"Her royal highness will see you tomorrow at 5. Be prompt. She has other engagements." So spoke the young man in the Oxford University sweatshirt as India's monsoon rain cascaded onto him outside the New Delhi railraod station.
"Her royal highness," a direct descendant of the last ruler of one of India's great princely states, now lives in decayed grandeur in a fly-infested, 15-foot square, open-sided portico of the train station with her son and daughter, surrounded for security by 10 dogs and waited on by two Nepalese servants.
They survive, they said, by selling off their carpets and jewels.
The begum, or queen, of the long-extinct kingdom of Oudh, Wilayat Mahal, 51, moved to the covered portico last year after being forced from a corner of the station's first-class waiting room, where she and her retinue had lived for seven years.
They seem to have free run of the area near the portico. The dogs are chained during rainy days in a large corridor just behind the portico and are tied to trees outside when the weather is nice. The servants live in a shack in the bushes, from which they bring pots of tea to visitors.
"They know how much property her highness had," said Prince Ali Raza, 22, the young man in the Oxford sweatshirt, in explaining why the family appeared to have the run of the grounds. For the interview, he had changed to a long, loose white cotton shirt.
"We prefer to sit over here," added the begum in her regal way, explaining why she had turned down past offers by the Indian goverment of what she considered to be unsuitable quarters for her family.
"Why, even my dogs wouldn't live in that," she said, dismissing one offer made in 1976.
Instead, she is demanding that India return to her all the royal property taken when the British unseated her great-grandfather, the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, 123 years ago and annexed what was then the Kingdom of Oudh.
"It was all Queen Victoria's fault," said the begum, which means wife but also can have a royal connotation. But the Indian government, she said, "does not have the character or capacity to give us anything."
Nonetheless, the begum and her children -- Prince Ali Raza and Princess Sakeena Mahal -- appear obsessed with their quest. They spend their days writing letters and petitions -- Ali Raza took one to London last year for delivery to Queen Elizabeth II -- and filing legal writs on behalf of their cause. They act as their own lawyers.
Even in their present reduced surroundings, they try to maintain the trappings of their ancestors' glorious past.
The cement floor of the railroad station portico -- built as a carriage drive for VIP passengers to keep them from being buffeted by India's teeming masses on the way to the trains -- has been covered by a large, though shabby, oriental carpet. A separate carpet covered a bench at one end of the portico, where the begu, dressed in sari and blouse with a fur-trimmed shawl, sat fanning herself against the heat and flies.
Folding metal gates provided security, and bamboo screens and potted plants provided a semblance of privacy. There was no escape, however, from the noise of the station and the leaks in the ceiling. There were no ceiling fans to provide relief from the heat; there was no electricity.
"If you say we haven't been able to sleep well for years, what with the noise and the heat, you would be right," said the prince. The entire family speaks English well. The prince and princess said they were educated by tutors.
They have stayed in the covered portico through some of New Delhi's worst weather -- the summers when the day and night temperatures hover around 110 degress; the steamy monsoons of July and August, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity that stays above 70 percent; and winters that are chilly enough to require blankets for sleeping.
Right now it was hot and rainy, and water dripped from the ceiling onto a finely carved Kashmir stool. The portico was filled with flies, which quickly swarmed around as the servants served tea and cakes on fine blue china.
The servants, spiffed up for the occasion in white uniform jackets instead of the tattered shirts they had worn the day before, vainly tried to fan the flies away from the sweet cakes, meat patties, soggy potato chips and boiled tea.
The heirs of the House of Oudh are an anomaly even in India, where many of the great princely families have lost once unparalleled splendor of palaces aplenty, silver, jewels and great herds of elephants, and now survive on memories and handouts.
Some have managed to keep a portion of their wealth through business or landholdings, while others represent their former states in India's democratically elected Parliament.
But many of the princely rulers -- whose domains made up one third of the country at the time of independence in 1947 -- exist under considerably reduced circumstances. They were granted privy purses at the time of independence, but these were withdrawn in 1971.
The kingdom of Oudh, however, did not make it to the end of British rule, and its survivors consistently have refused any privy purse.
Oudh was annexed by Britain in the 1850s because, the begum said, her great-grandfather "fought the Britishers." The British, however, claimed that the nawab wasted his time on wine, women and song instead of governing his kingdom.
The fall of the kingdom of Oudh ---now part of India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh -- was portrayed in Satyajit Ray's acclaimed film, "The Chess Players," which the begum denounced as "very insulting and highly degrading" to her great-grandfather the nawab.
"It should have shown how much he fought the Britishers instead of how easily they grabbed the land and then the crown," added the prince, Ali Raza.
Their princely home is in Lucknow, now the capital of Uttar Pradesh as then it was the capital of Oudh, and their great-grandfather's palace there is now part of the All India Institute of Medical Science. Other property of the former royal family is used by the government for libraries, courts and picture galleries.
"They even transformed our palaces into petty political offices," said the begum as she ordered the prince to show lithographs of some of the property.
Now they have little left but memories and lithographs, and Indira Gandhi's government shows scant patience with the former royal families -- especially those embarked on such a quixotic quest as the remnants of the kingdom of Oudh.