After that first sit down dinner that I experienced on our first day (official day) in Pondicherry, I found that it was only the first of its kind. In the five and odd years we were in Pondicherry, there were more and more to follow. Not only were there sit down dinners, there were also buffet dinners, sit-down lunches, garden parties, tea parties and more - Babuji and I learnt to take this in our stride.
All the dinners hosted by the Chief Commissioners usually ended with songs from the guests. Mr. J. L. Kripalani, the then Chief Commissioner, was a music lover. His dinner parties at the Government House ended with a song either from Saroja or from Loknath Bhattacharya. Saroja’s ‘Katriniley Varum Geetham’ was Mr. Kripalani’s favourite. Mr. Bhattacharya was good with patriotic songs and also light Bengali songs. Astir was good with Hindi classical and light music. Her rendition of K. L. Saigal’s ‘Babul Mora’ was enjoyed by one and all. Even after 50 odd years, that song still haunts me the way Astir sang it.(See picture: Mr. Kriplani on the left with Babuji (right) and a friend.)
Bhattacharya had a good clear and loud voice, and he was very proud of his voice and singing. Here I have to tell you about a dinner at the Government House concerning Bhattacharya and his songs. Once when Mr. C. D. Deshmukh the then Finance Minister and his wife Mrs. Durgabai Deshmukh, then the Social Welfare Minister, came to Pondicherry on an official visit. Mr. Kripalani hosted a dinner for them, and he had invited the top ten officials with their wives to it. We were all seated at four or five tables with six persons to a table. I was seated at the table where Mrs. Deshmukh was siting. She was a very considerate lady with no frills attached, and carried on a conversation with all of us at her table with ease. The dinner, a five course one, with red or white wine for each course, was being enjoyed by everybody. As we were waiting for the last course, the sweet dish and the fruits, Mr. Kripalani requested Mr. Bhattacharya for a song. The young man promptly stood up and started singing the national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’.
The chief guests stood up, and so also the rest of us. When the national anthem ended, the chief guest walked away from the table, the rest of us following them. We were all deprived of the sweet dish for which the Government House chef was very famous. We were sure that Mr. Kripalani gave Mr. Bhattacharya a good and lashing piece of his mind the next day.
While writing the above, I am reminded of two other dinners. When a Minister of State from Delhi visited Pondicherry, she was hosted a dinner by the local ministers, officers and their wives. Though we the ladies were all introduced to her, she never bothered to acknowledge our presence.
Throughout the buffet dinner, she moved among the men folk busy carrying on a conversation with them. Not only that, she commented the ladies could not think or talk about anything other than saris and jewels, and that is why the ladies kept to themselves. The men folk later mentioned this to us. The Honourable Minister forgot that she also belonged to the same species as we! (That is me on the left in the picture above.)
The second dinner I mentioned was the dinner we had on our last night in Pondicherry. Since we were leaving the place, there was a deluge of farewell parties, starting from breakfast, sometimes two on the same day, lunch, coffee or tea get-togethers, everyday for two weeks. One couple requested us specially to reserve the last evening for them, as they had planned to give us a grand party, which we could not forget so easily.
I reserved my best sari for that evening. And on that evening dressed in our best, we were really surprised when we walked into their drawing room, there was pin-drop silence – for nobody was there, not even the host or hostess. Since Babuji was one for punctuality, I started blaming him saying we must have come too early. But I was wrong. After a few minutes the host and the hostess came in, offering no apology. And no drinks.
They took us straight to the dining table, and treated us to a dal roti dinner. If this was a ‘grand party’, I wondered what a simple dinner would have been like!