I had returned to India in 1954 after two years of study at Briarcliff College, New York, and was enjoying home food, the winter sun in the gardens of Delhi, and a welcome respite from study. It was December. I was surprised to receive a phone call from a woman with a deep American mid-western accent. She asked for ‘Sh –rah-da’, the way Americans usually pronounce my name. She introduced herself as Mary Ann and said she and her friend Amy were school teachers from Ohio travelling around the world after their retirement. They said they were friends of my college Dean, Helen Probasco, who had given them my address and phone number. They were staying at a hotel in Connaught Place and would like to meet me, they said. I invited them to tea and they arrived at our home that evening, two tall middle aged ladies, formally dressed in suits, worn over silk blouses. With similar graying hair styles and spectacles, they could be mistaken for sisters. They were obviously delighted to be in a home after several days of staying in hotels. They asked my mother and me many questions, about India, Delhi and our family. My father arrived rather late from office and joined us. Immediately they brightened and we understood the real purpose of their visit. “Could he arrange for them to meet Prime Minister Nehru?” they asked. (My father had been Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister until the previous year, and they must have been told this by the Dean of my college). My father demurred, explaining that Prime Minister Nehru had a busy schedule. He would have to check with the PMO as he did not work in that office any more. They quickly explained that they were in Delhi for only two days and had hoped…–.
Father said, “Why don’t you go to the Prime Minister’s House at Teen Murti tomorrow morning?. When he is not busy he usually meets people at 8 am, what we call a public ‘darshan?’”. They looked at each other doubtful, skeptical. They left soon thereafter, clearly disappointed at the outcome of their visit, but thanking us warmly for our hospitality.
The next morning the two women took a taxi to Teen Murti house , got out at the gates and walked in looking warily at the guards. They had carefully brought with them their passports and other identification, ready to show the papers, but these were not needed. To their surprise they found they were not the only visitors. A few yards ahead there was a group of farmers and their families from Rajasthan, the men wearing large multicolored striped turbans, the women in bright yellow and red skirts, their veils pulled down to cover their eyes, but revealing smiles and large nose-rings. On their wrists and ankles they wore heavy silver bracelets and anklets which jingled as they walked.
Curious about this group of visitors, the Americans followed them, observing their clothes and listening to their chatter. The little children were dressed in their best outfits, miniature images of their parents. The boys balanced their outsize turbans twisted elaborately around their little heads. The troupe led by the men, the women and children behind them, walked into the gardens of the PM’s house escorted by two attendants from the PM’s household, the American ladies followed trying to look inconspicuous as they felt they were uninvited strangers. Some of the peasant women and children squatted on the grass prepared to wait; the Americans did not know what they were supposed to do, so they stood at the back awkwardly. Soon Prime Minister Nehru came out of the house, walked briskly across the verandah, down the steps towards the group, smiling, greeting them with a Namaste. They quickly rose when they saw him, rushed forward, the men raised their folded hands high in greeting, and the women pulled their veils down and stooped to touch his feet. Nehru gestured impatiently, asking them not to bend down before him, picked up a small child and put him on his shoulder. An official photographer clicked pictures. Nehru asked them questions – where had they come from? What had they seen in Delhi? They eagerly talked about their village, their train journey to Delhi and their pride and joy in being able to meet him, their Pradhan Mantri. Suddenly, Nehru noticed the two tall foreign women in the background. Surprised, he called out: Who are you? They replied that they were from America. He gestured to them to wait, as he politely asked the attendants to escort the Rajasthan group to the gate. .
MaryAnne and Amy told Nehru about their dream of coming to India and how their retirement holiday had made this possible. He walked with them for a while, interested, asking them questions about their school and education in America. — And then he invited them to have breakfast!
I heard a long and descriptive account of their meeting with the Prime Minister, from Maryanne and Amy, that afternoon before they left Delhi. A bit envious, I shared their happy excitement at this unexpected encounter. They would travel around the world, but they knew they would never forget their breakfast at TeenMurti.