Celebrating in New Delhi: 50 years of marriage

On the second of February 2002, Mil and I held a reception for our 50th wedding anniversary in New Delhi, the city where we met and married.  The event was a celebration of life together and of friends living or working in the world’s largest democracy.  Guests represented many facets of our professional lives, as did our trip to Bhutan and mine to Ahmedabad.  These visits, like our celebration, provoked comparisons of present, past, and future.

New Delhi, when I arrived there in August 1952 in the Ford Anglia, was little changed from the  colonial era when a  governmental city created next to the old Mogul town of Delhi with is towering mosque and Red Fort.  Independence brought many embassies, most temporarily housed in palatial mansions of the many Indian rajahs.  Mil’s office at the US Embassy in Bahawalpur House was in the zenana quarters; this windowless harem area was cooled only by a ceiling punkah pulled back and forth by a rope attached to the foot of a servant sitting outside!  Only the ambassador had a window air conditioner.  Most British wives had escaped the heat by moving to the hill stations; many Americans flew home.

New Delhi itself had two centers at the time.  The monumental government center with its parliament buildings, presidential palace, and the Cathedral where we married, all  constructed out of rose and tan sandstone, are situated at the end of a mall that lines the ceremonial Rajpath, or kingsway.  A statue of Queen Victory punctuated the other end of a now empty portico.  Roads radiated from both ends of the mall, their diagonals creating traffic circles throughout the city.  The commercial center, Connaught Place, has a double circle lined with white two story buildings, their colonnades a welcome protection from the sun.  Today the buildings are stained, the area crowded with cars and auto-rickshaws, and the green spaces buried under construction materials for the new subway.  This nexus is dwarfed by the expansion of commercial and residential developments.  The pavilion we rented on Ratendon Road, then on the outskirts of the city where the “jungle” began, is now considered downtown.

Nearby are the Lodi Tombs which today has become a park in the city.  In the 50s, the Ford Foundation acquired part of the park that held no tombs, and build both offices and a guest house.  In those days Ford gave more development funding to India than did any country; we referred to the local head of the foundation as the Emperor!  Today the Ford offices are small and occupy only one of the office buildings; the World Bank and other UN agencies fill the others and spill around the corner. The guest house is the India International Centre where we have frequently stayed.  Our room on this occasion was #52!   Roses were just beginning to bloom but marigolds, chrysanthemums, and gerbera were vibrant in the sun; February is a grand month in New Delhi.

Fifty years ago almost everyone with a car had a chauffeur so that when I drove about in my tiny car, I was an oddity.  Today the professional women I met all drove themselves though some families retained a driver to accommodate needs of several family members.  All these cars meant that until recently, the Delhi area was considered one of the world’s most polluted areas.  Strict conversion of trucks and taxis to PNG has already cleared the air, but the bus fleet conversion is going slowly.  Taxis, both licensed and gypsy, are inexpensive.  But we almost missed our flight to Bhutan when the taxi drivers called one-day strike to protest yet another expensive change: to electronic meters.  The taxi driver, whom we had used much of our stay and who had agreed to come pick us up at 5:45 am, eventually arrived but would not run his meter for fear of being called a scab and having his own taxi smashed!

Our reception was held at the Gymkhana Club which 50 years ago was the premier place for social events.  Today the five star hotels outshine the colonial ambiance and the food of the club;  but that was not the point.  Nostalgia was.  Dinesh Mohan arranged for us to rent a “cottage” for the event.  These small living quarters were in great demand in the 50s as diplomats and newsmen arrived in a city with limited places to stay.  Now the cottages serves as a private suite for weddings and receptions.  Artificial grass and red carpet were spread at the entrance, and shamianas lined the space where the buffet line, tables, and chairs. What we could not replicate was music.  Because the Gymkhana Club was on leasehold land from the government, part of the land had been reclaimed to build a residence for the Prime Minister.  His yard abutted the cottage, and music would disturb him.  We could hear a children’s party going on.

