An unforgettable UPASI Conference!
Today I would like to talk about an UPASI week that I would never forget!
The year was 1969. I had entered various competitions and as usual won nothing. It was time for the Sports Club dance at Wellington Gymkhana Club. For the young this evening was far more relevant than the Ooty Club Dinner which was a staid affair.
I had a few people over for drinks at the Hampton Hotel where I was staying. There is always some ‘preparation’ before an evening like this! By the time my friends and I reached the Gymkhana Club, the place was packed out and pulsating with a live band in attendance. As we inched our way through a sea of people I saw Sam and Molly Zachariah, who had obviously come early and taken charge of a sofa settee and chairs. I surveyed the room and then asked, “Are there any unattached ladies around?” Molly Zachariah was quick to answer. “Don’t you know Premela?” I looked blank. “Mrs. Kuruvila’s daughter?” – and pointed in the direction of a group close by.
There was a break in music and we walked over. Molly introduced me to Premela. We made small talk and I learned that she lived in Ooty with her mother and two brothers. The band struck up again and I asked her for a dance and was grateful that she accepted. It’s an awful feeling when you are refused!
Conversation seemed quick and easy. She grew up in Kuala Lumpur where her father Dr. Jacob Kuruvila, was a well-known eye surgeon. After schooling she came to Delhi to join Miranda House, a top women’s college. In 1963 Dr. Kuruvila took early retirment and chose to settle in Ooty. However, a couple of years later, he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He was only in his mid-fifties!
I told Premela that I worked for a Tea Auction company in Cochin. Before I could paint a euphoric picture of JT or Cochin, Premela said, “I hate Kerala!” I was taken aback, but she explained that this was because of a couple of nosey uncles who kept sending marriage proposals. This was the era of ‘arranged marriages’!
After the Dance I bid goodbye but told her I would like to stay in touch. We exchanged a couple of letters and then I arranged another visit to the Nilgiris. I decided it was time to call on our Nilgiris clients! Premela invited me to their lovely house Abbotsford, which had been the summer home of a Maharaja. It was built by the British, as were all stately homes in the Nilgiris. Premela’s mother Mary was a vivacious and gracious lady, who had been widowed at a young age. Premela’s younger brother Jakes was away at college in Madras, but Georgie the youngest was home.
Once back in Cochin, I continued to write regularly. Then my closest friend from school, Anup Ganju, who was in the Merchant Navy dropped in. His ship was in Cochin Port.
Anup, was a man of the world. I remember him taking me to some friends in Delhi in the sixties. We sat around in a circle and passed a Chillum around. This was what the Indian Rishis smoked all the time but the world was just getting to know the psychedelic effects of hashish and marijuana, thanks to Timothy Leary! Anup later introduced me to more of his hippy friends but we will come to that later on in our journey.
I told Anup that I had met Premela at the Sports Club Dance and that I had followed up with a subsequent visit to the Nilgiris. I told him, “If I was to marry, I feel she would be that person!”
“Then why don’t you ask her?, he suggested.
I had always baulked at the thought of settling down and letting go of my ‘freedom’. My palms felt cold and clammy on a hot day in Cochin.
“Go on, call!”, he insisted.
So, I booked a ‘lightening call’. People reading this today when you can speak to anyone anywhere on the planet at any time, will have no idea how difficult a long distance phone call was in the sixties. You had to call the Telephone Exchange and book a Trunk Call. Since that would take forever, we would book a Lightning Call, which cost 8 times more. But I guess this was urgent business!
The call came through, and Premela picked up the phone at the other end.
“Hi how are you?” I continued with small talk, even though the call meter was turning. Anup looked impatient. So I asked feebly, “By the way, would you like to marry me?”
When it comes to this one question, one’s bravado vanishes into thin air!
“Hello, hello! I can’t hear you!”, was the reply.
I have often wondered whether she hadn’t heard or was playing for time having been caught unawares.
I turned to Anup, and said “She can’t hear me!”
Anup took the phone, “Premela, this is Anup Ganju, Philji’s school buddy!”
“Yes, I have heard of you, Hi!”
“Philji just asked you to marry him!”
“What should I tell him?”, Anup persisted.
“Tell him, Yes!”
Anup gives me a thumbs up and continues to chit chat, while I let the enormity of the situation sink in. It didn’t just then, but over the coming days I began to realise that this would have a cascading effect on my life, but at 25 and not a care in the world you feel the world is your oyster and you can take on life as it comes!
I wrote to my parents in Delhi. “Guess what? I got engaged!” I remembered, a few years earlier I had dropped in to my father’s office at the University Grants Commission and left a small note on his table, “Guess what? I got a job in Calcutta!”
A few days later I invited Premela to Cochin. I wanted to make sure that she didn’t actually hate living in Kerala. Wanted her to meet my boss and colleagues and see my ‘setup’. She flew down and my very good friends John and Kunjumol (CC Johns) were kind enough to host her. They were delighted to meet her and have been lifelong friends.
On the way to the airport I stopped at the Indian Industries Emporium and fished out a ring from the display. It was a cheap ring, which I thought I would replace later – but the moment had to be seized! I turned to Premela and said, “Let this be a token of our engagement!”
Now all that remained was to set a date for the wedding!