VR Logo

Royal connections

The empire as it once was no longer exists, but the royalty that ruled over it still commands attention...

Royal connections

Britain may have lost its empire but the royalty that once ruled over it is still very much in place. You have royal this and royal that all over England and there are whole districts called royal boroughs and of course, a whole lot of royal parks and museums. Not to mention royal colleges and institution, one of which I had joined as a student after the last war.

The royal borough of Kensington, where I lived, used to crawl with haughty old ladies whose husbands and sons had once run the empire. Most of them were widows of retired or dead viceroys and governors, including some who had fought wars and led huge armies and presided over garrisons from Poona to Khartoom. The ancient ladies with imperious noses had apartments in the royal borough and went for walks in the evening smiling ever so daintily at passing young men like me with a slight nod as if we were old acquaintances. Actually, many of them had probably lived in the governor's palace by the sea in Bombay and me in a chawl in Girgaum a couple of miles away. The twain, as Rudyard Kipling had said, never met. Incidentally, Kipling himself was born in Bombay.

But old ladies are old ladies and once I tried to help one of them to cross the road when it rained heavily and the lady seemed too frail to do it on her own.

"Do you know who I am?," said the lady looking down her long nose as if it was I who had asked for help. "I am Lady Willingdon," she said and though the penny dropped, I said nothing. Her husband had been the Governor of Bombay Presidency in the 1930s before being elevated to the Viceroy of India around the time Gandhi had started his first Satyagraha. There is a Willingdon Cresent in Delhi, where Mrs Gandhi once lived and a Willingdon Club in Bombay, which, of course, I had never visited. I left the lady there in the rain and crossed the road.

A few weeks later, I was told that a princess was visiting our college, not any old princess, but Princess Elizabeth herself, as part of her education before she becomes queen. This must have been around the time India became independent or was about to do so. We were told to clean up our act, be on our best behaviour and not speak unless spoken to, as if we were children in the nursery.

On the appointed day, I put on my best suit and my dirtiest overall - we were doing research and we all wore overalls - and stood at attention near my desk awaiting the princess.

The young woman was escorted by half a dozen people from the palace, including a woman who wore an extraordinary hat with something that looked like a goose feather on top. The princess herself wore a simple blue dress and a hat matching her complexion.

She was not interested in my research (nor, for that matter, was I) but of all people in Mahatma Gandhi. "Have you met Gandhi?" she asked as if Gandhi was my uncle. I said I had seen him from a distance (true) and had also heard him speak (untrue). Since we were told not to speak unless spoken to, I stopped at that, fearful that I had spoken too much already.

"He is a great man. I should like to meet him some time," she said as she pulled away with a slight movement of her hand, which, I was told, was the nearest thing to a royal goodbye.

She never met him. Gandhi was killed a few months later and I learnt of his assassination as I came out of the South Kensington tube station and bought an afternoon newspaper. I must say I was tempted to write and remind the princess of our meeting. But I never wrote the letter. I was not sure she was really keen to meet the old man after all responsible for pulling India away from her and her family and slice the empire at one stroke in half.