The last burra memsahib - Absolute Anglo-Indians

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 28.02.15
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Sir Edward Barnes by William Salter

Satyajit Ray astonished me at our first meeting. I had trotted out various Santiniketan connections I expected him to know. He looked at me for a moment while I felt his brain darting through the lanes and bylanes of the genealogical network. Then he said, "You must be related to Bussa Susheila Das!" It was the last name I expected to hear from the Maestro. Bussamami - whose death last week, three years short of a century, must be counted a merciful release - was the most fashionable, Anglicized and probably richest of my relatives. In georgette and furs, sporting a long cigarette-holder, she was a vision of elegant grandeur, the Last Burra Memsahib. When I told her about Ray, she said, "It must be because of Keshub Sen!"

If so, the Brahmo Samaj meant more to Ray than anyone imagined. Although neither Bussamami nor her husband, Mohie R. Das, had set foot in a Brahmo temple for many years, she was Brahmananda Keshub Chunder Sen's great granddaughter. She was also the great granddaughter of General Sir Edward Barnes, India's commander-in-chief and governor of Ceylon. That connection was embarrassingly highlighted when Bussamami stayed with us in Singapore. On the day she arrived, the afternoon tabloid, New Paper, which normally confined itself to sensational local tidbits, went to town with an unexpected cover story on Barnes and his Ceylonese mistress. As governor, he lived in what is today Colombo's Mount Lavinia Hotel from which a secret underground tunnel snaked away to his inamorata's dwelling. Bussamami wasn't disconcerted.

She had flown in wearing a saree. It was her habitual garb when travelling abroad she explained. "I get better service." At one time people laughingly called her "Susheila please!" because of her strenuous but unsuccessful efforts to banish the Bussa nickname. She was indignant when a British Indian woman in Singapore asked why she didn't have a British passport. "Why should I?" she retorted. "India is my home. I'm Indian. I have property there." The patrial clause in British immigration law would at once have granted her British citizenship. But people like her didn't need to emigrate to raise their living standards or become Westernized. They easily did both in India. Her sister, Moneesha Chaudhuri, whose husband was the first Indian head of Andrew Yule, the biggest British managing agency in India, and an army chief's brother, was also like that. She once refused the then whites-only Saturday Club's invitation to play the piano in a concert under her English mother's maiden name. "After all, you could pass for English," they pleaded. She didn't take it as a compliment.

Singaporeans found it intriguing that Bussamami and I were related twice over. She and my mother were second cousins, great granddaughters of Annada Charan Khastagir, who presided over an All-India National Conference session in 1883, preparatory to the Indian National Congress being launched two years later. Her husband, Mohiemama, and my mother were first cousins, grandchildren of Bihari Lal Gupta, who was responsible for the Ilbert Bill, which led to the AINC and INC. She and her husband being related, the marriage presented difficulties: one version for which I can't vouch was they went to French Chandernagore for the registration.

Mohiemama's father, S.R. Das, founded Doon School. He himself was the first Indian head of Mackinnon Mackenzie, the Inchcape shipping giant. When he joined Mackinnon's exalted band of covenanted hands (UK-based officers who had signed a contract with the company) in England, the Numbers One, Two and Three were known in inverse order as Three, Two and One. Those figures indicated their monthly salary in lakhs of rupees. Mohiemama's ways were upper-class English, the legacy of public school in Britain and Cambridge. My son, Deep, quoted Bussamami in this newspaper ("Learning To Speak Like The Masters", October 13, 2004) as saying when asked if her husband went to Mill Hill or Millfield school, "Mill Hill of course. Millfield was only for the post-war nouveau riche!" Being dark and heavily built, he borrowed a turban from Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur - husband of the beautiful Gayatri Devi, who was Bussamami's cousin - to visit America in the Fifties. He enjoyed describing how he clamped the turban on his head before entering restaurants in the American Deep South.

They settled down in a gracious villa called Faraway in remote Coonoor. But their world straddled Calcutta, Darjeeling, Hong Kong, London and the south of France. Or rather, small gilded niches in all these places, with extensions to Simla, Colombo and Singapore. World War II and the 300 Club had lent zest to their cosmopolitan set. Not everyone could come to grips with this dizzy diversity. Raj Thapar, wife of Seminar magazine's Romesh Thapar, betrayed her own provincialism by dismissing Bussamami in All These Years as "an erstwhile crooner". Yes, she, Moneeshamashi and their only brother K.C. (Bhaiya or Kacy) Sen were all gifted musicians. In her youth, Bussamami had indeed given music lessons in Calcutta, and Moneeshamashi continued to do so for free at St Paul's School, Darjeeling. But the sleaziness that Thapar's comment sought to convey just didn't go with the Ingabanga (Satyendranath Tagore's term for Anglicized Bengalis) elite.

Kacy called his delightful memoirs The Absolute Anglo-Indian. He wasn't "a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent, but who is a native of India", which is how the Government of India Act, 1935, defines Anglo-Indian. Nevertheless, his was the culture of the Rangers Club, Grail Club and the club of which he says "if ever there was a place that separated the men from the boys, and no angels feared to tread, it was the good old Golden Slipper". I was struck as a child by his imaginative wedding invitation, "Bridgette and I are going to be married at the Golden Slipper Club." His Cavaliers was a popular band. He frequently compered at the Oberoi Grand Hotel's open-air Scherezade night club, which occupied the space now taken up by the swimming pool.

He provided Ray with Devika Halder aka Vicky Redwood for Mahanagar "over a cup of tea on the verandah" of his flat. The voice off-screen in Mahanagar was Devika's, but the song was a ballad, Time Gave Me No Chance, he had composed in his rowing days. Major Sharat Kumar Roy of the American army was an unusual wartime buddy and surely the only Indian to be commemorated by a mountain in Greenland: he discovered Mount Sharat. Laced into the light-hearted banter of Sen's memoirs was the fear that the "Absolute Anglo-Indian" would become the "Obsolete Anglo-Indian".

Bussamami built personal bridges to very different milieus. Cooch Behar, Mayurbhanj, Jaipur, Nandgaon and other royals, some also descendants of Keshub Sen, were relatives and intimates. When I mentioned the novelist, Maurice Dekobra, she told me she had known him as the Paris-born, Maurice Tessier. Axel Khan, whom I met as India's ambassador in pre-unification Berlin, was another old friend. Rumer Godden produced a flood of memories, which were borne out by Ann Chisholm's biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller's Life. Her apology for arriving late for dinner with my wife and I in our Calcutta flat was that she had got lost in the suburban lanes to Kanan's house. Kanan who? She meant the legendary star, Kanan Devi, whom the young Bussamami had taught her dancing steps in the Thirties. They had remained friends ever since.

The real burra memsahib didn't need to keep up appearances. Neither did she have to try to be stylish. To adapt the Comte de Buffon, the style was the woman herself. There won't be another like her.