Abir Mukherjee

The Maharaja, the Diplomat and the case of the Poisoned Grapefruit Juice

Malhar Rao, Gaekwad of Baroda

The second novel in the Wyndham & Banerjee series, A Necessary Evil, sees our heroes on the trail of the assassin of a maharaja’s son. But my research into the India of princely states dug up one particular case where the truth was stranger than fiction. 

1874 and the British Raj is at its zenith. Yet much of India remains nominally independent, ruled by extravagant maharajahs with legendary reputations for excess: one filled his pool with Dom Perignon to celebrate the birth of a son; another bought every Rolls-Royce in a London showroom and converted them to garbage trucks. 

Still the case of Malhar Rao, the Gaekwad of Baroda, stands out. Baroda was a princely state in Western India, and Rao became ruler in 1870 amidst rumours that he’d murdered his brother en routeto the throne. He was apparently a less than ideal monarch, but the Raj had a system to cope with men like him. Every Indian prince had a British Resident, or adviser, appointed by the Foreign Office, to guide him. In Rao’s case unfortunately, the Resident was a Colonel Phayre, who seems to have been as unsavoury as the man he was there to advise. Malhar Rao despised him and petitioned the Viceroy for his removal.

Things then became interesting. Malhar Rao was arrested on a charge of attempting to murder Colonel Phayre by poisoning his grapefruit juice with arsenic and diamond dust. Rao denied the charge and sent for one of England’s top lawyers, William Ballantine, paying him 100,000 rupees in advance. On his way to India, Ballantine stopped off in Paris, got drunk, and apparently blew the lot.

Nevertheless, he arrived in India and proceeded to defend the Gaekwad, claiming he was framed. There was no direct evidence linking Rao to the poisoned juice, and Colonel Phayre was a poor witness at best. When asked why, instead of preserving it, he threw away the contents of the glass he believed contained poison, his only explanation was, “lest I may be tempted to drink more!”

In the end, the panel of judges (three British and three Indian) were split down the middle. Rao was acquitted and Ballantine became a hero in Baroda and Bombay. The British, though, took no chances, deposing Rao the following year. As for Colonel Phayre, he was packed off to the middle of nowhere to be Governor of Mauritius.

Originally written for the Sunday Times Crime Club



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