When the birds crowed Wednesday morning and I was preparing for the day, there was no indication that my evening would be spent at a palace chatting with a king.
When does that happen in real life?
But apparently, there were several members of Rotary in India and one very persistent Group Study Exchange teammate, Janine Campbell, who believed I shouldn't leave Kerala without meeting the maharaja, H.H. Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma.
One day earlier, several members of my team were able to meet His Majesty at the royal palace, but I was unable to attend because I was being treated at the hospital.
After the last program of the day and before the nightly Rotary meeting, we made an unofficial visit to the king's private palace.
We were guided to a private sitting room where we waited for the maharaja to greet us.
He's 91 years old and recently has had some health problems, so I hoped this visit, which was planned specifically for me, would not be burdensome or physically tasking for the king.
He was wheeled out to the sitting room in a wheelchair, an aged man wearing a traditional Indian dhoti (long skirt) and button-down blue plaid shirt. We were all without shoes. He wasn't overly decorated, or adorned. And if I didn't know he was a king, I likely would have thought he looked like in any other man in India.
But he certainly acted the part. It was clear, even in old age, that he was well-educated, world traveled, and that he had shared many cups of tea with the most famous and wealthy persons to exist in his time. In fact, we were told, that the king knows everyone and has met — everyone. He's also one of the wealthiest men in the world. Why he wanted to meet us, I'll never understand. Why he agreed to meet us twice, is more than an honor.
The maharaja is revered in India as the oldest Rotarian, a man of service and progressive thinking. He's also praised for choosing to live humbly. Many people have explained to me that the royals in Kerala are deliberately plain and pious people. I wouldn't use the word plain to describe His Majesty, but it was evident he had no use for crowns and other royal decorations.
It was also clear from listening to him speak and tell stories of his worldly experiences that he chooses to live life in a way that challenges formal Indian customs and the expectations that may have been placed upon him by the royal family.
His eyes were glazed over from cataracts, but his face remained animated as he shared the stories of his past.
He seemed more than thrilled to tell us about his wife and how he chose to marry for love rather than accepting an arranged marriage.
Arranged marriage in India remains customary today, although love marriages are growing in popularity. Many people in India reject the idea of love marriages in the West and express visual disdain for our high divorce rates.
So for the king to choose a love marriage more than 60 years ago was not only unusual but extremely progressive for the times. I imagine there was much discontent and arguing on the king's part to ensure his marriage to love of his life.
The maharaja said he was happily married until her death a few years ago, and her memory remains sacred in the home.
He then directed our view to enlarged photo of his wife, which was propped up in a chair in the sitting room. The frame was decorated with garlands and fresh flowers and postured in such a way that it stares out into the entrance of the home almost as if to greet visitors as they enter the palace.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of the meeting, however, was when the king decided to give our team a copy of his biography, "Trivancore, the Footprints of Destiny: My life and Times under the Grace of Lord Padmanabha."
Knowing I wanted to keep the book for the rest of my life, I asked the maharaja to sign it for me. He graciously accepted and wrote, "To Jennifer, All the best wishes" and signed his name.
It was then time for the king to rest, and for our team to leave. So, rather than saying goodbye, the maharaja explained that in Kerala, the custom is to say "I hope to see you again."
So in Malayalam, the king said, "It was good to see you, and I hope we will meet again" — a perfect way to not say goodbye, I thought.
Until tomorrow, Victoria.
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