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REVELATIONS: The king and I

Dec. 20, 2013 at 6:20 a.m.


BY JENNIFER PREYSS

Comedian Brian Regan tells this great joke about Neil Armstrong.

Anytime he walked into a room, one could assume there was a pretty good chance Armstrong could one-up anyone's greatest achievement story.

Sure, millionaires, great inventors, war heroes and Mother Teresa-types could likely muster up a few story-time duesies.

But Armstrong could swoop in at the end of any of those tales with an, "Oh yeah? Well, this one time, I walked on the moon ..."

Regan submits that following the "walk-on-the-moon" story, heads would nod, and everyone would agree - no one can top that.

I've never forgotten Regan's joke, mostly because it made me realize that everyone desires to have one great "Neil Armstrong" story to share at cocktail parties.

For Steve Jobs, it was being fired from Apple, the company he co-founded, only to be hired back years later to launch Apple to a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

For J.K. Rowling, it was learning to survive on welfare and raising a child as a clinically depressed divorcee, while working on the then unknown novel, "Harry Potter."

And for "Married With Children's" Al Bundy, it was four touchdowns in one game.

I've always had a few good mediocre cocktail-hour-worthy stories to my name.

But I knew I finally had my Neil Armstrong story when I spent the afternoon with an Indian maharaja at his palace earlier this year.

With my 2013 Rotary Group Study Exchange teammates, I was invited to King Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma's palace in Trivandrum, India, to spend the afternoon in the company of His Majesty and His Majesty's personal Hindu astrologist.

In my lifetime, I never thought I'd have a story that would start out, "This one time, in India, I hung out with a king in his palace."

But that was the incredible thing about traveling to India. Every day I woke up, I knew anything, literally, could happen.

I was overwhelmed by the invitation to meet the maharaja, which means "great king."

I remember feeling somewhat guilty and embarrassed that morning because I didn't have a nicer outfit to wear to his home.

I'd been in the hospital the previous two days for an illness I contracted while abroad. The only clothes I'd packed were a couple of unimpressive black shirts and blue jeans.

If I'd known I would've been meeting royalty a few days later, I would have packed accordingly.

But alas, after all the stressing, the 91-year-old raja couldn't see too well beyond his cataracts.

Thankfully, he was dressed more casually that I was expecting. But his clothes did little to hide his nobility.

He was clearly royal, and being in his presence was impressive.

We spent about an hour talking about his life as the head of the royal Travancore family, who transitioned a few generations earlier from monarchy rule to a democracy.

The raja said his family, who ruled for centuries before him, was essentially de-crowned.

It didn't keep others from treating the family as you'd imagine people treat royalty.

During our visit, the raja's feet were kissed, he had workers nearby to fetch anything he may desire, and people standing nearby knew to be respectful, soft-spoken and courteous.

In about an hour, we lightly discussed marriage, love and religion, war and peace, world travels and the king's many political and celebrity encounters.

He was, by far, one of the most eloquent, wise and humble men I've ever met.

And knowing he was a king, someone capable of having anything he ever wanted from the moment of his birth, his humility was so much more meaningful.

He lived up to his title, maharaja, great king.

On Monday, the raja died of cardiac arrest at a private hospital.

The government declared a public holiday on the same day to honor his life as a significant leader.

It's odd, but when I heard the news of his death, I realized it never occurred to me that he would die a few months later.

Yes, he was old, but he seemed to be in good health otherwise. He also made sure to translate for us an expression in his native tongue that means, "One day, we will meet again."

I'm saddened we will not.

I will never forget my time with the great king - one of the most amazing memories of my life.

Thank you for your wisdom and hospitality, raja. And thank you for a truly special Neil Armstrong story.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jlpreyss@vicad.com or @jenniferpreyss on Twitter.

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