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The woman who stole Mountbatten’s heart

By Aparna Datta & Roja Kandath

Summer of 1948. The Simla Season was on in full swing. Independent India’s first summer, but the lukewarm remnants of the Raj lingered on. The days went by in a whirl- luncheons, picnics, tennis parties, gymkhana. The evenings meant entertainment- fancy dress balls, official dinners, and the high point in Simla’s social calendar- a performance by the Simla Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC).

On May 20, members of the club presented three One Act plays at the Gaiety Theatre. The club’s patrons, their Excellencies Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma, were the chief guests. The second play was Half An Hour with Ava Bhasin as the leading lady.

Later Lord Mountbatten wrote from Simla to his daughter Patricia:
“If only I wasn’t Governor-General but just a grass-bachelor sailor I would have had the most wonderful time here. An exceptionally lovely Anglo-Indian girl, leading lady of the second play, attracted me more than any girl for years. And as luck would have it I absolutely clicked with her. I just saw enough of her on stage. After the show and sitting opposite her after the Club dinner to know we could have had a wonderful time…Isn’t it maddening I just can’t do anything about it. She was just my cup of tea. Pammy (his other daughter Pamela) was amused but luckily I don’t think mummy noticed anything…” – An extract from Mountbatten by Paul Ziegler.

Sitting in the drawing-room of her house in Koramangala, in this very sultry summer of 1998, Ava recalls that enchanted evening, fifty years ago. “I hardly realized that I’d made such an impression! It all happened quite by chance. I was 24 at the time, holidaying in Simla at the invitation of a family friend.

“One day I was having coffee at the Green Room, a club. One of the producers came in looking frantic as the leading lady of the play had been transferred to another place. He insisted that I take the part, and for the heck of it, I agreed.” Since Ava was extremely shy by nature, the roles she otherwise got were “of dusting the table or stage.” The show went off very well: afterwards, the bouquets came pouring in. “A couple of days later, my husband and I were invited to the Governor General’s Lodge for a Garden Party for the cast and members of the Simla ADC. These two occasions were the first and the last time I met Mountbatten – little did I know he would record our encounter in a letter to his daughter!”

It was only much later when the excerpt from the biography appeared in The London Times in 1985 that Ava came to know about the Governor-General being smitten by her. Ava is however upset about Mountbatten’s mention in his autobiography that she sought his autograph. She says that never happened. Even as we sat in her drawing room on a nostalgic afternoon last week, the lady who captured the Earl’s heart, looked heavenwards and said dramatically, “Mountbatten, I hope you are listening. I was nervous then and with two little boys waiting for me at home, I couldn’t have shown the slightest interest in you.” Ava says Mountbatten must have been confused: “He must have seen a hundred Ava Bhasins in his life. He was known to be a lady’s man. But they say he never forgot a pretty girl’s face.”

Mountbatten and Ava discussed just two topics over coffee. “I usually spoke less. I told him that my mother was English, married to a Bengali barrister.” Ava remembers Mountbatten as “a lovely-looking man. He was well-built, handsome and had a charm of his own.”

Looking back, she says she would have preferred to have an intellectual relationship with him and if there was anything to do with the bedroom, “it would have been purely accidental.” She was aware that Mountbatten and Edwina shared a ‘spiritual’ relationship.

“I do regret it to a point that I did not reciprocate. I should have written to him or sent him my pictures. I did not because I would have to pay a price – my dignity.”

At 74, Ava is frail, but still charming. She is a personification of grace and simplicity. Her early childhood was spent in Calcutta and Delhi. A mother of three sons, she currently stays close to her eldest son who runs a furniture business.

“Mountbatten sent flowers to everybody and if he had autographed by bouquet, maybe I would have told my story to others.”

A lady of many accomplishments, she had a business venture in embroidered sarees. Many of her poems have been published in magazines such as The Illustrated Weekly and JS. With a background and heritage that combines the best of East and West, Ava is unique. The “swan-necked lady” thinks of Mountbatten often. From among the many men who liked her, he is the one person who comes to her mind frequently.

And she is left with some sepia-toned regret amid the memories of a swash-buckler whose feelings she did not reciprocate because she as never pushy. “I feel backward to be forward.”

Published in Bangalore Times / The Times of India, June 30, 1998



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