My christening, it seems was a lively affair. Photographs reveal the new mother couldn’t be parted from the piano stool with singers gathered around. The ecstatic new father waltzed with all the ladies present. My parents, JM (Bob) and Louella Lobo Prabhu( LLP) were more than intellectuals. They had another vibrant aspect to themselves- true bon vivants who loved the good life. Our home,”Chateau de Lou”, perched majestically on a verdant hill in the epicentre of Mangalore reflected their scintillating spirit.
My father had been a Member of the Indian Parliament between 1967-71. The political circuit in Delhi was replete with glittering gatherings, which LLP colourfully documented in her columns. It is thus that several years later, we have an intimate recorded glimpse even of the wedding of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and the more exclusive reception thereafter at the residence of Vijaylaxmi Pandit. In 1971, though the couple returned to the hometown with a nostalgia for those times, they infused a new momentum to the party scene. They hosted lavish soirees whenever an erstwhile political or service colleague happened to be in town. My earliest memory of such evenings is being outfitted in a long pink dress for a dinner in honour of His Excellency, Dharma Vira, my father’s good friend who happened to be Governor of Mysore State. He charmed all the ladies present and even bestowed attention on the little maid employed as my companion. Large dinners of this kind required such foresight as petromax lanterns in the event of power failure. I don’t recall the services of a caterer being used for any such occasion- a female cook with the other housemaids for helpers rustled up a combination of Mangalorean cuisine and cordon bleu dishes like coq au vin for over a hundred people at a time. Grandmother Dorothy Anne could always be relied upon for a sinfully rich chocolate pudding or endless platters of pink china grass.
I also enjoyed the sit down dinners of the more intimate variety. The maids would be outfitted in pale pink flowered dresses with matching aprons and lace trimmed caps. The hors d’oeuvres were the best treat – pate de foie gras, Anchovy and Caviar on dainty wedges of toast. Asparagus soup came out of tins. The main menu would comprise some of the Nawabi dishes reminiscent of my father’s days as an ICS officer in the United Provinces. The New Dalda Cookbook and Premila Lal furnished the recipes for Seekh and Shammi Kababs, Murg Mussalam and Nizami Ghosht. A typical evening, preceded by my mother’s beautiful piano music ended in the rich jewel colours and fruity flavours of liqeuers- Cointreau, Drambuie, Bols and Hallgarten. Conversations were usually stimulating, but some of these gatherings became inflammable, when my father, perhaps missing the sparring contests on the floor of Parliament had heated arguments with political visitors of different persuasions.
There was something about the Chateau which charmed all its visitors. It had been animated by a social spirit during the time it functioned as the English Club. Its uniqueness was not lost even on such guests as the brother of the Ruler of the European Principality of Lichtenstein who came calling. Likewise a Polish Count with a connection to composer Frederick Chopin. I also remember Lord and Lady Foxley Norris- his Lordship, a hero of the then recently concluded Falklands War spontaneously sang a Welsh song to my mother’s accompaniment. A member of the Kuwaiti Ruling Family overwhelmed us with lavish gifts of jewellery.
Mother was in hospital, when I fielded a phone call from the American Embassy, that the Ambassador to India, Harry M. Barnes wanted to visit the Chateau the following week. Not wholly cognizant of the honour as a college girl in 1983, I only worried about how it would affect my mother’s recuperation from surgery. The High Tea in the Ambassador’s honour nevertheless went well, and Mrs. Barnes informed us that she was a descendant of those pioneering settlers who sailed in on The Mayflower.
There were famous names from the world of arts and letters who enlivened the Chateau.We hosted dinner for Pandit Ravi Shanker and Ustad Alla Rakha. Hearing my mother play, the Sitar Maestro promptly wrote a commendation of her musical gifts. Visiting artistes of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations virtually camped at our place. These were lively encounters that echoed with consummate music making. LLP’s virtuosity at the piano made them unstintingly accept her as a peer. She never needed a music score before her, even as most of these Maestros did. Synergies were in place as she introduced their music on stage to make it more comprehensible to local audiences. LLP valued the rare occasions that she alternated her place at the piano seat with Dr. Raja Ramanna, who combined the arcane world of atomic physics with accomplished renditions of the music of Franz Lizst. Amitav Ghosh, the Novelist who was doing research on Mangalore for a forthcoming book had a few luncheons at our place with his wife in 1990. The Chateau was open house for practically any person of distinction passing through town, who was welcome to share potluck with the hosts, with guidance on how to make the best of Mangalore.
By the late eighties, the paucity of domestic staff made entertaining on a formal scale a distant memory. Entertaining in the old style was a strain replaced by the “come and go” high tea of vols au vents and open face sandwiches ordered from the Taj on the birthdays of family members, for those who invariably remembered them. The last time the house was opened up in a big way was for the high tea LLP hosted for the Ladies’ Club, sharing the history of the Chateau, her own writings and music in October 2000.
Celebrating social milestones is ordinarily poignant for the vacuity of those we have loved and lost. But it is the formative experiences of the past that indefinably define one’s social persona.
-Giselle D. Mehta