Those were the days when Anglo-Indians lived in spacious bungalows in Delhi. Similar weather conditions had prevailed when Maggie Francis celebrated an eventful birthday in 1946
Friday, May 30 was stormy and destructive in Delhi and also the birthday of Maggie Francis. But this memoir is about 1946 when Maggie was just 20, her namesake Maggie Corbett, sister of the famous shikari, was still in Meerut and her father had retired as postmaster in the GPO. Those were the days when Anglo-Indians lived in spacious bungalows in Delhi and round-about areas up to Rewari, noted for its railwaymen who had a history dating back to 1867, when the first train steamed into the Capital. Maggie’s birthday 68 years ago came as a hot day with “loo” blowing the whole afternoon. The evening was warm too and the whole family went for a drive around the Walled City and then to Nizamuddin in Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie Alexander’s car. He had just returned from World War II after being held in a German POW camp and the scar of the wound that had knocked him senseless in the Sahara (during the British North Africa campaign) was still visible as a tiny hole below the collar-bone and a big hollow near the shoulder-blade, where the bullet entered and exited. Uncle Ronnie drove us back to the bungalow and went to freshen himself in the big thatched building with mud walls while the rest went to the outhouse to savour chaat brought from Chandni Chowk. The family, which lived in this place and also in Ghat Gate, Jaipur since the 19th Century was known as the “Anderwallahs”, compared to the “Baharwallahs” outside.
Soon after the evening changed complexion and dark clouds gathered on the horizon like brooding harpies over Humayun’s Tomb but the storm held on till the guests arrived. Just as pulao-zarda was being readied by Mughlai cooks the rain came down in torrents, followed by streaks of lightning and the ominous roar of thunder. The corrugated iron roof of the outhouse moved up and down as though it was going to be blown away and Maggie and her guests clung on to the side most threatened in a bid to keep it down. When the storm was at its worst someone was heard cursing loudly outside. It was Felix Sahib, elder brother of Ronnie’s granddad, Major James Alexander. Felix Uncle had lost his vision and lived in another outhouse all by himself. Over 88 and very finicky, he had come to the party, braving the thunderstorm. The outburst, as he stood silhouetted as a frail figure amid lightning flashes, was because of the perceived delay in serving him dinner first.
Alvina Francis, the hostess, was very cross but, instead of admonishing the annoying guest, tried to soothe his feelings, saying that after all she had not brewed up the storm like the Witches in Macbeth, just to peeve him. But he was hardly convinced. After him it was time to serve the others, with the children seated on the carpet in the straw screen-enclosed Jaffri verandah. It was then that octogenarian Major James Alexander, a great Dastangoh, was urged to tell a story to keep the gathering amused. The Major, a hero of the Afghan War of 1919-21, had led his regiment, the Aam-Khas, with great gallantry despite a wounded leg and been awarded a jagir by Sawai Madho Singh II. He cleared his throat, squared his still broad shoulders and narrated this tale of the Virgin Princess, Krishna Kumari of Mewar. The contenders for her hand were the Raja of Jaipur, Jaggat Singh, a prince of Mewar and Raja Mann. The father of the princess was in a dilemma as none of the suitors was prepared to withdraw his claim. At this stage stepped in the ex-Pindari leader Nawab Ameer Khan, who cunningly opined that the only solution to avoid the impending bloodshed was for the princess to die. Her deeply grieved parents somehow agreed to the macabre suggestion and presented the poison cup to their daughter. Without hesitation the brave princess drank it and fell down dead. On hearing the sad news the suitors and their forces retreated homewards.
Major Alexander, who had fought at the behest of the Jaipur Maharaja after the assassination of Amir Habibullah in Kabul, wiped a tear while the listeners wept too before half-heartedly partaking of the dinner which was now disturbed by a weird sound. “That reminds me of the singing spider I encountered in South India,” said burly Hutchins adding, “it can kill a person within three minutes of its bite”. That was scary indeed as the overgrown garden nearby was known for its hissing snakes. Well that was in pre-Independence times. Still the recent storm that wreaked havoc in the NCR was a reminder that history repeats itself.
Maggie Francis, now 88, lives at the Durlabji Avedna Ashram in Jaipur and Colonel Ronnie Alexander, 94, in Australia. The thatched bungalow (like many others in the Capital) has gone and the one at Ghat Gate too and new buildings have come up there. But for yesteryear children that stormy 1946 evening and the sacrifice of Princess Krishna Kumari live on in memory, like the sandcastles they dedicated to her on Mathura Road the day after!
The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi.