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The Princess diaries

PRABALIKA M. BORAH
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Chatline On the eve of the transformation of the historic Falaknuma Palace into a deluxe hotel, Princess Esra Birgin talks to PRABALIKA M. BORAH on her efforts in restoring the Palace and her tryst with Hyderabad

N avigating through the Old City daytime traffic, we come to the right turn from the main road that leads to the Falaknuma Palace. The road seems to be laid for buggies and horses with trees on both sides. At the end of the road we reach Falaknuma Palace's first security gate. Uniformed men talking over their walkie-talkies, let us in. After a short uphill drive we reach the Stables — the parking area. Here we go through a second security check and then take a comfortable uphill walk to reach the clock tower — the main entrance that leads one to the palace. The final security check is done here and then a golf cart transfers us to the palace's main gates.

We walk up the stairs to the sound of the soothing piped piano music. At the right entrance is the Study. We take the carpeted steps. Marble statues on the railing and black and white photographs of the erstwhile Nizams, British residents and luminaries who visited the palace grace the walls.

At the end of the steps, Princess Esra Birgin greets us. “This looks straight out of James Cameron's Titanic scene, where Jack waits for Rose near the clock,” we exclaim. “Indeed it does, but we will not sink,” laughs Princess Esra as she leads us to a study room through the Jade room. “This is all leather and wood, let's talk in the Jade room,” she suggests.

Two days to go for the inauguration of the Falaknuma Palace as a hotel— a much-awaited event in Hyderabad.

Princess Esra makes herself comfortable in one of the chairs and begins to talk about the tasks she has undertaken. “After the Chowmahalla Palace, I am over-seeing the work at Falaknuma. After the death of the sixth Nizam, no one lived here for 100 years. It was only used for banquets and grand occasions. There were five palaces to take care of and over several thousand staff to take care. Added to it were the high taxes. That was affecting the palaces' upkeep. But luckily the charitable trust came to our rescue to some extent at that time. So in 1994 it was given to the Taj group. For sometime nothing was moving as restoration was not easy. Everything had to be re-built, we had to restore paintings and photographs which took a lot of time,” explains Princess Esra.

The jade room is all green — right from the carpets to the upholstery to the décor inside the fine wooden and glass showcases. “The chandeliers, the furniture, the showcases — everything is restored. We have changed the furnishings and they too are exact replicas of the original,” she smiles. Dressed in a crepe blue printed salwar suit, Esra goes on a trip down memory lane when we ask her to compare the grandeur of the yesteryear and present day. “I was 20 years old and was pursuing my degree in architecture. We didn't live here. We used to live in a modest house in Banjara Hills. Everything is almost same now and I feel relived that something of the heritage has been restored to its original state,” she smiles.

Just then a hotel staffer walks in with two bolsters, her attention shifts and she instructs,, “I removed them from where they were as they were falling off. I would like you to keep it carefully somewhere.”

A hands-on person Esra says she loves being a part of the whole exercise and would love her critics to come ahead and help if they have suggestions but “gossip and back biting is not in me. I don't just delegate work, but like to do it myself,” she says.

Though presently she shuttles between England and Turkey she is now contemplating on spending quality time with her children in Hyderabad. “My son is a cinematographer and daughter loves horse riding and writing. My husband's son from his Australian wife who is a businessman is also supportive of me and they all would soon join me in taking care of what is left. I will be restoring another small property of ours in Hyderabad and spend more time with them here,” she says.

What about the Nizam, is he happy at what she has done? “Very much. He had travelled here a few times and was overwhelmed seeing the change. But unfortunately he cannot walk around too much. Diabetes has made his legs weak so he's mostly confined to his house,” Esra informs. What about the changes that she has seen in the city? “Oh a lot. I used to love staying in Hyderabad as the people were so cordial. There was no religious discrimination and people loved being good hosts,” she recalls.

She adds, “I must say you don't find authentic Hyderabadi food anymore. With the tradition of inviting guests home the secret recipes which every family had has disappeared. The spices in the food were not over powering as it is today. Everything was subtle and mild. I love to cook but have never tried Indian food as the masala preparation is not easy and I don't enjoy bottled spices,” she smiles.

What about language? Ever tried speaking Telugu? “Never. Maybe this will explain my expertise in Urdu. Once when guests arrived, I asked my staff to bring out langurs from the refrigerator. I actually wanted angur,” she laughs.

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