World

Remembering Maureen Travis, the Librarian Who Was Witness to History at London’s India House

The 92-year-old librarian served generations of Indian high commissioners to the UK and had many rare and entertaining stories to share about them.

Credit: Special Arrangement

Maureen Travis. Credit: Special Arrangement

An invaluable source of information about the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, former Indian diplomats and angry NRIs, including Sikh militants, has dried up following the death of the longest serving employee of the India House in London, Maureen Travis.

Until a few weeks ago, the 92-year-old librarian was still coming in to work as usual when she was unexpectedly hospitalised due to severe stomach pains. Travis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before she died at the St. Thomas’ Hospital in the British capital.

Travis was part of a trio of sharply focused women – one Indian and two English – who served generations of high commissioners including Krishna Menon, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Jivraj Mehta among others.

She also had her turn nurturing Indira Gandhi during her many visits to the UK, as well as babysitting Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi when they were sent to the UK for higher education.

Although Travis had an endless number of stories about both Gandhi boys, she was most knowledgeable about the former high commissioners who tapped her skills in order to gain access to the vast collection of documents in the India House library before they were transferred to the National Archives of India in New Delhi.

After Indira was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, one high commissioner decreed that for security reasons, all the Sikh visitors could gain access to the High Commission only via the back entrance.

A subsequent high commissioner swiftly had the order reversed and another high commissioner endeared himself to the Indian student community because his wife let it be known that dal, rice and chapatis would always be available free of charge to anyone who knocked on the front door of the Kensington Palace Gardens. Several young men and women who took her up on the offer benefitted from her generous hospitality.

Krishna Menon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Krishna Menon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some of Travis’ most entertaining stories were about Menon, a graduate of the London School of Economics (LSE). Menon’s tireless work in setting up the India League in London to lobby for the country’s independence was rewarded by Jawaharlal Nehru with him being appointed as independent India’s first high commissioner to the UK.

A devoted socialist and fighter for equal rights, Travis liked to tell the story of Menon’s first week as the high commissioner when he was driving in the high commissioner’s Rolls Royce. As he sped down a prominent London street – the Strand – Menon saw the janitor of LSE, an Englishman named Jack, standing on a street corner. Menon stopped the car and shouted, “Get in Jack if you want a ride.”

There was also, however, a lesser known side of Menon’s personality. Contrary to popular assumptions at the time, it was not for socialist reasons that Menon refused to move into the high commissioner’s palatial residence at 9, Kensington Palace Gardens – a short distance from Kensington Palace where several members of the British royal family also lived.

Menon preferred to use his office and attached bathroom suite as his residence because that was where, according to Travis, he could be privately attended to – away from prying eyes – by the two young Indian women he referred to as his ‘temple girls.’ They were later employed as air hostesses by Air India.

Travis was also knowledgeable about many of Menon’s successors in London, including Mehta, who was famous for nodding off in the middle of official dinner parties.

Her most acute observations, however, were reserved for Nehru’s sister, Pandit, who served as the high commissioner for seven years between 1954 and 1961, after previously serving as India’s envoy to both Russia and the US.

Pandit, who lacked intellectual rigour since the only educational training she received was at the hands of English and Swiss governesses, soon became famous for her temperamental outbursts and repeated warnings to resentful High Commission staff that she would tell bhai if they didn’t mend their ways. They, in turn, referred to her as ‘call me madame’ behind her back.

vijaya_lakshmi_pandit_wikimediacommons

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It soon became common knowledge at the India House that Pandit could not stand the sight of her predecessor Menon and repeatedly complained about him to the prime minister in New Delhi.

Stories about their mutual dislike have been supported by recently released British government documents from the National Archives in Kew which have a record of how Pandit tried to sabotage Menon’s stopover in London en route to commemorating Ghana’s independence celebration in 1960.

Malcolm Macdonald, Britain’s High Commissioner in Delhi, manipulated protocol to make it appear as if his prime minister and foreign secretary wanted to meet defence minister Menon – rather than the other way around – in order to avoid Pandit undermining Menon’s visit.

Travis also remembered the time when a glowing Pandit contacted her bhai to tell him how her greatest success as a high commissioner was to persuade Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh to accept her invitation for dinner at the high commissioner’s residence in 1961. However, not all went as planned because the dinner was delayed for no obvious reason.

When a frantic Pandit rushed down to the basement kitchen, she found the dishes ready but the cook semi-conscious on the floor with an empty bottle of whiskey in his hand. The prospect of the Queen coming to dinner, as Travis observed, was too much for the man to take.