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’
“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
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