With the passing away of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September, the second Elizabethan Age came to an end. She had been the longest reigning monarch in British history with seven decades of Queenship. Born on 21 April 1926 in London, Princess Alexandra Mary unexpectedly became the direct in line to the British throne when her uncle Edward VIII abdicated, forcing the mantle of kingship to fall on her father’s shoulders, who was anointed as King George VI in 1936. He was the head of state through the devastating Second World War, and it was during his reign that India regained her identity as an independent nation. The sudden death of her father while she was on a state visit to Kenya made the young lady who went up to a treehouse as a Princess, come down as a Queen at 25 in 1952. So, for me, she has been the Queen of the four realms of the United Kingdom through my life, till now.
The tales of Thakumar Jhuli with their raja-rani tales, had a magical fairy-tale element woven round the lives of royalty in my early years, which was transformed by my journey to London in the 1960s. As the daughter of Prof Bimalendu Bhattacharya, India’s first Commonwealth Scholar to the London School of Economics, I was fascinated by the fact that my father met the Queen in person twice as a young researcher.
Her warm welcome to the scholars as the Head of the Commonwealth was a defining moment for my parents in their London experience. What stayed with them and has coloured my estimation of the Queen is her gracious and dignified presence which has stayed with me all my life. For me she was a monarch whose palaces were not in picture books, but magnificent edifices in London and scattered around the country, to which she journeyed and in which she stayed with members of her family from time to time as her routine demanded.
She took her Head of the Commonwealth role seriously, visiting all countries (except Rwanda and Cameroon) with pleasure. Since her coronation took place in 1953, she has signified the postcolonial, post-imperial era for me. While the world has been in flux, political regimes have changed, and the political world map has been redrawn through these seven decades. Queen Elizabeth II remained the calm centre of many an emergent storm at home and abroad.
As I watched the BBC news coverage after her death in the past two days, there were memorable clips shown of the Queen with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, addressing India, walking with Mrs Indira Gandhi in Delhi and lately meeting Mr Modi. I remember how she was represented by Prince Charles, the current King Charles III at the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi, seen to be visibly upset by the untimely death of his pilot friend, captured by Doordarshan in its news coverage in 1991, and her controversial visit in 1997 where the question was should she apologise for the 1919 Amritsar massacre. Elizabeth II invited 15 Prime Ministers to take office in Britain, while she remained the symbol of continuity.
She did this with characteristic grace, even when confronted by a strong woman like Margaret Thatcher, whose ideology clearly did not match hers. The Queen was discreet and dependable as a monarch, careful not to interfere in the politics of the country, respecting and abiding by the British Constitution to serve her country. There were difficult moments in her life, both personal and political, and perhaps the gravest ones carved the turning points in her long reign. One was the disaster in 1966 in Aberfan, Wales when 116 children of Pantglas Junior School were amongst the 144 killed by a coal waste slide. The Queen delayed her visit to the site of the tragedy by eight days, and when she did go, the experience shook her so deeply that she paid subsequent visits to the place, as an atonement for an initial mistake.
The next was her Palace’s slow public response to Princess Diana’s tragic death in 1997 in the face of a public show of consolidated despair and mourning by the British people and the world’s commiseration. The Queen broke her silence and spoke to the nation of the loss of her grandsons’ mother and her own sadness at this untimely death.
Both were watershed moments showing a deep humanity beneath all royal protocol which has shown the Queen as a monarch willing to respect the changing times and evolve, which her subjects at home have grown to respect. Her affection for her family is evident, as when Prince Harry and Meghan gave up their royal title and she continued to keep the door of the family circle open to them, reiterated by her son in his King’s speech on 9 September as he expressed his love for his younger son and his family. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament,
Queen Elizabeth was hailed as the ‘Queen of Scots’, a declaration that has been reiterated in every mention of an independence referendum for Scotland. She breathed her last in Balmoral Palace, where she was most at home and could relax.
For me, personally, she signified inclusion and multiculturalism, as exemplified in the spontaneous celebrations across the country of all ethnic groups during her silver, golden, diamond and this year, her platinum jubilees, as a much-revered monarch.
Each Christmas, we waited for the Queen’s Speech which always interesting, being pertinent to the times. I have seen the outpourings of genuine grief amongst the millions gathering outside her palaces in Britain, including Holyrood Palace in Scotland. I remain grateful for the Queen’s Honour she bestowed on me for Education, Poetry and Integration in Scotland on her New Honours list in 2021.
The loss of her beloved husband, Prince Philip, was an immense loss, yet I am most fortunate in having both his and the Queen’s signatures on my CBE certificate. She had been too frail in the last year to attend to various royal duties in person and had to let her eldest son step in to fulfil her tasks and one of them was awarding me the CBE insignia at Windsor Castle, their most beautiful family home in a spectacular ceremony in December 2021.
So, I feel hugely fortunate to have lived through the second Elizabethan era, presided over by a monarch noted for her integrity and grace, and have received her successor, King Charles’ good wishes