Kolkata: Bespectacled and grey hair brushed back, Husain Shah, 70, is the quintessential elderly Bengali man next door. But within him he carries a historic legacy, as a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the king of Mysore who valiantly fought the British.
"We are born and brought up in Kolkata now for many generations; so that makes me a Bengali," says Husain Shah of his identity. He`s a businessman, the owner of an agency that supplies fuel to retailers.
Tipu was the grandfather of Husain Shah`s great grandfather Anwar Shah, who has a major thoroughfare named after him in Kolkata.
Tipu, the king of Mysore, was defeated and killed at Srirangapatanam (near Bangalore) by the British Army in 1799, ending thereby the last hurdle to the colonial conquest of southern India.
Shah narrates the story of how the family came to be in this city.
"After Tipu was killed by the British in Mysore, his 12 sons and relatives, a group of 300 people, were sent to Kolkata, so as to prevent the family from becoming a rallying point of revolt against British rule," Husain Shah said.
"Here they were in a distant land among the people of a different language and history whom it would be difficult to provoke by invoking the heroism of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan."
And so the first family of the Mysore kingdom became a part of the mosaic of modern India`s pre-eminent city, Kolkata, which as the colonial capital and a major trading centre, drew people from different parts of the country. The family members were given official pension and plots to settle in the southern fringe called Tollygunge. Like prescient investors, the deported family acquired assets in a growing 19th century Kolkata.
There is an obvious contrast between Shah`s royal ancestry and his upper middle class way of life in the city today.
He lives in a fairly large flat in a new multi-storey apartment block that overlooks the Hoogly River. He moved in there only a couple of years ago and was living earlier in Park Circus, an old locality of the city. He has a joint family, with both his sons - one a lawyer and another a chartered accountant - living with him.
Shah has no memorabilia reflecting his regal ancestry. But there is a handful of gold, silver and copper coins minted in Tipu`s time, which Shah, for sentimental reasons, acquired at a considerable cost from sources reached through the internet. He also has documentation related to Tipu, that is, books with photographs and a copy of the Treaty of Seringapatam that confirmed Mysore`s surrender to the British.
But don`t go looking for personal family memories of Tipu, as Shah says there are "none" - settled as they were in a distant place with the express intent of severing their links with the past. But Shah likes researching the historical significance of Tipu and the Mysore kingdom.
He points out that a major debate in Indian history concerns whether indigenous impulses to modernize would have taken off if the British had failed to conquer India. "The key to this riddle possibly remains in the modernizing potential of the kingdoms and elites of the time," opined Shah.
"According to Jean-Marie Lafont, a French scholar, Maharaja Ranjit Singh`s kingdom in the Punjab displayed signs of such potential. It was strong and secular, with Ranjit Singh as a moderniser who made innovations to his administration and army with the help of French officers. Thus he could become such a formidable challenge to the British."
The Mysore kingdom had posed an equally stiff challenge in the south at the turn of that century.
According to a contemporary chronicler, Tipu`s father Hyder Ali was from a family of migrants from north India which later settled in Karnataka.
"Both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan made efforts similar to Ranjit Singh`s to modernise and strengthen their capabilities against the British by employing French advisors. But such efforts to protect and nurture the nation`s potential were not spread widely enough at the time," said Shah.
Kolkata has many landmarks commemorating Tipu, the most famous being an elegant mosque in the centre of the city. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club, catering to the city`s elite since the 19th century, stands on property on lease from the descendants of Tipu Sultan.
At one time, the properties of Tipu`s sons in Kolkata included sizeable chunks in the business district comprising Chowringhee, Park Street and Theatre Road, besides large tracts of land in the southern parts.