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COLUMN ONE

Bourbon of Indian vintage

Balthazar Napoleon of Bhopal, India, is first in line, some say, to the defunct French throne. He'd be happy just to be recognized as royalty.

January 10, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

BHOPAL, INDIA — If France ever decides to call off its revolution and go back to having a king, the line to the throne could begin at the doorstep of a genial, plump Indian man with a name as outsized and incongruous as the massive fleur-de-lis over his porch.

Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon would answer the doorbell, and the call of duty, if the French nation needed him.

A restoration of the monarchy in France is, of course, improbable. But so is the story of how a possible heir to the throne, a dauphin from the royal house of Bourbon, lives in relative obscurity here in this lakeside city in central India, where he practices law, putters around the family farm and nurses hopes that his lineage, if not his birthright, might one day be recognized by his glittering European relations.

"I am born an Indian," De Bourbon says. "But the fact of life is that I belong to the royal family of France."

Like all good tales of royal intrigue, the story behind his assertion is a swashbuckling adventure full of scheming aristocrats, high treason, forbidden love, narrow escapes, greedy pirates and mysterious disappearances. Fact and legend blend and blur.

But De Bourbon's claim to noble European descent received an unexpected boost last year when one of his putative cousins, Prince Michael of Greece, signaled his support in a historical novel. In "Le Rajah Bourbon," the prince, a noted author, offers a speculative account of the life of Jean Philippe de Bourbon, the ancestor to whom Balthazar traces his origins.

According to the book -- an amalgam of conjecture and research -- Jean Philippe, a nephew of King Henri IV who survived assassination attempts and a kidnapping at sea, eventually washed up in India, where he served at the court of the Mogul Emperor Akbar in the 16th century.

His descendants later moved to central India. In historical records, the De Bourbons are well documented as important and respected administrators in the region for hundreds of years. In latter generations, members of the family intermarried with the local population.

Michael, who lives in Paris, believes Balthazar de Bourbon to be the surviving male heir of this line, an elder branch of the house of Bourbon. This arguably would give Balthazar prior claim to the throne over the descendants of Henri IV, whose unbroken line of succession was lopped off along with the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette under the guillotine in 1793.

Michael met Balthazar de Bourbon in Bhopal in 2006 after a serendipitous coincidence at the hotel where the prince was staying on a holiday.

"I was upgraded in the best hotel from a room to a suite. And what do I see on the door of my suite? 'Bourbon Suite.' So I rushed to the porter of the hotel and asked, 'Why do you call it Bourbon here?' And he said, 'There is a family called Bourbon and they are well-known in Bhopal,' " the prince says in a telephone interview. "I had no idea they were still existing. I must say it's quite amusing to see in a directory in India the name Bourbon."

The experience inspired him to research and write his novel.

For Balthazar, 49, it was a thrill to receive an apparent relative for the first time -- and a feeling of vindication that one of them finally seemed to acknowledge him as a twig on the family tree.

He has never had doubts about his lineage, as illustrated by his home in Bhopal. Big brass letters declaring "House of Bourbon" hang outside his front door. The furniture inside his comfortably appointed living room is French pastiche.

From boyhood, De Bourbon was told of his exalted heritage. When he was 2, his father, Salvador, gave him an 1882 book by a Frenchman containing a chapter on the history of the De Bourbon clan in Bhopal. Tears well in his eyes and his hands tremble as he eagerly shows a visitor the book and the inscription his father wrote inside.

"This will make you understand that you are a scion of a dynasty and will inculcate and instill in your mind the qualities of a noble family, and might help you to shine according to my wishes," Salvador de Bourbon wrote.

Balthazar grew up to become a civil lawyer and married an Indian woman, with whom he has three children. He describes his family as "poor," but given his middle-class lifestyle, that seems more a wistful comparison with the glamorous lives of some of his royal cousins in Europe and his own ancestors in Bhopal than with the reality of life in poverty-stricken India.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, his forefathers were among Bhopal's elite, trusted retainers of the ruling Muslim clan. But after many decades of loyal service, the Roman Catholic De Bourbons were ousted from their privileged position by a new, intolerant Muslim ruler in the early part of the 20th century.

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