The evening of the beauty contest, Ayah had dressed me up in a lovely South Indian silk ghagra and blouse that had been tailored for me in Bangalore. While I was completely engrossed, gawking at the dazzling line-up of forty beautiful young ladies parading around in gorgeous silk brocade and wispy chiffon saris, Maya Guha, the daughter of the chief engineer, was selected first runner-up, and my mother was crowned Miss Calcutta.
In an instant she was mobbed by photographers with cameras flashing, and by reporters all talking at once and scribbling notes. I was a little frightened by the whole business and, standing there by myself, wished my father had come along as well. But it was chiefly a ladies’ charity affair that my mother still did not take seriously, and she had not pressed him into coming.
Mummy finally emerged through the crowd, laughing and clutching on to a crown that looked like something Ole King Cole might have worn. To celebrate her victory, she announced she was taking me to Firpo’s, Calcutta’s classiest restaurant, and I could order anything I wanted. We were given a table by the window, Chowringhee was spread below us, I had a double hot fudge sundae and generous sips of my mother’s sherry, oblivious of all the curious stares.
Ayah and Johnny had retired for the night by the time we returned home. Daddy had fallen asleep in a chair and was snoring loudly as the radio blasted Rabindra Sangeet. Mummy still had on her crown, and the satin Miss Calcutta sash pinned to her sari. She turned off the radio, nudged him awake and demanded to be congratulated. Daddy jumped back to life with a start. He brought out a bottle of Remy Martin that he had been saving for a special occasion, and while they celebrated, I went off to bed in all my finery. The next morning, Daddy, dressed in the crown and Miss Calcutta sash, brought Mummy her morning coffee in bed.
Much to Ayah’s annoyance, I was allowed to stay home from school without having to hide under the bed or fabricate the usual bellyaches or headaches. Johnny loved the added excitement in the household, though Ayah thought this beauty contest business was a lot of nonsense, it would invite the evil eye: “Mummy ko nazar lagega.”
The next day my father broke out in hives and collapsed, barely able to breathe. Mummy became hysterical. She phoned Dulha Bhai at his clinic and asked him to come right away; Babu had come down with an “attack of bumps,” she explained. Within minutes, almost all the inhabitants of Panch Number, including my elderly grandparents, landed up in our flat, wailing and crying. They understood my father had been killed in a “bomb attack.” Dr Ghani diagnosed the bumps as a severe attack of urticaria, an allergic reaction to something he might have eaten earlier, and prescribed some antihistamines. But Dadi claimed it was an omen. The good fortune of the beauty contest needed to be balanced by the bad.
With one flash of a camera, our lives had changed. Before we had a chance to absorb any of it, Mummy was whisked off by plane to Bombay. Calcutta’s daily papers were filled with stories and pictures of the contest. Announcement of the Miss India beauty contest had led to protests and demonstrations throughout the country. Conservative politicians proclaimed Indian women should not be made to parade their assets. They imagined innocent Indian women being trapped by sinister foreigners into secret sessions of debauchery. Communists and Leftists denounced evil Yankee Capitalists for, as one senior politician complained, “trading on the flower of Indian womanhood”.
In spite of all the negative publicity—or, more likely, because of it—ten thousand people turned up at Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. As promised, there were no bathing suits. All contestants were modestly attired in saris. Contrary to the sponsors’ fears and expectations, even spectators in the cheaper stalls behaved well and joked amiably with the girls.
According to newspaper and magazine articles, the ceremony at the stadium opened with an impressive parade of massed bands of the Army, the Navy and Bombay Police marching in formation. The parade was followed by displays of physical culture by boys from the Bombay Barbell Club and girls trained by Dr Sarkari’s Health Home.
As judges voted by secret ballot, contestants were paraded around the stadium in gaily decorated Cadillac convertibles, interspersed with floats of various commercial sponsors. The Pan American Airways float depicted a floral insignia of their trade emblem: wings floating through clouds, surrounded by nymphs clad in the airline colours. Universal Pictures’ float recreated scenes from their movie The Prince Who Was a Thief, that starred Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. The Associated Watch Co.’s float was headed by a gigantic swan dominating a court scene with dancers performing to their own portable music.
My twenty-one-year-old mother was taken completely by surprise when S.K. Patil, then-Mayor of Bombay, amid loud cheers and shouts, announced her name and called her up to the dais to be crowned India’s first “Miss India”. Bollywood queen Nargis, and her leading man, matinee heart-throb Raj Kapoor, joined the newly-elected beauty queen and the mayor in a specially reserved Cadillac which paraded them around the stadium and the city.
Miss India returned to Calcutta with a gem-studded gold crown, a gold trophy, a gold watch, an Olivetti typewriter, a Murphy radio, an endless supply of very sweetly scented Afghan Snow face cream and assorted lipsticks and rouges (which I eventually inherited), and the grand prize—two tickets around the world on Pan American Airways.
Newspapers were clamouring for interviews. Film offers were pouring in from Bombay, and as the telegrams and letters arrived Mummy consigned them to the dust bin. Stars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were bewildered anyone would want to turn down an opportunity for the staggering fame and fortune a Bombay film career guaranteed. My mother, while she was thrilled at winning the contest and all the fabulous prizes, was eager to distance herself from the Hindi film world. She feared the whole beauty queen business would tarnish her rising reputation as a serious classical dancer. Ragini, on the other hand, was convinced the publicity would only add to my mother’s fame as a dancer.
Note: This is an excerpt from Dancing in the Family: The Extraordinary Story of the First Family of Indian Classical Dance by Sukanya Rahman, published by Speaking Tiger Books.