Easter falls in summer in India but it’s almost winter then in Australia, which is in the Southern hemisphere. Like England it’s a garden festival in North India too. No wonder Easter garden parties were a special feature during the days of the Raj.
A hundred years ago, notices were put out in the newspapers (for donation of clothes and other discarded articles to the poor) through the “Letters to the Editor” column, during spring cleaning before the festival and the subsequent departure of the sahib-logsto England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to escape the hot weather. One such letter dated 11 March, 1913, signed by a pastor from Mission Row, Calcutta, published by The Statesman, says on receipt of a postcard a chuprassi would be sent to collect the goods from donors. Jaipur’s Sacred Heart Church also issued such notices with good response from the Alexanders, Dy Silvas, Francis and Montrose families.
In Delhi too, such communications were not uncommon. Here, instead of Mission Row, it was the pastors of St Stephen’s Church Fatehpuri, members of the CMS Victoria Zenana Mission, Jama Masjid and the residents and missionaries of Kashmere Gate, who issued appeals for charity to those going to Old Blighty or the hills, particularly Shimla, where the Viceroy and his secretariat moved from Calcutta during the summer months (something like the annual shift of the Jammu and Kashmir government from Jammu to Srinagar).
But before that it was time for garden parties on the Ridge, in Nizamuddin and Mehrauli. A favourite spot for Easter picnics was Humayun’s Tomb and the monuments round about, like the mausoleum of Isa Khan and the garden of Bu Halima. “Bu” was the short form for Bubu, lady of the nobility but nobody really knew who she was and might have been a member of Humayun’s harem. Parties on the Ridge, just across Rajpur Road, were planned at the Delhi Club, opposite Qudsia Garden. From the Club the picnickers went to the Ridge via Ludlow Castle Road (now Raj Nivas Marg).
The favourite sport indulged in before lunch there was rabbit-hunting. Hare were abundant and became the favourite symbol of the traditional Easter Bunny.
Wading into medieval history, it is well known that the emperors Akbar and Jahangir took part in Christmas and Easter festivities, which included the burning of the effigy of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Christ. The British had borrowed some customs from those times as practised by the early Armenian Christians of the Mughal Court, like eating of the pascal lamb on Maundy Thursday and pre-dawn Easter visit to cemeteries. A procession carrying the life-size statue of the dead Christ on a bier was taken out on Good Friday from Akbar’s Church in Agra to the singing of dirges and the Lamentations of Prophet Jermiah.
After a round of the huge compound with incense sticks and candles burning around it, amid a profusion of marigold garlands, the statue was returned with due ceremony in the exquisitely-made church crypt for another year. The Easter parties of the Skinners in Nicholson Road are still remembered by Old Delhiwallahs. Those who attended them at different times included Canon Allnut, the Heatherleys, the Riberios, Sir Malcom Hailey, Sir Maurice Gwyer, Sir Henry Gidney, Deputy Municipal Commissioner Beadon, “the Nawab of Kashmiri Gate” (sic), Lala Sultan Singh and a much sought after pretty lady Winifried, a near Skinner relation, who eventually married the famous surgeon Dr C B Singh. One of her sons-in-law, Vice-Admiral Johnson, commanded the Indian Coast Guard and the other one, Julian Francis, gained recognition in the Andrew Yule tea gardens in Assam.
The last of the Skinners in the Capital, Brig Michael Skinner died some years ago and that was the end of their parties in Delhi, Hansi and Mussoorie.
The Easter lunch parties of Nikhil Kumar, former Commissioner of Police, Delhi, in Akbar Road were also remarkable. Some of his guests who drew attention were the late Archbishop, Alan de Lastic; his assistant, Bishop Vincent Concassao; and Dr John Dayal of the Dalit Christian movement. The hostess, Mrs Kumar was not only in charge of the decorarations, but also of the menu, which included pies and tarts, reminiscent of the ones made by the Queen of Hearts and stolen by the nursery rhyme Knave of Hearts “all on a summer’s day”.
A weird guest at the party, who must have been in his 80s, recounted an interesting story about a missing bunny rabbit, specially made for Miss Miranda Gwyer, daughter of the first Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, after whom Miranda House is named. The bunny was ordered from a confectionery shop in Kashmiri Gate but when the time for delivery came on Easter morning it could not be found. A hurried search was made to avoid embarrassment and it was traced to Bombay House, the residence of “Old Louis” in Ludlow Castle Road. By oversight the bunny was packed with the Easter goodies meant for Louis Sahib’s party and he was only too glad to return it. Miss Miranda (christened so after the heroine of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”), Nikhil Kumar and his Easter parties are now part of memory, like the rumbustious Bombay House, which has become a home for priests.
Incidentally, it was at one such party in mid-19th century that the Australian writer and lawyer John Lang died at his Mussoorie home. His grave was discovered in 1964 by Ruskin Bond and a book written by an Australian diplomat on the flamboyant character who defended the Rani of Jhansi. Another Easter party worth mentioning is about how the Maquire family celebrated the festival with an abundance of pulaozarda, followed by a dessert of loquat fruit, with whose seeds youngsters pelted passers-by, resulting in a near-riot that brought a posse of policemen rushing to the old house in Ghattia.
But luckily saner counsels prevailed and the matter ended peacefully, thanks to the common sense of Mrs Maguire, who offered Easter pudding and sherbet to the protesters and calmed them down on a hot April evening. Interestingly enough, loquat, once imported from China, was the favourite fruit of John Lang, who relished Meerut Jamuns just as much. Now it’s lichis that grow near the cemetery where he is buried and no visitor to Mussoorie comes back without them.