Easter was a time for charity and parties for Delhi’s who’s who
Easter garden parties were a special feature during the days of the Raj. One hundred years ago notices were put out in the newspapers (for donation of clothes and other discarded articles to the poor) through the letters’ to the editor column during spring cleaning before the festival and the subsequent departure of the sahib-logs to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to escape the hot weather. One such letter dated 11 March, 1913 signed by a pastor from Mission Row, Calcutta, says that on receipt of a postcard a “chuprasi” would be sent to collect the goods from donors.
In Delhi too such communications were not uncommon. Here instead of Mission Row, it was the pastors of St Stephen’s Church, Fatehpuri, members of the CMS Victoria Zenana Mission, Jama Masjid and the residents and missionaries of Kashmere Gate who issued appeals for charity to those going to Old Blighty or the hills, particularly Shimla, where the Viceroy and his secretariat moved from Calcutta during the summer months (something like the annual shift of the J & K Government from Jammu to Srinagar).
But before that it was time for garden parties on the Ridge, in Nizamuddin and Mehrauli. A favourite spot for Easter picnics was Humayun’s Tomb and the monuments round about, like the mausoleum of Isa Khan and the garden of Bu Halima. “Bu” was the short form for Bubu (lady of the nobility) but who she was nobody knows. Maybe she was a member of Humayun’s harem.
Parties on the Ridge, just across Rajpur Road, were planned at the Delhi Club, opposite Qudsia Garden. From the club the picnickers went to the Ridge via Ludlow Castle Road (now Raj Nivas Marg). The favourite sport indulged in before lunch there was rabbit-hunting. Hare were abundant and became the favourite symbol of the traditional Easter Bunny. Wading into medieval history, it is well known that the emperors Akbar and Jahangir took part in Christmas and Easter festivities, which included the burning of the effigy of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ. The British had borrowed some customs from those times as practised by the early Armenian Christians of the Mughal Court like eating of the pascal lamb on Maundy Thursday and pre-dawn Easter visit to cemeteries. A procession carrying the life-size statue of the dead Christ on a bier was taken out on Good Friday from Akbar’s Church in Agra to the singing of dirges and the Lamentations of Prophet Jeremiah. After a round of the huge compound with incense sticks and candles burning around it, amidst a profusion of marigold garlands, the statue was returned with due ceremony to the exquisitely made church crypt for another year.
The Easter parties of the Skinners in Nicholson Road are still remembered by old Delhiwallahs. Those who attended them at different times included Canon Allnut, the Heatherleys, the Riberios, Sir Malcom Hailey, Sir Maurice Gwyer, Sir Henry Gidney, Deputy Municipal Commissioner Beadon, “the Nawab of Kashmere Gate” (sic), Lala Sultan Singh and a much sought after pretty lady Winfried, a near Skinner relation who eventually married the famous surgeon Dr. C.B. Singh. One of her sons-in-law, Vice-Admiral Johnson commanded the Indian Coast Guard and the other one, Julian Francis gained recognition in the Andrew Yule tea gardens in Assam. The last of the Skinners in the Capital, Brig Michael Skinner died some years ago and that was the end of their parties in Delhi, Hansi and Mussoorie.
The Easter lunch parties of Nikhil Kumar, former Commissioner of Police, Delhi, in Akbar Road were also remarkable. At one of them, among the guests who drew attention were the late Archbishop Alan De Lastic, his assistant, Bishop Vincent Conçessao, and rights activist Dr. John Dayal. The hostess, Mrs Kumar was not only in charge of the decorations, but also of the menu, which included pies and tarts, reminiscent of the ones made by the Queen of Hearts and stolen by the nursery rhyme Knave of Hearts “all on a summer’s day”. A weird guest at the party, who must have been in his eighties, recounted an interesting story about a missing bunny rabbit, specially made for Miss Miranda Gwyer, daughter of the first Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, after whom Miranda House is named. The bunny was ordered from a confectionery shop in Kashmere Gate but when the time for delivery came on Easter morning it could not be found. A hurried search was made to avoid embarrassment and it was traced to Bombay House, the residence of “Old Lewis” in Ludlow Castle Road. By oversight the bunny was packed with the Easter goodies meant for Louis Sahib’s party and he was only too glad to return it. Miss Miranda (christened so after the heroine of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”), Nikhil Kumar and his Easter parties are now part of memory, like the rumbustious Bombay House, which has become a home for priests.