My only meeting with Queen Elizabeth II was when she conferred an MBE on Harry Miller, a working-class Welshman who had turned up in (then) Madras, having married an Ayyangar. You can’t be an Ayyangar in Chennai without connections in high places. These helped him land a job as Indian Express’ photo head. He also wrote a hugely popular “Madras Diary” that made him a celebrity. This, plus being on the Madras Club’s committee, made him a star. But what got him an MBE was his eccentric interest in snakes and a tribe of snake-catchers called “Irulas”.
As editor of the South Express editions and one whom Harry befriended, it remained unknown to me that Harry’s interest in “Irulas” was shared by the great futurist Arthur C. Clarke, based in Sri Lanka, and Gavin Young of London’s Telegraph, who congregated at the club’s famous terrace.
Anyway, Harry built a considerable reputation as an “Irulas” expert and landed an MBE. Rather than make him go to London, the British high commission arranged for the ceremony at the deputy high commissioner’s bungalow in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri. The Queen was going to be in New Delhi for the 1983 Commonwealth summit. For the MBE ceremony, Harry invited Saroj Goenka, Ramnath Goenka’s daughter-in-law and Harry’s boss, and me.
In the appointed room there were four “guests” -- Harry, Ms Goenka, me and an English priest from Nepal who had done wonderful things. The high commission staff, including the deputy high commissioner, floated in and out of the room like butlers carrying expensive bottles of liquor. The royal household had apparently not let them in on a key secret: what might Her Majesty ask for by way of alcoholic beverages at 5 pm. I thought that was tea time. Awkwardness entered the proceedings when it was established that after spending an hour with us, Her Majesty and Prince Phillip would either walk or drive to the main lawn for a cocktail party with hundreds of expatriates.
Finally, word came from the royal household: “Her Majesty will either ask for gin and tonic or Dubonnet. Gin was easy, but was there any Dubonnet on the premises? It was all procured and placed on a table.
A sudden stillness descended. The royal couple entered. Prince Phillip, his hands folded behind his back, instantly engaged Harry in a chat on the flora and fauna of South India. Harry’s strong suite was reptilian -- he changed the subject. Prince Philip picked up the theme as on cue: “Irulas, a tribe of snake catchers, I bet.” He then brought the Queen into conversation. She was, by now, on her second gin and tonic. There was some perfunctory conversation with me about my being from the North but working as a journalist in the South. “Do you know the language?” That stumped me. She took Ms Goenka aside to make her feel important for a moment. She was offered a third gin and tonic, which she left half consumed. We were instructed to stay inside. A pity I can’t report if the royal couple, the Queen laced with gin, had walked to the largish cocktail party or were ferried by car.
The royal family was only a manifestation of the culture that colonialism left behind. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a high level of comfort with this culture. Nehru must have evolved almost unrecognisably through various phases -- after Harrow, Cambridge, and the national movement. The extended conversation I had with Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit in Dehradun, when she lived with her daughter Nayantara Sahgal, gave me insights about Nehru which is difficult to reconcile with the khadi-clad leader of the national movement, seated reverentially by Mahatma Gandhi’s side. “Bhai (Nehru) was cross with father because he had hired an English governess for me”, Mrs Pandit said. “You see, the British aristocracy those days gave residence only to French governesses.”
Was this after Harrow in 1907 or after Trinity College Cambridge in 1910? Here was the Raj in full force, transforming India’s future PM into a cultural mimic of Britain’s highest strata. Some attitudes persisted. For instance, when Doon School was established on Eton’s model, Nehru’s two grandsons Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi were sent there on Nehru’s recommendation.
During Nehru’s first televised press conference in London, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, asked him a searching question: “After what the British did to you, there is no resentment against Britain. How do you explain this?” In other words, was there no combat in the national movement, only jousting?
The most memorable encounter with the aftermath of the Raj was at the Madras Club where the first Indian, an industrialist called Kothari, was allowed entry only in 1963 and where Diwali was celebrated annually as Guy Fawkes Day until 1982.
The story of Prince Charles’ historic lunch at Madras Club may be useful for those keeping notes on the new King. An announcement that the prince would join club members was followed by a stern notice that all members would be required to wear suits for the occasion, a tough call in Madras’ muggy summers. It was a painful sight watching members drenched with sweat which formed maps of perspiration on collars. The excitement was electric as the prince’s cavalcade rolled in. Then the shock at the sight of Prince Charles alighting from his car dressed in a safari suit, a total violation of that day’s club rules. The committee went into a huddle on their feet like a rugby scrum and took a timely decision. The dress code for the day stood cancelled!