Paris and Dr Radhakrishnan, 1948

Dr Radhakrishan was a very eminent man,  Philosopher, Oxford professor, Knight Bachelor, Educator, Author. When, in 1962, he was appointed the second President of India, Bertrand Russell said ” Plato aspired for philosophers to become kings and it is a tribute to India that she should make a philosopher her President”.

He was in Paris when I arrived aged five and always remained affectionate and accessible.

My sister and I arrived in Paris on a TWA flight from Delhi in February 1948.  My aunt Padma, my mother’s eldest sister had entrusted me with a large tin of Ghee

“Look after it carefully’, she said in an urgent tone, ‘Your mummy needs it. They say there’s very little food in Europe. You understand?’

I’d nodded my head vigorously and my aunt pinched my cheek whilst mouthing a kiss. ‘ Shabash,’ she smiled  ‘Good girl.‘

I liked being praised and given responsibility. I shared my seat with the Ghee and guarded it on the plane  and whenever the golden haired air hostess passed she smiled approvingly.

Then I remember  carrying the tin across the tarmac, having to stop, put it down, change hands, use both hands, and the metal handle dug into my chubby fingers. But I was laughing, so happy . I remember that but nothing immediately after.

‘Your father didn’t come to the airport. We’d been disappointed twice and he felt he just could not bear it again. So I came on my own to fetch you and take you to the hotel.’  My mother told me later. Is why I didn’t remember. Was I disappointed my daddy wasn’t there?  Why do we remember some things and not others?

Our delay was due to the assassination of Gandhiji and his subsequent funeral.  And that I remember. I remember  the surging sea of people. The sense of a momentous occasion happening around me which I could clearly see from my privileged vantage point through the candy floss as I pulled it with my teeth and allowed it to melt in my mouth: ‘Buddi mai ki baal ‘Old Woman hair’ as it was called.

Dr Radhakrishnan was at the hotel and my mother filled the backdrop:

 ‘When we came to Paris, Dr Radhakrishnan was staying in the same hotel as us. He was the Indian delegate to Unesco.  But he was vegetarian, and there was nothing much for him to eat. In those days, there wasn’t an Indian embassy in Paris. So I used to cook for him in his hotel room every day. That’s why you brought the Ghee. Once I remember, I was a bit distracted and had forgotten to put in some of the spices and after eating, he said to me

“Madame, today your food tastes like European food. I think maybe you got confused?’ He often teased me like that.

But he was very impressed by you.  Became very fond of you. He used to ‘baby sit’ you when I used to go out. Said I shouldn’t send you away to any school. He said “if you send her to school they’ll ruin her.” And they did. But what could I do? We were living in a hotel.’

 I remember Dr Radhakrishan as a very affectionate loving  presence in my childhood.  I remember a very kindly elderly gentleman, sitting cross legged on a big double bed surrounded with papers, looking at me with utter delight as I come into the room, back from blowing soap bubbles by the Trocadero.

I look at the photograph. I always liked it. It catches my mother’s essence: dignified, graceful, luminous. Dr Radhakrishnan with a kindly look ready to tease. The ease and informality of their body language  – she could be his niece or daughter in law. Many years later I would discover its context and other connections would emerge.

In  Sept 2011 I had come to India to take my mothers ashes to the Ganges. On my way I stopped at Ahmedabad to visit the Sarabhais, very old and dear family friends. In this instance I especially wanted to see Palli as she had lost her own mother, Gita, some six months earlier.  

Palli suggested we drive to Udaipur for my birthday and celebrate our respective mothers. It was a beautiful drive and the road took us  across the tropic of cancer and our hotel was on the edge of the lake with a view of the Lake Palace. We went to visit a Jagat Mehta  a friend of both our families,  who reminisced about our mothers and then recalled a visit mine had made to Bern when he was posted there as third secretary at the Indian embassy

‘I’m certain she signed my visitors book’ he said and called his PA for it to be located. There, occupying a whole page were three signatures:  S.Radhakrishnan, Kamala Dhingra and Mahommad Yunus. Date November 1953.

I held the book in my hand, touched the signatures, remembered this photograph, and felt a quiet sense of elation that I could now place the signatures and the picture in a time and in my mothers story:-

“When I went to Switzerland with Dr Radhakrishnan my chappals (Indian backless sandals) kept slipping and getting stuck in the snow so I just took them off and carried them and walked barefoot. I soon got used to it and didn’t even feel the cold.

