A SLICE OF HISTORY: PLAYING HOSTESS TO GEN. CARIAPPA
By C.P. Belliappa
It was in January 1949 that twenty-year-old Biddanda Leela (in picture with field marshal Cariappa and Sardar Patel) graduated in Home Science from Lady Irwin College, New Delhi. She had travelled to Madras to board the ship to the Andaman Islands where her father, Rao Sahib Biddanda Chengappa, was serving as the Chief Conservator of Forests. Her mother Bollu was in Madras to accompany Leela. Though happy at the prospect of spending time with her parents, Leela was quite distracted and contemplative. She was grappling with thoughts as to how to persuade her parents to allow her to continue her higher education in Delhi. Elders in the family were talking of marriage and settling down.
Like most students at the time, Leela had all her belongings packed in a steel trunk. Hours before setting out to the harbour, a lightening telephone call from New Delhi (that was the fastest tele-link those days), changed the course of her future.
Leela was a vivacious young lady and was a popular all-rounder in college. A good tennis player, and an active member of the debating society, she also maintaining good academic record. She joined Lady Irwin College in 1946, and was witness to the tumultuous finale of India’s Independence movement. By 1948, her maternal uncle, Kodendera M. Cariappa, was a Lt. General in the Indian Army and was one of the top contenders to the post of Commander-in-Chief to succeed the last British Officer Gen Sir Robert Bucher. Leela used to partner her uncle frequently in tennis matches amongst senior army officers.
One of the memorable events she experienced while still a student at Lady Irwin College was an invitation to attend a dinner hosted by Gen Cariappa to Viceroy Mountbatten and his wife Edwina on 3rd May 1948. Leela played hostess to her uncle. Friends at Lady Irwin helped her dress up for the party. Her uncle’s ADC was to come to escort her from the hostel. All the girls were excited at the prospect of a handsome young army officer arriving. However, to their disappointment, the ADC turned out be an elderly grey bearded Sikh officer! At the banquet, Leela got the unique honour of being seated next to Lord Mountbatten.
Well, the lightening phone call from Delhi was from Leela’s uncle Gen K.M. Cariappa. His elevation to be the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces had been announced. When the General went to meet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the newly designated C-in-C, Nehru suggested Gen Cariappa have a hostess to take care of protocol. Gen Cariappa immediately thought of his niece Leela who had already stepped-in as his hostess on a few occasions earlier. His phone call was well-timed. Immediate arrangements were made to fly Leela to Delhi.
As soon as Leela landed in Delhi, she had a message from Gen Cariappa. She was to get ready to attend a wedding! She had to accompany her uncle to attend the wedding of senior ICS officer V.P. Menon’s daughter. Leela was in a quandary. All she had in her steel truck were simple clothes and footwear she wore to college. She mentioned her problem to her uncle. He brushed it aside. She was told to get ready pronto as they had to leave immediately. Leela did the best she could. She improvised her damaged slippers by holding it tight between her toes!
At the wedding, Gen Cariappa introduced her to the dignitaries. Jawaharlal Nehru was very happy to see Leela as the General’s hostess. He complimented on her looks. She was next introduced to Sardar Patel. He too greeted her warmly, but quizzed about the elaborate bindi she wore, which resembled a long exclamation mark with a crescent under it. Sardar advised her that the bindi would look better without the crescent! Leela walked quite daintily because of the problem with her slippers. Observing this, Sardar Patel quipped – ‘General, your niece doesn’t just walk, she glides! Please bring Leela for lunch tomorrow to meet the newlyweds.’
Role of official hostess in Gen Cariappa’s residence was a demanding one. Leela had to not only accompany her uncle to various banquets, but also take part in organizing teas, lunches, and dinner parties at home. She soon got familiar with all the protocol, and became quite adapt at her role.
Another high profile invitation came from Prime Minister Jawarlal Nehru. Nehru had invited Gen Cariappa, his son Nanda (retired as Air Marshall), and daughter Nalini who were still in school at the time. It was a close family affair. Others present were Indira Gandhi, Vijayalaxmi Pandit, her daughter Nayantara, and Krishna Hathi Singh. Nehru was in a relaxed mood. He pointed to a life-sized painting of Mahatma Gandhi and quizzed Leela if she found anything unique about the portrait and the drawing room they were seated in. When Leela could not give an answer, Nehru explained that the painting had three colours – blue, brown, and white; and that the furnishings in the room were of the same three colours.
Leela had the unique opportunity to meet several prominent leaders of the country at the time including Governor General C Rajagopalachari.
Leela subsequently married Colonel Kuttanda Chinnappa. They settled in Coorg after retirement. Leela is a sprightly octogenarian now, and has many interesting anecdotes to narrate. She is thrilled that a new bridge connecting two islands in Andamans has been recently named after her father Rao Sahib B.S. Chengappa. She is immensely proud of her son Anjan’s daughter: Joshna Chinappa, the squash champion, currently ranked 14th in the world!