahabharat times, according to legend - a road through a 500 acres forest leads to the palace. And it's on this road that my raja would take me out for flexing my - rather long - legs.

Once in a while we would go for a drive, passing by several old temples and palaces in the lush green undulating countryside, getting occasional glimpses of the swift and wide Sharda river as it flowed down from the hills of Kumaon. Years later, the palace and the region would provide the picturesque locations for the raja's son, Muzaffar Ali, for his films such as Umrao Jaan, Gamman, Aagaman, Anjuman and even Zooni, other than serials like Husne Jaana and several telefilms. Incidentally, I provided the inspiration for Muzaffar's film company's name Integrated Films or IF!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back in India, the raja stopped driving me - instead a chauffeur did duty, and the raja, ensconced in the rear compartment, travelled. A sliding glass partition separated the rear section from the chauffeur's cabin, and to communicate there were these buttons marked left, right, quick, slowly, turn, home and stop, which when pressed would light up the corresponding tell-tale sign in the dashboard for the chauffeur to know what the master wanted.

Life got along peacefully and I had a relaxed time, being used sparingly for special occasions, as the raja had other cars to ferry him around most of the time. But around 1935 there was a flurry of activities, the raja going across for several gatherings and then I heard that he had stood for state legislative elections as an independent candidate. Which he went on to win comfortably, becoming a member of the legislative assembly for the state of Uttar Pradesh, a position that he kept getting elected to, till 1952.

It was in early 1937, when there was a lot of excitement again. The raja got married. And sure enough I was almost as much a star at the wedding and the subsequent socializing as the supremely gorgeous bride, Selma Rauf Hanim Sultana. Overhearing a conversation between her and the raja I gathered that Selma was the grand-daughter of the Ottoman emperor, Sultan Mourad V, who as the 33rd emperor, had a rather short session at ruling the empire - he was the emperor for just 93 days in 1886 - before being deposed on the grounds that he was mentally ill. And though he didn't rule beyond 31st August 1986, Murad lived on till 1904, marrying several women and having many children, of whom Selma's mother Princess Hadice Sultana was the only issue of his third wife, Sahcan Kadin Efendi.

The marriage was an arranged one. And again listening in to Selma's conversation I suspect that her cousins, Princess Nilüfer and Durr-e-Shevar probably had something to do with the matchmaking, as both of them had had arranged marriages to the sons of the Nizam of Hyderabad: Sahabzada Nawab Shekat Ali Khan Muazzam Jah and Azam Jah Damat Walashan Nawab Mir Himayat Ali Khan Bahadur. Their marriages were in 1931, in Nice, France.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, eight-year-old Princess Selma and her mother became another victim of history, fleeing her birthplace, the city of Istanbul, in 1924, for Beirut. With her father abandoning them, it became increasingly difficult for them to make two ends meet, it seems, and so Selma's mother thought it best to get her married off, and to who better than a Muslim prince from India.

And though the raja embodied Prince Charming himself, for Selma, Kotwara must have been quite a change from the golden city of Istanbul, which for centuries had prided itself at being at the centre of the world - the crossroad between the aggressive, adventurous, but colonizing West and the mystical, opulent, but redolent East - and Beirut, acknowledged those days as the Paris of the East, with its lavish lifestyle and hedonistic nightlife.

For the first few months I was jealous. My raja had less time for me. He was more into his new wife, who was - admittedly - beautiful, fascinating and intriguing. I was no more the favourite, no more his beloved. I was still beautiful, but in a stately, elegant way that had most men in awe, whereas my rival was beautiful in a sensuous, softly sexy way that had most men (and some women too) desiring her. And desire, as you know, is the strongest of all temptations.

But over time I could see that things were going all that well between the newlyweds. And then we heard the news that the princess was pregnant. And that, as war was approaching and Kotwara didn't quite seem the best of places to have a baby, the princess was going off to faraway Paris to have her baby. So, in the summer of 1939, Princess Selma left and that was the last time we saw her.

A few months later I overheard conversations that mentioned that the princess had given birth to a stillborn child. And that she had decided not to come back to India. And that it was over between the princess and the raja. The raja was devastated. Then came news that the princess herself had died.

It took almost two years to convince the raja to marry again, to give it another shot at building a family. In 1942, the raja married Rani Kaniz Hyder. And, once again, I was called on to be the groom's vahan, the royal carriage. Yes, I had picked up some words of Hindi and Urdu in the meantime...

But after that little bit of excitement it was back to the garage as the raja used other cars increasingly over the years. When Muzaffar, the raja's first son was born on the 21st of October 1944, he came home a few days later with me. But with the induction of the princely states into the Union of India in 1948, the raja decided to shift base to Lucknow and so I found myself spending days doing nothing at all in the garage at Kotwara.