One evening I remember we were all discussing the Partition and Dr Radhakrishan  remarked that ‘Gandhiji had got confused’, so I said to him, ‘ Look here, if a great man like Gandhiji could get confused, then why are you always scolding me about getting confused?”  And he replied. ‘Madame, Gandhiji got confused only once, but you, Madame, you are getting confused all the time!’ 

And my mother laughed as she usually did when telling her stories.

My father corresponded with him and told me that he asked about me and suggested I might write to him.

In 1962, Dr Radhakrishnan became the 2nd President of India. My parents were in India at the time, my father having been appointed Secretary of the Sangeet Natak Academy ( National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama). I had remained in London, having completed Drama School,  my father had arranged a placement for me with Herbert Marshall, a theatre director who had spent ten years in India and was now putting on a West Indian musical: ‘Do Something Addy Man’ or ‘The Black Alcestis.  During the week I attended rehearsals and four nights a week I worked at the Roman Room of the El Cubano restaurant in Knightsbridge. One of two ‘slave girls’  my duties were to serve after dinner coffee, collect and return the coats of the ‘senators’ and any tips I would slip into an improvised pouch in my skimpy tunic. It wasn’t demanding work leaving me time to daydream about joining my parents in our ‘ return from exile’ and I’d calculated that mine, was fourteen years, just like Ram and Sita in the Ramayana.

‘Dr Radhakrishnan has invited us for tea. He wants to see you.’ announced my father soon after I arrived in Delhi.

An official car came to take us to Rashtrapati Bhavan, The Grand Imperial Palace designed by Lord Lutyens which had been inaugurated as the Viceregal Lodge just 30 years earlier. It exuded pomp and power and as we drove up its elevated position the ornately turbaned guards saluted our car.

 As was the fashion of the time, I had a bouffon hairdo and had coiled my long hair into a bun  on top of my head, my version of Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s which in those days we all tried to emulate. Dr Radhakrishnan kept throwing me teasing glances and then asked me about my hairstyle. When I told him it was the fashion he thought this very funny, laughed  heartily and asked if I was trying to compete with Lord Shiva whose matted locks were similarly coiled on top of his head. 

‘Write to me,’ he said as I was leaving,’ tell me how you are getting on.’

I didn’t write then. But the following year he came to London on an State visit  and my invite was delivered by hand. But it was a formal affair, I was ushered into a large audience chamber, sat for  a few minutes before being politely shuffled out. As I was leaving, he again asked me to write and this time, I did and for three years we carried on an intermittent correspondence.

Once in 1964 when I was working for an Indian Tea Board in Brussles, to show off I left an envelope on my desk, addressed to  The President of India, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, and on the left hand corner: ‘Personal.’ As I walked down the corridor I could feel myself blushing and quickly returned to my desk and slipped the envelope into my bag hoping that no one had seen it.

I shared some of these memories with Palli,  ‘Your letters might still be there among his papers. Like your fathers letters to my mother. There are some from Paris.’

On our return from Udaipur to Ahmedabad, Palli showed me some letters. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the familiar italic hand and read: ‘I won’t refer to the great tragedy that has overwhelmed our land’.   This reference to Partition forced me to take a few deep breaths to diffuse the emotion.   But I made a note of the address:  44 Rue Hammelin, Paris 16.   The same hotel as Dr Radhakishan.

Sometime later, I looked up the address on Google maps and saw it was still a hotel. Why not visit it I thought.   They might have a register with the signatures of my parents and Dr Radhakrishan.  And I might even remember something.  And so on the 20th December 2012, I booked a twin bedded room for three nights and boarded the Eurostar  accompanied by my friend Verity, who had always been very close to my mother and keen to see the backdrop to her Paris stories.

‘ I stayed here 64 years ago when I was 5.’  I said.

The two receptionists  smiled politely. And no they did not have any old registers from the 1940’s

Clutching at straws I asked ‘ Do you have anything about the history of this hotel?’

‘Well, Marcel Proust lived and died here. There is a plaque outside.’

‘Really!’ I said. ‘Aah!’ What more could I say at such a resonant image.

 ‘ My mother said she used to cook in the hotel. Is that possible?’ I asked.

Mais oui. Absolument. We have rooms with Kitchens. We are one of the very few hotels who offer that. She would for sure have cooked here.’

A la Recheche du Temps Perdu,  In search of lost time.

Why do we do that? Why am I doing it? What am I searching? I thought as Verity took a photo of me by the commemorative plaque to Proust.

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