Remembering the Noor of Indian Royalty Raja Suleiman Khan of Mahmudabad


One thinks of family lineage when it comes to royalty. When I think of Raja Saheb of Mahmudabad, fondly known as Suleiman, who passed away on the 4th of October, 2023, I think of his intellectual lineage.
Born in a family of La Martinere Lucknow alumni, Raja Saheb’s schooling years were spent in Karbala, Lucknow, and later England. His forefathers had been instrumental in establishing Lucknow University and Aligarh University. Growing up in this atmosphere, Raja Saheb went on to complete his Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge. He spent many years at Cambridge, as a PhD student in astrophysics and teaching undergraduates but most importantly, here he met the love of his life, Rani Vijaya Khan, who, at the time, was studying literature. He briefly researched at the Institute of Astronomy in Trieste, Italy as well. But destiny beckoned him home to take on social responsibilities. Well-versed in Persian, English, Urdu, Hindi and Awadhi, his inheritance included one of India’s largest private libraries with a collection of remarkable manuscripts and books. His brooding nature added to the joy of collecting and over time grew into a full-fledged library now housed at Mahmudabad House in Lucknow. He was raised in a family where the stalwarts of India’s independence, Nehru and Gandhi, and his father were deliberating the idea of what this country would come to be. Along the decades of challenges that were to unfold, these values from formative years remained tethered to the way he led his personal and public life.
I first met him as a student at Ashoka University during my visit to Mahmudabad to observe and study the commemoration of Muharram. Having been well-versed with such settings, I was expecting royal protocol to follow in our meeting with the family.
And then, Raja Saheb descended as Noor does. A light that does not blind but radiates in a way that you may find yourself more easily in its bounty. Such is the nature of Noor- to illuminate.
Soon, extended dinners every evening with Raja Saheb, Rani Sahiba, their sons, Ali and Amir, my friends Aashima and Mahoor, often visiting scholars from around the world, and of course the ever-present staff, Osman Bhai and Chand Bibi, became my moral compass. Those who knew him, very well recognise his gift for regaling his dinner audience, be it at the round family table in Mahmudabad House or the grand one in Mahmudabad Qila’s Muqeem Manzil. He moved from Yeats to Mirabai to physics to Indira Gandhi more swiftly than a deer could sprint. As three starry-eyed kids, my friends and I could never process this ocean of wisdom that felt more like a deluge. Years later, I know that was never the purpose.
At his son’s wedding, when a guest noticed us engrossed in conversation and couldn’t help but wonder who I was, Raja Saheb quipped- I’ve known her for longer than time. It is then that his Noor truly dawned upon me- Raja Saheb’s eloquence was never about what he actually said but what he was suggesting. He spoke no words but codes. Only Kabir, Krishna and the Sufis were crafty enough to hack that. And he certainly derived joy from the occasional befuddlement he caused many a journalist and influencer who sought glamorous nitpicks from this hermit-like royal. In some ways, his demeanor seemed simple to reach and yet his presence was transcendental, far and beyond places the human mind can reach.
This was not the only world he inhabited. By the time I met him, he had lived in Cambridge and since returned to homebase to political innings as a legislative member in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly representing the Congress. In Mahmudabad, however, he lived a life different from any of these. He was unlike any Indian royal in his unparalleled austerity and commitment. Back home, his ultimate royal duty was to provide solace and faith to the people in his passionate Marsiya orations. This was a very different concept of royalty. It was steeped in humility and arduous service to people who gathered at the Qila during Muharram, seeking liberation from their daily suffering through acts of public mourning. He felt their suffering as deeply as he felt of the Imams martyred in the war of Karbala. The image of him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dalit devotees lighting lamps in the Fort courtyard on the eve of tenth of Muharram will always live in my heart. Every year, his heart grieved through his teary eyes as he walked among the people of Mahmudabad, tirelessly through days and nights, cutting across class, caste, and religion- fault lines that gnaw at India’s soul today.
In his blood and flesh breathed the ethos of this country. India has lost its most loyal citizen but I have lost more. Where will I seek refuge now? If only unleashing my inconsolable emotions was enough. But it is not. In this life, if I ever have the fortune of a good deed to my credit, I will know that I have found his Noor in mine.
If wisdom were a man
I’ve seen him.
His words look like pearls
Brimming for eternity and a day…
-Krishna Shekhawat, PhD Scholar, UC Berkeley, USA