Empress of India

blog Gayatri devi jackie kennedy

At some point before her marriage in 1925, my paternal grandmother – the one I never knew – took ship with friends for India (‘P.O.S.H.’) on a visit of evidently some months. The strange thing to me is that nearly every detail of this romantic rite of passage was so rapidly all but lost in family tradition. We do not know even whether Phyllis Elliott took her trip before or after the Great War; I suspect it was most likely post-1918 as at the very end of the Edwardian era my grandmother is supposed to have been working as nursemaid in the Scott household, looking after baby Peter, the future ornithologist, while his father sailed south to the fatal Antarctic wastes. By the time I met Phyllis’s surviving fellow-traveller in the 1970’s, that old lady could recall not a thing about the whole enterprise except that all their purchases and acquisitions¤ were smashed to pieces on the voyage home during a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay. I visualised exotic splinters and fragments of sandalwood, ambergris, nacre – “peacocks, apes and ivory” – all over the inner cabin floor. All that survived were a few Benares brass ashtrays (probably originally made in Birmingham for export as was then the eccentric custom) and a tiny stool inlaid with mother of pearl, beside which my infant father was photographed in 1928.

And maybe it was Phyllis who brought home the sari which we discovered in her widower’s house when he died in the early 1960’s. A strange roll came to light, wrapped in brown paper and cellophane bags, emitting a penetrating odour of damp – and of patchouli, India’s own natural moth deterrent. But it was the old-style patchouli, which seemed to give out a much thicker, oilier, sweeter fragrance of that of today: modern patchouli is infinitely more sophisticated – airier, drier, more rarefied  – but not so dramatic nor emphatic and certainly not as pungent. I daresay it is all to do with the process of refining, extraction and what have you. Anyway, we unpacked this bundle and out rolled yard after yard of exquisite cream raw silk, bordered in whorls of emerald green and silver. I remember it cascading down the front stairs from top to bottom, a rippling river of colour and scent, like a flowery meadow in spring. The only thing was, none of us really knew what it was. It was some time before its destined use dawned upon me. And by then it had gone, as things tended to do in our house – “melted away like butter in the sun” as my mother always said.

I learned about the lore of the sari from what was then called a “novelty act” on a popular television programme of those days, a talent show by the name of Opportunity Knocks hosted by the egregious Hughie Green¤¤. A very pretty Indian lady came before the cameras in her petticoat and proceeded to put on her sari, while singing the complicated sartorial instructions as she dressed. I recall now only the single line:

“You wrap it very tightly
Round your you-know-what…”

The act brought the house down with the studio audience, but “you, the viewers at home” did not, alas, vote for the lovely lady’s return the following week. I thought then that the sari was the most romantic costume ever devised for woman and this was even without the benefit of colour television.
I was told later how tricky it can be to wear – easy to trip, hard to manipulate, a little warm if you’re not used to all those bunched yards of fabric. I heard about the variations in arranging the sari, in the styles of different India states – the Gujerat draping for energetic movement or dancing; the gracious formal pleats of Bombay for more sedate occasions.

The sari stores of Leicester began then to fascinate me as they still do today: the huge windows light up rainy days and dark winter nights with glorious waterfalls of gathers, sweeps, draperies and veils in beautiful buoyant bursting colours – turquoise, gold, viridian, flame, oyster, lime, copper, chocolate, scarlet, crimson and of course sugar pink – Diana Vreeland’s celebrated “navy blue of India”. And then the silks and satins, chiffons and taffetas are all over-embroidered and stitched and beaded with thousands of brilliants, metallic threads, sequins and rhinestones. A gorgeous hatch-out of Indian butterflies against the sobrieties of “Brentford Nylons”, “C & A” and the Co-Op.

The other day I saw quoted in a book of grammar¤¤¤ an exciting line from Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister – “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight”. Some image to unlock the imagination! All the legends and factoids of India come spilling out – and all the scents. The Kashmiri lakes and their palatial houseboats; the fragrant sandalwood and ghee of the burning ghats; the gem mines of Golconda; those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar”; the Jewel in the Lotus and “The Jewel In the Crown”; George V and Queen Mary sweltering and gleaming at the Delhi Durbar; “The Mountain of Light” monster diamond kidnapped to become a radiant if unlucky star of the British royal regalia.

I am thrilled by my friend Mr Singh’s memories of peacocks as numerous as crows screeching in the trees on his parents’ Punjabi farm; and progress reports from his Leicester garden flourishing and fertile with chilis, native herbs and spices. Expatriate Indians tell me of tuberoses and mangoes growing back home like weeds in suburban Calcutta back yards. Of the delicate dry fresh smell of Darjeeling tea plantations and the stronger redolence of Assam. Of the addictive mouthwatering spiciness of tuli, the sacred medicinal Indian basil, and of huge garlands of living flowers slung around the necks of visitors; and of ‘cus cus tatis’ – woven blinds of vetiver grass, soaked in water and hung at the windows to repel heat and insects while cooling and perfuming the interior of the house.

The now forgotten but much-filmed & once lauded American novelist Louis Bromfield (“The Rains Came”) wrote of coming into Bombay by ship in the late 1930’s, and of the odours wafting out into the bay from The Gateway To India:

” He sniffed and became aware of a smell he knew at once – a curious mixed smell faintly dominated by the smell of drying fish…’Bombay duck’…but there was more…the compounded odours of spice and woodsmoke, of jasmine and marigold and of dust and copra and cow-dung smoke…(And) the strange excitement of memories: a dangerous smell, but deliciously exciting…there was no smell in the world quite like it.” ¤¤¤¤

That fleshy musky indolic jasmine; the carnal sensuality hidden in tiny white stars – and the flamboyant bitter faint sickliness of the fluorescent orange marigold.

And thus this hidebound old westerner Lemon Wedge imagines, pictures and smells India in his own mind. But now, take heart! we all have the privilege of having our noses indulged and our brains expanded by the olfactory treasure house of NEELA VERMEIRE, newly arrived at LES SENTEURS and as gloriously varied and nuanced as Mother India herself. Why not pop round? You are only a dream away.

¤ which did not include husbands. I don’t know whether the search for a spouse had been one of the original intentions of the voyage out. In those days of the Raj, the “fishing fleet” of wise and foolish British virgins made regular sailings to India in search of suitable matches. In the event, my grandparents first met back in England on the occasion of my great grandmother’s funeral procession becoming jammed in a narrow Leicestershire lane. Phyllis was a lovely mourner, pale and interesting in black crepe; Mr Craven was young and dashing on his motor bike.

¤¤ dramatically & posthumously revealed to have been Paula Yates’s secret father.

¤¤¤ “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth. A stimulating read.

¤¤¤¤ “Night In Bombay”, first published 1940.