Lord Mountbatten’s Tryst in Simla with Ava Aunty in 1947 – Mark Ulyseas
“If only I wasn’t Governor-General but just a grass-bachelor sailor I would have had the most wonderful time here. An exceptionally lovely Anglo-Indian girl, leading lady of the second play, attracted me more than any girl for years. And as luck would have it I absolutely clicked with her. I just saw enough of her on stage. After the show and sitting opposite her after the Club dinner to know we could have had a wonderful time…Isn’t it maddening I just can’t do anything about it. She was just my cup of tea. Pammy (his other daughter Pamela) was amused but luckily I don’t think mummy noticed anything…” – An extract from Mountbatten by Paul Ziegler. Lord Mountbatten had written this in a letter to his daughter Patricia after having met Ava Bhasin who played the leading role in a play presented by the Simla Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC), in the summer of 1948. Reference
July 29, 2011. There is a fragment of Indian History that nestles somewhere on the outskirts of Bengaluru in the form of an 85 year old lady, Ava Bhasin, who is an aspiring poet and a delightful remnant from the heady early post colonial days of the Indian sub continent when ball room dancing, politics, Gandhi, gymkhanas, tea parties, theatre and cricket came together to form a delightful spicy mix for a charming existence; The merry go round of the manor born.
Some weeks ago while I traversed the narrow by lanes of an ancient port city, Kochi, researching the life of the Jews in Jew Town, I was invited to meet Ava by my sister Sarita Kaul of Bali who was in Bengaluru to savor the delights of a family reunion. I was instructed to call her Ava Aunty and not to use any words that could be construed as four letters too many, if you get the drift. So here I am, after a fifteen hour road trip, sitting in front of Ava Aunty sipping a nice cup of fine Darjeeling and munching on a jaw breaking muruku (South Indian Snack).
Ava Bhasin is frail; her eyesight is diminishing but the will to live surges to the surface when she speaks about the day when she met her husband for the first time, the enchanting encounter with Mountbatten, birth of her three sons and the poems that she writes for posterity.
So how did you meet the Governor General?
Mark, it was by accident that I took part in the Play, Half an Hour. Apparently the leading lady had been transferred i.e. her government job took her elsewhere so I was asked to take her place. I did. And it seems that the Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma were in the audience and I was singled out after the show to meet Mountbatten, who was Governor General of India at that time. Yes, we hit it off very well. Later we met once more at the Governor’s Lodge for a Garden Party for the cast of the ADC. I would have loved to have had an intellectual relationship with him. If the untoward had happened it would have had to be by accident. Nothing did, thankfully. However, on both occasions we had a conversation and it felt like we had known each other from another time. He was suave, handsome and a very bright fellow who was well known as a ladies’ man. But I was married and my boys were still babies, I couldn’t think, I was young, I was too overwhelmed. In hind sight I wonder if I had pursued him to continue our conversation where it would have led. Humm…
Where were you born?
In Calcutta, 1924. My parents met in London. Daddy, Bibhuti Bhushan Chatterjee, was studying for the Bar (he became a Barrister, Middle Temple) and my mummy, Vera, was a Nelsonhood. Her father worked in Buckingham Palace. She had a brother called Leslie who was in the Navy. I remember mummy narrating an incident concerning Uncle Leslie. It seems that when their ship was sailing through the Suez Canal to India they passed another ship in the night. On the other ship Uncle Leslie lay dying of TB. The ship hooted. It was a moving experience for mummy as she held my elder sister Sita, who was a few months old, in her arms. It was as if life and death were passing in the night.
How did you meet your husband?
I was at a party in Firpos on Chowringhee, a blossoming 16 year old! I always wore a saree because my mother wanted us to embrace our Indian roots. Across the table a gentleman kept staring at me. His name was Devraj Bhasin and he was about 15 years my senior. Devraj was smitten by me and promptly introduced himself. On hearing that mummy was well known for her hand embroidery he made an appointment and visited our home to ‘see’ her embroidery. It was an excuse to meet me.
We fell in love. My friends in the building helped me meet him. And then we decided to get married a year later.
My mother accompanied me to the Gurdwara for the marriage ceremony. Daddy didn’t know I was getting married. When we told him after the wedding he refused to see me and Devraj; and further called my husband a gambler because he was a Stock Broker.
After our marriage and before partition we went to Lahore where my eldest son was born. It was a beautiful city of colleges with a vibrant social life.
I think the name of the restaurant was ‘Faletis” (I am not sure if this is the correct spelling) where we used to go dancing, Ball room dancing. My husband was an excellent dancer. Lahore was a modern city. No one spoke of religion or even discussed it; everything was intellectual, very civilized. Do you know that the present Prime Minister of India, Shri Manmohan Singh, was born in Lahore? Hahahaha…the irony, the politics, why can’t we all just live in peace.
Before partition we left Lahore and went to Calcutta for a short while before finally settling in Delhi. I loved Delhi with its old world charm, the monuments, Gymkhana, social life, the evening walks in Lodhi Gardens.
After all these years I still recall the story of mummy when she arrived in India for the first time and went straight to Thakurma’s house (her mother-in law). On entering the house mummy touched her feet as per Indian tradition. They became friends for the rest of their lives. Often Thakurma would visit us but would bring her own food. As she was a widow it was forbidden to eat in her daughter in law’s home.
Mummy wanted to understand India, its customs and traditions. She wanted to become an Indian, though she was English. And for this and much more, I love her dearly.
Did you witness the full horror of the partition?
Not really. We would read about riots in the papers and if some area that we proposed to visit was dangerous we wouldn’t go there or in some cases never left the house for a few days.
During the immediate years of post partition I worked for Sarla Birla teaching refugees hand embroidery. The products they made were sold and the proceeds given to these unfortunate people. I worked with Sarla for around six years. We still keep in touch!
What inspires you to write poetry?
Kashmir and the stories of Habba Khatun. Habba was married to Prince Yusuf Chak of Kashmir. He was banished by the British to Bihar and she died alone in Kashmir.
I remember my visit to this heaven on earth, many years ago with my husband. We stayed in a House Boat. There is a beauty there that consoles the soul and soothes the senses. I don’t know what they are doing with it now, the futility of violence, the ingenuity with which people use hatred and bigotry in their daily life. This is sad. This is tragic.
Her self-published anthology of love poems is titled – The Touch of Things. This stanza from the title poem reflects a clean unwashed innocence with a touch of melancholia. Maybe it is a piece from the enchanted life she has led; a life that in her words ‘was worth reliving’.
Touch the leaf.
Touch the scar.
Touch the white waters.
Touch the music that comes from the flute.
It is me.
Touched with your love –
Weeping and mute.
Touched by the shadow of sorrows,
The loss of your hand on my heart
At the end of the meeting Ava Bhasin rose ethereal like from the sofa and with her hand in my arm we walked quietly to the waiting car. And as it pulled away I watched a fragment of a beautiful life weave its way through the traffic and then fade into the haze of the twilight rush hour.
I will leave you with a few words from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a favorite of Ava Bhasin.
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om
In memory a gracious Lady who I had the privilege of meeting. Ava Bhasin aka Ava Aunty peacefully passed away on September 12, 2012. RIP Ava Aunty.