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This time, that age

NEW YEAR'S Eve 1835 saw a great ball at Metcalfe House, then on the outskirts of Delhi. After the murder of William Fraser earlier that year, Sir Thomas Metcalfe had taken over as the British President in Delhi and that was the first New Year's Eve he was celebrating as the Burra Sahib. A man who went to bed precisely at 8 o'clock every day, made some changes in his routine on special occasions like Christmas, Easter and New Year's Eve. The party lasted till late in the night with the guests leaving after ringing in the New Year 1836.

Mistletoe and holly decorated the doors of the palatial building.The bearers and khansamahs serving Sir Thomas called it the Matka Kothi as they found it difficult to pronounce the name Metcalfe. They loved Sir Thomas despite his eccentricities.

Christmas had been grand, and the dawning New Year was even brighter because of Sir Thomas' aspirations and his plans to bring some order out of chaos in the Red Fort, where Akbar Shah Sani was passing his last days and there was a tussle for the throne between his sons, though the accession of Abdul Zafar was almost ensured by the British as he was the eldest. Sir Thomas drank his liquor with the same caution as he took his medicine and no one denied that he was a propah Sahib even when in his cups. Among those present besides the Skinners, was Hindu Rao, brother-in-law of Daulat Rao Scindia, who was to acquire William Fraser's house later, and lived in it for nearly 20 years. Hindu Rao was a ladies' man and a great favourite with the memsahibs. The mansion built by Sir Edward Calabrooke, bought by Fraser and then Hindu Rao, is now a hospital named after the Maratha chieftain, who was actually an ailchee or agent of Scindia at the Moghul court in Delhi and died in 1854.

Needless to say Hindu Rao enjoyed the party, along with the Nawab of Loharu, the Raja of Kishangarh and a few influential lalas from Chandni Chowk. They were among the handful of Indian guests at the largely British show where Dr. Ludlow (builder of Ludlow Castle) and John Lawrence were also present.

Metcalfe House was destroyed during the Mutiny of 1857 by the same Gujjars from whom the land was taken to erect the building. But Sir Thomas was long dead and Sir Theophilus Metcalfe had to face the music. He however parted with the building, which had been restored, before his death in 1883. And 16 years later the Metcalfe Testimonial was destroyed in a mysterious fire, which occurred after a grand Christmas Eve party in 1895. An account of this party was gleaned from hearsay and old wives' tales by my father who was born 10 years later and goes like this:

"Christmas Eve 1895! The tables were laid in the holly-decked hall of the Metcalfe Testimonial for the banquet to which the high social circles of Agra were invited. "Within the twinkling of an eye there was everything on the tables; the china and the glass, the fruit trays and the salads. There was the boar's head bedecked with bays and rosemary, the peacock stuffed with spices and sweet herbs - roasted turkey and the giant pie containing 37 birds and the pastry made from several pounds of refined flour and butter. Then there were sirloins of beef, capons, geese, Christmas pudding pomegranates, plums, wines and what not! Soon there was laughter and gaiety, with the guests making a grand show of it.

"The host of the evening was a mysterious Englishman, most willing to oblige his guests, particularly the girls, as they danced cheek-to-cheek with dashing young officers, while their mothers, sitting on the side, contemplated their prospects of marriage.

"As the party reached its climax, there was a blood-curdling scream from an ante-room. When some of the drunk men rushed into it they found the host, lying dead with his head smashed. Was the mysterious Englishman murdered by unseen assailants? Nobody knows what happened or how the fire occurred that destroyed the hall in later years. And so the murder on Christmas Eve 1895 remains a mystery".

Metcalfe House in Delhi, however, survives and houses the offices of the Defence research scientists. But no lavish Xmas and New Year parties are held there any more.

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