From the well of memory, I recall a garden party held in the Mughul Gardens of Rashtrapati Bhawan in Delhi long decades ago. Just after the heralds announced the arrival of the President with India’s first lady at his side and, after the guests rose to greet the head of state, in that ringing silence a female voice in clipped colonial accent resounded:
“Goodness gracious! She looks like a bird of paradise!” Several eyes turned towards the elegant chiffon clad lady, wife of an army general, according to whom the President’s wife was dressed gaudily. Indeed the lady had draped herself in a purple Kanjeevaram silk sari with wide orange borders and was bedecked with diamonds and emeralds on her wrists and at her ears, all of which made for a comical assertion of primacy. “That woman should really have been sent to finishing school before being lodged in the Viceroy’s palace,” observed mother sadly when I recounted the incident to her.
British rule in India had effected an iron cast class structure: in the directly administered territories, members of the Indian Civil Services (ICS) were top of the crop followed by officers of the military and uniformed services, who together formed the ruling elite, while in two-fifths of the subcontinent, the Indian princes, zamindars and feudal lords dazzled the world with their resplendent lifestyles. Post-independence, however, the newly emerging political class that now wielded the reigns of authority were a different breed and, out of step with the social mores of Pax Brittanica.
Many years later in the sprawling, stately residence of the Patiala commissioner, my official residence at that time, an aristocratic, mannerly Muslim gentlemen appeared in mother’s sitting room on New Year’s Day bearing a bird of paradise plant. It had three brilliant orange sepals offset by an equal number of deep blue flowers. With its vivid colours and statuesque profile, the plant stood on the mantelpiece for days. On close scrutiny, I noticed that the bird of paradise had a beak-like sheath from which the flowers emerged. I was told that this plant is also known as the crane flower owing to its bird-like blooms and a blue tongue above which arose the regal spectacle of like petals, reminiscent of a crane’s plumage.
The plant is, in fact believed to resemble the avian bird of paradise with its striking colours and bright plumage of yellow, blue, scarlet and green.
Shortly before her death, I acquired a dozen crane flower plants for mother. Not one of them bloomed; for years together, the crane flower could not be coaxed to visit mother’s garden. And all we had to show for our efforts was a row of defiant sullen green leaves. And then quite suddenly, on the day of my retirement when I turned 60 years of age, I returned home from office after handing over the seal and flag to discover a bird of paradise flowering in full regalia, outside my mother’s window.