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Elizabeth Brunner







Fairy Tales around

9th June 1996

Elizabeth and the story about their arrival in India and meeting an old friend from Hungary



Sunday, the 9th of June 1996

            When I came to Rabindra Nagar that Sunday morning it thundered and rained once again as if the monsoon had started already. But, of course, beginning of June was much too early, the monsoon is due quite predictably around the beginning of July every year in our part of India.

            Elizabeth carried a lovely thin blue and white cotton shawl around herself and looked queenly. She beamed at me. Unfortunately, though, she had bad tooth-ache. I could see her lower right cheek being swollen. As on and off Elizabeth had been complaining about slight tooth-aches, I was not very sure how serious it was this time. Generally speaking, I can feel that she aches more or less all the time all over her body. She is a sick lady. And it is unbelievable how she manages to disguise her aches by will-power, meditation, and sheer mental work.

            Later that afternoon, when Elizabeth had thrown all her covers away (it had become quite warm again), I saw for the first time after many months her feet again. Their swollen-up disfiguration made me cry. No, Elizabeth will never be able to walk on them again ... 

            She was willing to be distracted from it all and turn to things which had been taken out of a box by Bahadur. I was looking with Elizabeth through a photo-album. Photos of Elizabeth (when she was beautiful, and young, and so utterly vulnerable to my eyes) with for instance Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, with Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and, of course, with the Dalai Lama when he was young. They passed through my hands as they had not been fixed into the album.

            There was a photo of a group of young people, all in swimming suits, near a lake. Dagmar could make out her mother, not her father, though. "This must be Hungary?" She questioned. "Yes. 'Vegetarians'. Parents' friends, they used to go around with them," replied Elizabeth. "And who is this gentleman?" Dagmar wanted to find her father ... "This is the ... O, did I tell you the story that the Britishers did not want to allow us to land in India when we first came? We had perfect travelling papers. But we wore chappals (sandals) and dresses made of hand-woven cloth." Dagmar asked indignantly, "because of your looks, your landing in India was jeopardized? You must tell me that story, please Elizabeth. I will put the album aside and listen only. Please tell me about your landing in India. And the gentleman in that photo."

            Elizabeth started, "from Egypt  - because we stayed in Italy for three-four months -  we went by boat, an Italian ship. O, I did not tell you. We already had hand-woven cloth. A friend of mother's in Hungary was fond of weaving and mother disclosed to this friend (and this friend only) that we had intention to go to India. So the lady wove some cloth for us. Two lengths of cloth for dresses. 'You must wear my hand-woven cloth', she said. You remember those 'vegetarians' in the photo? Their were followers of nature, sandals in summer, bare feet, the same as the Franciscan fathers were wearing.

            So, at Bombay port, two tall officers, ruddy complexions, looked us up and down. Our strange clothes caused extra suspicion. Then talked with one another in English. We did not know a word of English.

            Before this, on board the ship, during our travelling between Egypt and Bombay, my mother followed her 'nature cure'. She continued her exercise at four a.m. on the roof of the ship, of course. So, the few Indians who were travelling on the ship (most of the travellers were English people) were mysteriously attracted to us white-robed figures. They would come up and put flowers at mother's feet, and say ... 'Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi.'

            There was an Indian family travelling. An elderly, well-groomed lady, a very modern young lady and a Sardarji, who was the husband of the young lady. He was bringing her back from Paris where she had studied to become a doctor. Now for him my mother's behaviour (the early morning exercise, the hand-woven cloths, etc.) was also strange and he dared to introduce himself and talk with her. He spoke German, mother spoke German, so they could communicate. And by chance, mother showed him the letter Tagore had written to her, that we are welcome to Santiniketan.

            Now in the line of people wanting to disembark through customs at Bombay port, this family was standing behind us. The Sardarji could hear the officers talking between themselves and understood, of course, because he understood English. Not to let them (mother and me) get down, keep them on the ship for two days and send them back to where they came from. You see, it was the time of Gandhi's salt movement.  

            So the Sardarji requested mother to speak on our behalf. We said 'yes', because we could not speak English. So he stood in front of us and told them, 'gentlemen these are not dangerous people, they are invited by Tagore, they are artists and, besides that, nobody can be sent back, who has valid travelling documents and who has a representative of his country in India.' Hungary had a Consul General in Bombay and we had Hungarian passports. The Britishers accepted this.

            But then they said, how to contact the Hungarian Consulate, as the day was Saturday, the next Sunday. Only on Monday there would be a chance to do so. So where would they go, what would they do until then. Then the Sardarji said, 'I will take care of them.' Unfortunately, I have forgotten his name. He said, we would stay in the same hotel where he and his family would stay. Now, the work was left for immigration people to get in touch with the Hungarian Consulate General.

            So, we were allowed to leave the ship. Yes, we also had to take our luggage. We did not have much luggage." But Dagmar was determined to find out about the gentleman in the photo: "How did it happened, though, that you took a photo of this gentleman?"

            And Elizabeth cried: "the man was the Consul General! We followed the appointment on Monday at eleven o'clock the Sardarji had made for us. We were accompanied by one of his servants as a guard and to show us the way. The Consul General stayed in that old Hotel 'Majestic' opposite the Bombay National Museum. Between the museum and the hotel there was a large space (for parking and transport) which we had to cross. When we were coming towards the hotel building through the gate there was a gentleman standing on the steps of the hotel.

            And as we were getting close, he came down the steps and walked straight towards us. Then he greeted my mother by her Hungarian name." Dagmar said surprised, "really? So he must have known her?" Elizabeth continued, "my mother was thunderstruck. Even I was shivering. She asked him, how do you know me? And he answered: O, I have seen your photo-graph. All in Hungarian, of course. But where could you see my photograph? Asked my mother. On my brother's dressing-table, he answered."

The Trimurti at Elephanta Caves 

(an island a few kilometres off the Bombay Coast)

            Dagmar laughed incredulously, "so the brother of the Consul General of Hungary to India was an art connoisseur?" And Elizabeth said, "a writer and an art connoisseur. My father and that gentleman were friends. And even I remembered then suddenly that I was riding on his knees as a small child."

            Spontaneously Dagmar came forth with, "so actually you were all kind of friends. This is what I call a beautiful coincidence!" And Elizabeth replied, "yes!   -   He immediately invited us to stay for five days in that hotel, and he would show us Bombay, and he would take us to the Elephanta Caves ..." Dagmar said, "gosh your life really is like a fairy tale."


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Copyright Dagmar Barua 1997 Sass Brunner East West Trust, 75, Rabindra Nagar, New Delhi - 110 003