Delhiwale: Inside an envoy’s house where peacocks rule a sprawling garden
To be a High Commissioner is, well, something.
We mulled this over while visiting the Australian High Commission recently. Amid the lush greenery is a mansion designed by the legendary Joseph Allen Stein.
As Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Harinder Sidhu enjoys other perks too, such as a sprawling garden ruled by peacocks and the estimable Bindeshwar Ram, the cook who dishes out aloo parathas at a moment’s notice.
“That’s my favourite Saturday brunch,” says Ms Sidhu, who is of Punjabi origin and was raised in Australia. Appointed in 2016, she has been a career officer in the Australian Foreign Office. But there’s more to her than just diplomacy — we spot a piano in the corner.
“Can you please play us something?” we ask. Sitting at the piano, she deftly negotiates Chopin. The Prelude in E-Minor resounds in the sun-filled hallway as we think about the adjoining dining room with a magnificent table. Could it be that Ms Sidhu, who lives alone, sits there all by herself at mealtime?
She laughs. “I’m almost never home!” As the official representative to the subcontinent, her working hours go on and on. And as Australia’s top diplomat in India, she plays a key role in parleys between the two trading partners. The High Commissioner is also expected to host or turn up at endless dinners, exhibitions, gallery openings and much else, “and that’s part of the job I very much enjoy.”
Having said this, she does occasionally find the time to just stay put and enjoy a tasty meal at the residence, prepared by the estimable “Mister Ram”.
The lady from Australia sees her official residence as an appendage to her office. “I often choose to meet people here in this less formal setting. I want us to be able to easily relax into conversations.” Guests in the light-filled drawing room will notice bookshelves stacked with much about Russia, where Ms Sidhu was earlier posted, along with books by American photographer Annie Leibovitz “whom I adore.”
Her peripatetic career means that she can never stay loyal to just one city. In a sense, the only permanent resident in this marvellous mansion is its American architect.
The late Joseph Allen Stein was the man behind some of New Delhi’s most aesthetic buildings, including the India International Center. His archetypical style consists of an airy structure seamlessly fused with gardens.
“This house just flows into that garden, there’s no distinction,” says Ms Sidhu, who loves gardening. She has her very own little patch back home in Canberra, “but here, I love this idea of having every room facing the garden.”
At some point as we chat, the High Commissioner acknowledges “that in many ways I’m privileged.”
In the mornings, the diplomat may well take her tea in the pavilion facing the back garden. Sometimes, the resident peacocks venture very close, and these “territorial birds”, Ms Sidhu sighs, “never ever allow me to sit in their part of the pavilion.”
Suddenly, we spot a peacock in the garden. Ms Sidhu escorts us out for a closer look but the bird hops into the bushes and disappears.