Starting a one o’clock on Saturday afternoon 2-2-02, guests were served small bites and drinks in the cottage.  After the food we toasted each other and the guests with champaign and ate a white cake similar to the one we had 50 years before; Peggy Mohan ordered it from a friend who has a small business making cakes at home.  In 1952, the British custom of fruit cakes at weddings was followed; the pound cake I insisted on had a wonderful taste, but the three tiers listed a bit.  Also in 1952, all liquor was imported.  This time we drank Indian whiskey and champaign.

Shakuntala Bhatia, my matron of honor in 1952, insisted that Mil and I wear gold and provided me with a kashmir shawl and Mil with a bright tie and handkerchief.  She began the toast by recalling how we had met: her husband Prem was an outstanding journalist who helped explain many nuances of Indian politics and elections that I was studying.  When I expressed an interest in learning Hindi, he suggested his wife.  Shakuntala told the amused guests how I could not distinguish between “th,” “thh,” “dh,” or “dhh.”   At least I knew there was a difference!

Three other guests had been at our wedding.  George Verghese, then a young journalist, continues to write books and articles on political topics.  Sharad Marathi, a fellow student at LSE, worked for years at the Planning Commission and served as India’s ambassador to the World Bank.  He and his wife flew up from Pune to attend, and to visit their distinguish medical doctor daughter.  Gopal Krishna, now a fellow at Oxford University for Islamic studies, was fortuitously staying in Delhi as he does most winters; in 1952 he was a young research assistant for Dick Park who was Mil’s best man.  Representing her mother was Gita Bery Bhatia who was a fifteen year old when we were married and living in her mother’s pavilion.  Sadly her mother has Alzheimer’s.

Many of the guests reflect my decades-long work on women in development (WID).  Dinesh, who organized the celebration and is now a professor at the Indian Technical University, was promoting appropriate technology in the US when I invited him to attend the seminar on WID that I organized in Mexico City in 1975 just before the First UN Conference for Women. Vina Mazumdar set up the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi and wrote a chapter with Kumud Sharma in Persistent Inequalities.  Anita Anand worked in journalism in Washington, DC, later return as editor of the Women’s Feature Service;  Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, a crusading women’s magazine;  Gita Agarwal is an economist and scholar who writes on women’s land rights;  Nata Duvvruy of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington DC was in town to review their projects on violence.  George Matthews of the Institute of Social Science  who gave us much material on local administration and on panchayats, also came.

Several of our friends in the US, who had travel plans for Asia, had considered attending; to our delight and amazement, five actually made it.  Elinor Gollay and Rex Brazell are traveling all over Asia investigating how craft workers are adapting to globalization.  Iskander Ahmed, who with his wife Gisele Yasmeen, also attended the conference in Ahmedabad.  Gisele wrote her dissertation on the foodscape [vendors and their environment] in Bangkok for the University of British Columbia; I was her external reader.   Iskander stayed on after Gisele returned to her job in Vancouver to improve his Gujerati.  Born in Kampala, he and his family fled Uganda when all Indians were forced out.  After years working in firms that import and export organic and natural  foods, Iskander is returning to the university to ground his business knowledge in agriculture; he then plans to promote organic crops that can be grown by poor farmers in East Africa and sold on the world market.  His parents joined us as well, on their way to Gujerat to revisit their ancestral homes.

During the ten days before the reception, we visited with most of our guests, enjoying their hospitality, learning about current trends in politics and women’s rights, and catching up on their families.  I also gave several talks, interviewed a wide variety of people, and collected materials on women’s housing, microcredit, and panchayats for my current writing.  The stay seemed very professional, until the toasts.  Suddenly the goodwill emanating from the guests, the memories, the fifty years of marriage with Mil, overwhelmed me, and I burst into tears.  A wonderful celebration indeed.

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