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London: A legendary witness to history in India House

world Updated: Dec 14, 2014 23:56 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Maureen Travis


Twenty-three high commissioners have come and gone since 1947, but one person who has seen them all and witnessed history from close quarters is a nonagenarian Briton who quietly but passionately looks after the library in India House: Maureen Travis.

After India’s independence, several British citizens were employed in the high commission, but today Travis is the only Briton left. She is much respected by the staff, who admire her quiet dedication to the library that has over 20,000 books, including rare documents.

Travis breaks into a smile if you try to guess her age, hints that she is in her early 90s, but retains a sharp memory about events, dates and individuals she met during her long tenure, including the many security breaches in India House over the years. She joined on 6 September 1948.

Clearly remembering VK Krishna Menon, the first high commissioner (1947-1952), Travis told HT: “He was charismatic, you either liked or disliked him very much. I admired him. He was always available for Indian students who came here to study. During his time, he got us British employees to swear our loyalty to India”.

Travis also remembers shaking hands with Jawaharlal Nehru, who greeted every guest at the door during a reception, and also the tenure of Vijayalaxmi Pandit as the high commissioner (1954-1961): “She was a ‘Call me Madam’-kind of a lady”, she recalled with a smile.

"lt is through Salman Haidar (former envoy) that I am here now because when the time came in the late 1980s that I should be retired, he called me upstairs and said,'Well now what are you going to do?' I said,'I havent made any plans.''Well, why dont you stay?' So I said, 'Ok, I will stay''.

"And I have been ever since. I have spent a good part of my life here and I have been very happy. I love my job, it is wonderful. I like the research. I like helping people”.

Insisting to retaining the charm of old-style card-based catalogue of books, Travis said she ‘can’t bear the idea of computers’. She has read every book in the library, most of them related to India, types their details on a card, including a synopsis, and knows exactly where each book is shelved.

For one so knowledgeable about India, she has never visited the country. “I am too old to go now. India has come to me (over the decades). I’ve read so much about India”, she said.

The only concession to technology she has made is changing a clunky 80-year-old Imperial typewriter to a portable one, on a desk that is overseen by a card that says: ‘I can’t live without books’, and photographs of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

At her age, despite appeals by two library colleagues, she continues to climb up and down ladders to check on books: “It keeps me fit”. For over 66 years, she has worked 11am to 6pm, five days a week: “Yes, I like working. They keep me because because I know things here, maybe they’ll switch to computers after I am gone”.

Hailing from Hampshire, Travis clearly enjoys the company of her Indian colleagues in the high commission – “we are a very happy crowd” – and adds that the “officers are very good to me”.

Prashant Pise, Head of Chancery in the high commission, said: “She has had a long innings at India House. Even after her retirement, she has been coming to help maintain the library. Despite her age, she reaches India House every day by bus. She tells us that even bus drivers know her and wait for her to board the bus. She is a running encyclopaedia on the library”.