“Who can one trust?” Paul Burrell’s famous words deploring the “betrayal of Royal Family secrets” in the memoirs of Prince Charles’ former valet Stephen Barry are reasonably well known, especially since the sentiment did not come in the way of his own tell-all-books about his employer Lady Diana. In recent times there have been several tell-all-books about the royalty in England and President’s in the United States of America that have been quick to go off the shelves.
Butlers, foot men, political managers revealing “all” about the bosses have kept the publishing industry busy.
But in Dooj Prakash’s opinion these books are not just bad literature, but show weakness of character. Mr. Prakash has served in the Rashtrapati Bhavan in various capacities and hung his boots after four decades of working with several Presidents.
He is keen to share stories and take a trip down memory lane, but there is a caveat. “Don’t expect me to say anything controversial or anything that might be uncomfortable. I am trained to forget what is not suitable for mentioning in the public domain,” he says, laying the ground rules.
Mr. Prakash takes us back to the time when Lord Mountbatten, an avid golfer, took the initiative to ask his staff what he could do for them. “We told him that we were not allowed to play golf or tennis with our shoes on. We requested for shoes and warm clothes for the winter. Lady Mountbatten was equally concerned about the welfare of the staff, she would visit the family quarters. She was very upset once when she saw how cramped the living quarters were with no kitchen, no toilets and poor ventilation,” he says.
The transition from British rule to India’s Independence was a time for celebration, but there were mixed feelings about bidding farewell to the “boss and his family” that had forged a bond with the staffers.
“When Lord Mountbatten was given the final salute on the day of his departure there were many emotional moments. The Commander of the President’s Body Guard stepped forward and to everyone’s surprise hollered in Hindi, ‘India ke governor general ko rashtryia salute diya jaye’. Lord Mountbatten was very concerned with what was happening in the country then. I recall India was facing a huge shortfall of grain, food was in short supply and the Mountbatten family rationed their bread.
But one day their daughter Pamela said she wanted more bread than the customary two slices. Without batting an eyelid, Lord Mountbatten gave her his share, but did not bend rules for her,” Mr. Prakash recalls.
And when C. Rajagopalachari moved in as the country’s first Governor General, the austerity drive continued, which was followed during the time of Rajendra Prasad. “Rajen Babu was a down to earth personality, his family emulated him. At the wedding of his granddaughter, which was solemnised in the Estate, the staff was invited for lunch, the whole family came out to serve us. Rajendra Babu himself sat with us and ate. There was never a sense of discrimination,” he says.
Rajendra Babu was not all serious, Mr. Prakash recalls sharing lighter moments with him as well. “When the first general assembly elections were fought, he asked me in Bhojpuri, who I had voted for. I said, “Babuji, they said it is a secret ballot” …and he burst out laughing.”
Desai Ram, Mr. Prakash’s brother too has retired from Rashtrapati Bhavan, having served various Presidents for nearly five decades. His first role as a sous chef was to prep the chicken. “Touching a raw chicken wasn’t exactly a great feeling, but I gradually learnt the ropes. I worked in Nehruji’s house and was moved to the Rashtrapati Bhavan after his demise,” he says.
Desai Ram’s son Ramji, who is now employed with the Rashtrapati Bhavan, recalls playing a game of carrom with the late Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi and a lot of other “boyhood games”.
The family often sits down together to recall the old days, trace memories of foreign travels as part of the official entourage and look up old photographs to reminisce, taking care to remember “only the good things”.