And then I heard that the raja had heard that the child from Princess Selma who was presumed dead was not dead at all, that she had survived her mother and that she had been taken care of by foster parents and that she was fine and healthy and in a convent! I also heard that the raja had tried very hard to get custody of the girl - yes it was a daughter - but had been fobbed off with a whole lot of lies, that the girl had been hidden, and that all kinds of complicated intrigues had been resorted to keep her away from him. Matters that were way beyond my understanding; you know, human beings are complicated creatures!

Time passed and life moved on for the raja. And I languished in a garage. Then in 1962, Kenizé, the daughter of the raja and Selma suddenly arrived in Lucknow. And there I was back on the road, albeit briefly, a somewhat wizened old hag, sallow and rickety with the lack of care. But I managed to trundle around town. And make the climb to Naini Tal for Raja Sajid Hussain's sister Kaniz Sakina's marriage to Sahibzada Dr Abdul Wajid Khan, carrying the 90-year-old dowager Rani from Kotwara, along with Kenizé and the raja.Then Kenizé went back and I was back in the garage.

Finally, in 1967 it was resurrection time for me. Muzaffar Ali, the eldest son of the raja's three sons, heard that The Statesman newspaper was planning on organizing a vintage car rally in Lucknow, like the ones that they were holding in Delhi and Calcutta. And Muzaffar thought that an old gal like me still had enough spunk to impress people.

So he brought along some mechanics and helpers to Kotwara, and had me towed all the way to Lucknow. In Lucknow the operation began to get me back on my feet, and I must say that they did a good job. In 25 days I was ready for action and none too worse for the wear at the start of the rally. I got my long legs stretching again and lo and behold, there I was, cruising at 110kph!

By the end of the day my new friend, Muzaffar, was a happy young man: we had won the trophy for the Best Performance and Maintenance for a vintage car made before 31st

December, 1930! True, I was 38 years old already - not a nubile young thing any longer - but I was still very healthy. I had travelled just 19,000kms in all these years, not counting the boat ride I'd made from England to India. And though many photos of mine were taken, one really nice one was by a 12-year-old enthusiast called Debashish Chakravarti.

Now it was Muzaffar who was my guardian. The raja was happy to see me back on the road but was more engrossed in his social and civic activities: he was at that point the State Welfare Commissioner of UP and on February 4th, 1968 he presided over an All India Shia Political Conference in Lucknow. Muzaffar then took me to Delhi in March 1970 to participate in The Statesman rally there. After that I was sent off to Calcutta where I spent the next two years of my life in the garage of Tom Roy, another scion of a royal family, that of Santosh, a princely state that is now in Bangladesh. There I had some very interesting and classy garagemates and I must say that that was the first time I realized that there were other elegant ladies from yesteryears just like me out there in the wide world.

In 1973 Muzaffar had to let me go. And I don't blame him: I was getting in on age, a little cranky, a little cantankerous, and like many middle-aged ladies of standing, somewhat high maintenance. And Muzaffar had to get on with his life - he couldn't quite mollycoddle me for ever, could he? Four years later his first film Gaman would be out, establishing him as one of India's finest moviemakers.

A Brit called Ian McRoberts became my new guardian. And he had me smuggled out of India as we were by then seen as part of India's heritage, there being a ban on exports of old automobiles. I was back on a ship, heading back to good ole Blighty 42 years after I had left its shores.

Soon after I arrived I found myself settled into a garage in Hellingly, East Sussex, with quite a few other upper crust automobiles. My new guardian was a certain Peter Grant. Peter was very different to the men - and women - who I'd known till then. For the first 45 years of my life I had known mainly rajas, ranis, rajkumars and princesses, all with family genealogies that spanned centuries. Peter, whereas, was a self-made man. Starting off as a sheet metal worker when he was only 13, then from being a delivery boy, a stagehand, a doorman and a bouncer, to minor acting roles, Peter had done it all, before he became the founder manager of a rock act called Led Zeppelin.

Okay, now I have you sitting up, right?

Yes, Peter was "The Man who Led Zeppelin", as the title of a biography on him by Chris Welch says, the man who was really behind the huge success of one of the greatest rock bands of the 1970s. A lumbering giant of a man - he was six-feet-four-inches tall, and almost as wide - Peter was aggressive, foul-mouthed, heavy-handed and intimidating, and in almost every way so very different from the men and women I had known before, all very calm, refined, polite and soft-spoken gentleman and ladies with grace, poise and class.

But he did have a heart of gold. And his sense of loyalty and commitment to his people was way beyond reproach. He took very good care of me and entrusted me to Nigel Arnold-Foster at Basset Dawn Engineering, who mechanically restored me during 1974-77. Around that time my body was removed and stored until 1988, when it was restored and repainted to white and black, the colours that I'm in even today. In 1993 my seats and interiors got redone in beige leather, with beige headlining at the rear, and the front seats received new green upholstery which was close to the original.

Till 1983 we rarely saw Peter as he was away touring with the band most of the time, his wife and two children, Warren and Helen, though staying on at home. But with the official break-up of Led Zeppelin in 1980 and the folding up of his music label Swan Song by 1983, Peter kind of retired, and from then on he was mostly at home. Though he had became a bit of a recluse - what with the problems of his marital break-up, diabetes, alcohol and drugs - Peter did move around occasionally, and when he did, he would take one of us for the ride. And though I had quite a few illustrious garagemates - a Porsche, a Jaguar MKII and two very elegant straight-eights Pierce-Arrows - I was still the queen of the manor.

In the meantime, I had both good news and bad news. In 1987, Kenizé, the daughter of Raja Sajid Hussian, who if you recall I had met briefly in 1962, published a book in French, "De la part de la princesse morte" (or "Regards from the Dead Princess", its English translation) under the nom de plume of Kenizé Mourad, where I figured twice as she recounted her mother's story: her life in Istanbul, then Beirut, her marriage to Raja Sajid Hussain, her life in Kotwara and Lucknow, and then her return to Paris, Kenizé's birth, her affair with an American and then her death. Described as an Oriental Gone with The Wind, it's a must read.

The bad news was that of the death of Raja Sajid Hussain on February 3rd, 1990.

More was to follow. On 21st November 1995, Peter Grant suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 60 years old. I felt orphaned twice over.

On 16th of February, 1996, I had a visitor - an Isotta Fraschini expert, Colin Wilson, who came along with the person who had been taking care of me, John Gould, to take some photographs. And then on the 2nd of December, 1996, I along with most of my garagemates, were auctioned off by Brooks (now Bonhams). I was lot number 957 and I went for £ 106,000.

Soon, I was on a ship again. But this time to a new country, to another continent altogether, to the US of A; and not just some small obscure town, but to glamville itself, Las Vegas! There I was lodged at the Imperial Palace. No, not in one of the 2,640 rooms of the hotel, but at the Auto Collection, which, you may know, is a famous automobile museum, though in reality it is essentially the world's biggest classic car showroom with over hundreds of cars on display, and even more on sale.

Despite the fact that we had hundreds of visitors every day, it was a little sad. I was just one of hundreds of magnificent dames, many with double-barreled aristocratic-sounding names like mine: Rolls-Royce, Hispano Suiza, Mercedes-Benz, Pierce-Arrow, Talbot Lago. Others were single-barreled, but big bore nonetheless: Duesenberg, Bugatti, Auburn, Cadillac, Ferrari, Delahaye. I was just one of many. I felt neglected, like I was in an orphanage, despite finding other members of my family, including one that was famous for having acted in the Hollywood film 'Sunset Boulevard'.

In 2008 I was selected to travel to Pebble Beach to participate at the Concours d'Elegance event. There I realized that I was up for sale, and then I heard that a new guardian had been found for me. Was he or they going to be as special as my earlier guardians? I was worried.

But when I met Malcolm Forest, the curator of the trust that had bought me, I knew I was in good hands. Malcolm, who is half Brazilian and half American, is an ingenious, eclectic and versatile personality who is right at the centre of the Brazilian cultural scene and has been a producer, presenter, speaker, mediator, historian, theatre director, actor, narrator, writer, composer, singer and interpreter...

A celebrity in his own right, Malcolm has something of the social crusader Raja Sajid Hussain, of film maker Muzaffar Ali and his artistic talents, and the personality and creativity of Led Zeppelin's Peter Grant. Plus something else that reflects his Brazilian sensitivities and causes. And he's an authority on my Isotta Fraschini family, taking care of another sibling too. Though the relationship is new, I feel it's going to be another long, gratifying one.

And I think it's going to be an exciting one too. In November I had visitors at my temporary home at Tired Iron Works in Los Angeles, and one of them was an Indian called Sunil Bajaj. He took some photos of me, sent them off to his friend, the editor of this magazine, who then got in touch with both Malcolm and Muzaffar, and then proceeded to put them in touch with each other. Others from my hoary past were contacted too and each had a tale to tell: Kenizé Mourad about her father's passion for me, Debashish Chakravarti about my elegance, Tom Roy about my magnificence and Colin Edwards about his correspondence with the late Peter Grant.

But I suspect there may still be a bigger tale to tell in the future as Malcolm and Muzaffar and other actors in my story get together one day. And yes, I would love to travel once again. Wouldn't it be wonderful to go and see Brazil? Wouldn't it be great to revisit England again? And wouldn't it be absolutely fantastic to make a nostalgic trip to India, to Kotwara and the days of the future passed?