Dismissing Bina Ramani as a caviar socialite from Delhi’s elite is easy. However, the challenging episodes in her life, that she has braved through, with guts and gumption, are lesser-known and often overlooked.
Born into an affluent family of British India, that moved to Bombay from Pakistan, after the tumultuous partition of India in 1947, one might expect her to have had a life nothing short of a fairy tale. Well, to some extent it was. However, past the magnificent façade of unicorns and rainbows, lies the story of a woman who braved through every hurdle life threw at her. We are talking about Bina Ramani – a fashion designer, socialite, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, but more importantly, a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a woman.
Coming from a conservative and illustrious Sindhi Sikh family, Bina Ramani, (born Bina Lalvani) was the youngest of 12 siblings, always protected from the evil side of life. Ironically, Bina’s later life has been nothing short of a sea of scary vortexes, in which she has often found herself trapped but eventually emerged stronger. While her various stints in the glimmering world of fashion are known to all, there still remain so many facets to her multi-layered persona, which are relatively unknown.
Reminiscing of her childhood, Bina describes herself as a tomboy who would blow the biggest bubbles out of her chewing gum. A young girl with untraditional dreams, she went on to participate in the national games for high jump in 1956. After school, she was sent off to Lady Irwin College in Delhi to study home science. Later, she secretly trained at one of the biggest modelling schools in London of that time and aspired to become a singing sensation at the age of 18. This laid the foundation for Bina’s dream of living an independent life full of glitz and glamour, something that eventually came to her as the years passed by.
Bina’s family was, (and still is) close to the Kapoor Khandaan, which led her to be close to the then-superstar Shammi Kapoor. “He (Shammi) had just lost his wife and had sunk into depression. Mrs Krishna Kapoor, known universally as ‘bhabiji’, tried her best to arrange my marriage with him. Despite opposition from my family and Raj Kapoor himself, who didn’t approve Shammi’s wild ways, the two of us fell madly in love,” revealed Bina Ramani in an interview with The Times of India.
What followed was a whirlwind romance between the two, which lived for about a year, before Bina rushed into an arranged marriage at her family’s behest. “Before I knew it, my parents talked me into an arranged marriage within a week’s time, while Shammi was in the jungles on his annual trek. That changed my destiny overnight. My life in San Francisco, New York, and the incredible lows and highs shaped me as a person. Though today I wish I had questioned the decisions of my elders. I wish I had the guts to say ‘no’ to a loveless marriage arranged by my parents,” Ramani said.
Her marriage with Andy Ramani, an Air-India employee based in New York, fell apart 13 years later. However, by then, Bina Ramani was already a mother of two girls – Gitanjali and Malini. Along with motherhood came the responsibility of nurturing two young children, which became herculean post her divorce with her husband. The divorce didn’t come through easily either. It took four long years in the courts of Delhi, Mumbai and New York, and it was only after the eminent lawyer and a friend of Bina’s, Ram Jethmalani, stepped in that the divorce papers came through.
The bad marriage affected Bina, but not her grit and inner and strength. She dealt with Andy’s abusive behaviour, handing over 80% of her income to him, and raised two daughters single-handedly. In her autobiography, Bird in a Banyan Tree: My Story, Bina says, “We Indian woman are groomed to believe in a happily ever after scenario. Our self-images are built on it and we have nothing else to hold on to. Thus, we accept a man no matter what he does.”
Fortunately for her, Bina took the reins of her life in her own hands and returned to India along with her little girls post her divorce. In order to survive, she set up a business to export garments from India to the US, which gained her many contacts along the way. What calls for more respect for Bina Ramani as a person, is the fact that she did it all single-handedly, despite being diagnosed with cancer, which she miraculously recovered from after surgery.
Her export business was a success. One thing led to another, and by the 90s, Bina Ramani emerged as the high priestess of Delhi’s elite, a networker hard-wired into the capital’s emerging culture of socialites. She was no less than an empress with an expansive realm of glitz and glamour, and an eclectic mix of enterprises beneath her. In terms of sheer profile, few Indian socialites have had the spotlight on them quite as much as Ramani. Besides travelling and living all over the world, she opened boutiques, hung out with the international jet-set, partied on plush yachts, and lived the good life at all the chic parts of the globe.
“Before Bina, there was no figure in Indian society circles, with perhaps the exception of Maharani Gayatri Devi, who was even known internationally. So far the Indian chatterati has been dominated by the wives of top industrialists and pudgy actresses. Bina Ramani is a name that changed it all,” says a close friend of hers. Ramani did change a lot of things. She is the person who first thought of creating an all-inclusive society, by bridging the gap between the common and the elite – a dream she turned into reality with the discovery and transformation of Hauz Khas Village into an artist’s and designer’s delight, a hub for artisans and art connoisseurs.
Bina discovered Hauz Khas Village in March 1987. Reminiscing of the time, Ramani says, “At that time, it was a tiny, sleepy little village in the heart of south Delhi with this magnificent Mughal era aura around it. I wanted to open a store and that’s how I discovered it. And at that time only I realised that we could turn it into a beautiful hub of design and culture, and look at what it has become today. It’s an incredible place. It’s a truly international place with all sorts of flavours and influences. For me, it’s my Goa in Delhi. But I have to say that the village head there, his name was Choudhary Raghuvir Singh, he co-operated a lot with us. He was a fine gentleman because of whom we could make it what it has become.”
She even envisaged a grand celebration commemorating the silver jubilee of the discovery of Hauz Khas Village in 2012, “I envisaged a three-week-long celebration of the culture and spirit of the village. I thought we could request for the monuments to be opened up for a few days so that we could host Sufi concerts there. I’d also spoken to a few ambassadors to see if we could host food festivals at the village during the celebrations.” However, the plans came to nought as the villagers didn’t want unnecessary attention, a reason that Ramani respected.
Around the time she transformed Hauz Khas and Mehrauli with her Midas touch, Bina Ramani also found a soul mate in Georges Mailhot, who she later tied the knot with. All was perfect in the little paradise Bina had created for herself, until the fateful night of 30 April 1999, when model Jessica Lall was shot dead Ramani’s bar. The incident shook her to the core, and what followed was a seven-year-long struggle with the media, judiciary, powerful politicians, and the Indian masses.
“It was a very traumatic period for my family and me. There came a time when close friends told me to give in to the threats I received, take whatever was being offered and leave the country for my own safety and well-being! But I had to be true to myself and respect my integrity. I stuck to the truth, paid a heavy price,” says Bina Ramani while remembering the turbulent times.
Though her stance put her behind the bars, it didn’t deter her spirit. Years after the case was closed and the verdict was given by the court, Bina decided to let the people know about her side of the story. The idea culminated into her well-received autobiography, Bird in a Banyan Tree. The book presents a binding narrative of her life, all in her own words.
Today, Bina Ramani is living a quaint life with her husband and extended family. Being the art connoisseur that she is, Bina is a frequent attendee of art exhibits. Her latest enterprises include Malabar Secrets, a venture aimed at enhancing the quality of life by creating a perfect interplay between leisure and health. Bina Ramani is also an active participant in humanitarian causes and is associated with ‘People Against Rapes in India’ (PARI).
Despite the turmoil she has faced throughout the years, Bina Ramani holds the same fervour for life that she had as a girl. Her charming personality, combined with her self-reliance and sheer perseverance, is truly an inspiration for many.