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Easter houses of Delhi - The Hindu

Easter houses of Delhi – The Hindu

After the Metcalfe era, the family’s Matka Kothi went into oblivion and its place for Easter celebrations was taken over first by Ludlow Castle, and then Rangoon Villa and Bombay House in the Civil Lines. The last which has now become the residence of Jesuit seminarians preparing for priesthood, but is a heritage site, though not listed as such among the old havelis of Delhi.

Rangoon Villa in Patel Nagar has been renovated, and one doesn’t see the marble plate proclaiming it to be so. But in the second decade of the 20th century there was a bungalow in Civil Lines which was also referred to as Rangoon House, though there was no such sign outside it. The person who occupied it was an old Eurasian bachelor, Jeremy Caleb, who had lived long in Rangoon. He spent Christmas in Calcutta but at Easter time he was always in Delhi. And that was also when he held his annual party.

The man seemed to have made good money in Burma, both as a high-salaried officer, and as an amateur treasure-hunter. He was believed to have unearthed hoards of gold coins buried by Burmese kings, the last of whom was exiled to India by the British. In Delhi, his maternal granduncle had been among those who had collected a lot of treasure from aristocratic Muslim homes in the aftermath of the 1857 recapture of Shahjahanabad by the East India Company troops, and the consequent harassment of the residents.

Being a widower without issue, Granduncle Kenneth had left all his wealth to Caleb’s mother, after whose death he had inherited the ashrafis (gold coins), silver coins, and jewellery. This is as per the late Mrs Macdonald’s account. This lady used to stay in Kashmere Gate, and was close to the Skinner family, or so said Mrs Winifried Singh, wife of the noted surgeon Dr. C. B. Singh, herself a Skinner relative.

Well, Caleb was no relative of Mrs Singh’s but knew her as the girl who used to live in Nicholson Road in the Skinner Haveli. But whatever she had heard about him was from her mother Mrs D’Souza, who had attended many Easter parties along with Mrs Macdonald.

The Easter party in Delhi, high on beer, relished Caleb’s tale of a Scotsman in Rangoon who had to spend a night in the open with a pack of wild dogs barking at him and forcing him to take refuge in an old tomb. The experience was such that the man had a nervous breakdown and took a long time to recover.

Caleb was convinced that Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym Saki, had based his tale, The Open Window on the Scotsman’s ordeal. The difference was that it ended on a farcical note with the Scotman’s hostess of the evening convincing him that her brothers, who had disappeared on a shikar trip and presumed dead, had suddenly emerged right then through the French window, sending the nervous Scotsman hurrying out as though he had seen three ghosts. To quote Saki, “Romance at short notice was her speciality.”

This tale, told and retold at Easter parties by Caleb, attracted more and more guests to his Rangoon House and among those usually present were, besides Mrs Macdonald and Mrs D’Souza, Mr Maidens, who built Maidens Hotel, George Heatherley’s father and Old Louis of Bombay House in Ludlow Castle Road, who also was known as a great host at his Christmas and Easter parties. The latter were mostly luncheons after which the guests either went for a picnic to the Ridge or reassembled for high tea at the Delhi Club, housed in Ludlow Castle, which was demolished in the late 1960s.

As for Bombay House, few may remember that it was there that the Anglo-Indians of Delhi made merry after the 40-day fast of Lent. Louis Sahib had built this house with great care as he missed his childhood residence in Bombay. Besides the main building dominating a lavish garden, there was an outhouse for guests and also servants’ quarters.

After the Easter festivities at the Delhi Club in Ludlow Castle many young couples preferred to spend time at this house, where the lost Easter Bunny made at Carlton’s in Kashmere Gate for Miss Miranda was eventually found after a hectic search. Miranda was the daughter of the first Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, Sir Maurice Gwyer and named after Shakespeare’s character in The Tempest, a play which was the Vice Chancellor’s favourite. The Easter Bunny was packed off with other goodies to Bombay House by oversight. Miranda House of Delhi varsity is named after Miranda Gwyer.

Another story related to Bombay House, the venue for many nuptials in the Civil Lines, is that once a runaway couple found refuge in it, fearing the wrath of their parents. The boy and girl had earlier fled to Dehra Dun, where the Italian priests persuaded the two to return to Delhi before the police came looking for them. Taking a tonga from Old Delhi station, the couple landed up in Bombay House, where its owner old Louis brought about a reconciliation with their parents after offering to host the wedding and standing guarantee for the future good conduct of the would-be groom.

The marriage dance was attended, among others by Sir Malcolm Hailey, Governor of U.P., who came accompanied by a Nawab and presented a jewel-encrusted memento of the Taj. The wedding was held on Easter Sunday with the Rev Allnut, after whom Allnut House in Kashmere Gate is named, presiding over it!

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