Playing Host to History

Priya Kapoor meets Tehmina Bhandari and comes away charmed by the old-world feel of her Amritsar guesthouse.

It’s a hot summer evening    in Amritsar, Campers who have traveled from England to Nepal in a caravan cool off with beer near the tiny pool at Tehmina Bhandari’s guesthouse. Bhandari (nee Boga), one of the last surviving Parsis in Punjab, sits close by, waiting for dinner to be served. The backdrop is a grand, colonial style house, witness to fascinating stories of the Boga Bhandari family.

This is the guesthouse where Charlton Heston stayed when he came to Amritsar as a roving UN Ambassador.  Writer Bapsi Sidhwa remembers walking across the Wagah Border and spending the night at the Boga residence before taking the train to Mumbai.  Mulk Raj Anand, a one-time neighbor used to drop in for tea here after his evening walk.

Bhandari, who grew up at a time when young ladies lived in Amritsar and shopped in Lahore, has a lot to share.  She has lived all 95years of her life in Amritsar, in fact, it’s been 35 years since she last left it.   Born into a wealthy Parsi family, she was brought up by her maternal uncle, who also built the house in which she lives.  Her husband, Padam Chand Bhandari, also belonged to one of Amritsar’s big families.  A marriage between a Hindu and a Parsi in those days raised many eyebrows.  Bhandari smiles; “We studied together and fell in love.”  They had three daughters and a son.  Padam was the executive officer of Amritsar.  In 1953, he died of a heart attack and Bhandari was forced to convert her house into a guesthouse.

The guesthouse soon gained the patronage of the embassies and foreign media, which sustains till today.  During the 1965 war with Pakistan, a journalist from Newsweek stayed at the guesthouse.  One day, after returning from the front, he saw Bhandari sitting outside the kitchen, instructing the cooks.  He named that area Commando Bridge.

The interiors of the red brick, bougainvillea-clad house are spectacular.  The guesthouse boasts of original Italian tiles in the bathrooms, Burma teak furniture, brass switches, even a ’56 model fridge and stove.  Over the years, very little has changed in the house.  Water is heated through a boiler, which works on firewood.  The only concession to modernity are air conditioners. The house is filed with articles from the past – framed etchings, a grand piano, photos of the Bhandari's with Lord and Lady Mountbatten.

The Bhandari’s, no doubt, lived in style.  Cars brought from the Maharaja of Indore were serviced on a specially built ramp in the front porch of the house.  Today, a small shed neighbors the ramp; it houses three buffaloes, kept on Bhandari’s insistence.

Three of her children live abroad, but they take out time annually to spend with their mother. “We can’t sell the house because it is located in the Cantonment area and the government won’t let us. So the best way to maintain it is to continue running the guesthouse,” explains son Bimal Bhandari.

By now, an evening of reminiscing has drawn to a halt.  Bhandari retires for the night, but continues to pine for the days gone by: “It’s all like a dream now.”