Ladies who Lunch

Urvashi butalia 10

It’s Saturday afternoon and I have a date at the India International Centre. I’ve been invited to the bar to meet with a group of women—my old teacher Lola Chatterjee, my friend from yoga class Shahla Haider, my publishing colleague, the editor and translator Rani Ray, and the “honorary” woman Bobo, who is also Chatterjee’s son. I arrive, a visiting friend in tow, to find they’re well into their favourite tipples. Black Dog whisky for Lola, Bloody Mary for another, vodka tonic for a third, and we’re immediately drawn into the closed circle of les girls—the les pronounced l-e-z!

“We’re a familiar sight at the bar now,” they tell me. “The bartenders know exactly what we want. The moment we walk in and take our table, our drinks arrive.” Snacks join the drinks in due course—miraculously, they’re always at the same table—and the serious business of drinking, eating and talking begins. Meet les girls: Lola Chatterjee is 90, Rani Ray 84, Shahla Haider is 78 and Bobo is 70. Rita Mukherjee is missing the day I join them. “And you?” they ask me. They scoff at my 62 years. “You’re a mere spring chicken! But you’re welcome all the same.”

Illustration: Premola Ghose

Illustration: Premola Ghose

Spring chicken. I haven’t been called that in a long time, but when you are in the presence of three centuries of combined age, 62 does seem very young. To celebrate, I have two drinks and walk out with a spring in my step.

But les girls? I love the conceit of the “girls” but I’m curious too: where did that come from? And why gather in a bar? Especially on Saturday afternoons at the IIC, when the bar is more or less dominated by bureaucrats—both retired and serving, and almost all male—cooking up strategy and plotting the next political story, deciding who will topple or not.

They tell me that “les girls” is a throwback to another group that dated back more than half a century. Set up by Lola Chatterjee’s mother, Trevi Sen—“Yes, as in the fountain,” Lola says in response to the question she sees on my face—“les girls” were rather different then. “You see, my mother was a very sociable woman, and she had lots of friends.” Apparently, a few American women were among these friends, in India because their husbands were working here.

“The women were bored, they had nothing to do and there were no places where women could go and hang out; no restaurants, certainly no bars—unlike today.” So they’d get together at Lola’s mother’s home in Connaught Place and spend afternoons baking cookies, chatting, and of course, drinking. “My mother gave them somewhere to hang out.” Then, the women gave themselves a name: les girls.

As often happens with these things, the group went this way and that. The women mainly followed their husband’s fortunes, and les girls pretty much faded away. Until half a century later, when Lola and her friends revived it.

But these women are no throwbacks to their older counterparts, except in name. They’re independent women who’ve led their lives on their own terms. They’ve done what they wanted to and feel they’ve now earned enough brownie points to relax. “I’m not working any longer,” Lola tells me. “The days pass very slowly.” She has had hundreds of students pass through her hands while teaching at Miranda House University College for Women. Once she retired from Delhi University, she set herself up as a freelance editor, bringing her impeccable English and meticulous grammar to bear upon the manuscripts people offered her. Like her, Rani Ray freelances as an editor, translator and has been associated with Tulika Books for years. “I’m working on a major translation from Bangla,” she tells me. “It should be done soon.’”

Shahla Haider, single and feisty, trained herself to be a lawyer quite late in life, and worked for many years with the environmental lawyer, MC Mehta. I tell her about a friend who’s looking for an honest lawyer. She readily offers herself. “It still feels quite good to put on that black coat again!”

Samar, or Bobo, is a mathematician of some renown. He retired from his job in Bengaluru and decided to come home and be with his mother. They live in the same flat—the mother on the lower floor, he on the upper. That way, he is at hand whenever she needs him. Because he’s allowed into the charmed circle, he’s one of “les girls”.

“I’m going to write something about you,” I tell them. They laugh. “What’s there to write about? We’re just a bunch of old women having a good time!” Indeed, not to mention that they’re setting a great example to spring chickens like myself, and those little chicks who are yet to arrive on the scene.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist publisher and writer; co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house; and now director of Zubaan, an imprint of Kali. She writes on a range of issues. Among her best-known publications is the award-winning book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.

10 Comments

  1. Sangita Sharma Chandra November 17, 2014 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Its wonderful to read about Lola Chatterjee…she taught me many decades ago (I passed out in 1981) and I absolutely adored her. Met her a few times in Saket after that but haven’t seen her for many years now. God bless her!

  2. Bishakha November 25, 2014 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    What a lovely piece!

  3. saba hasan November 26, 2014 at 10:56 am - Reply

    The legendary Lola, Shahla Haider and Rani Ray! Wow… can’t wait to be 60 and join the club ;)

  4. Vinisha November 27, 2014 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    It was lovely reading this piece. It brought back memories, not so distant, of two other women, enjoying vodka in an 18th century manor home. I was invited in for a ‘drink, if I fancy’.

    It’s one of my favourite memories.

    Thank you.

  5. Meher Pestonji November 27, 2014 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    Hope to be like Lola – if I ever get to that age!!!

    Great to hear about them going so strong!

  6. manju kak December 3, 2014 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Quintessential IIC madres and femmes–a dying breed surely in this day of push and shove. Such an oasis need to be on environmental protection lists.

  7. Tilottama Bhalla December 7, 2014 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    The names filled me with nostalgia and took me back several decades to my halcyon days at Miranda House. I am fortunate to have been taught by Lola Chatterjee and Rani Ray! Urvashi Butalia was a couple of years senior…lovely to read about Les Girls. All my favourites! Cheers!

  8. Mala Marwah December 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    Lovely! I wonder if Bobo is Badu’s and Keli’s brother – my younger brother Raju and I knew them as children in Calcutta in the 50’s

  9. Mala Marwah December 15, 2014 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    Premola’s illustration is great – I believe I recognize one or two people!

  10. Nalini Natarajan June 23, 2016 at 12:35 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this lovely experience. It was evocative of the feisty spirit I remember. Lola Chatterji was my mentor, my tutor at MH and later a colleague when I taught at MH. I have kept in touch with her all these years, talking on phone while in India and dropping her a line at New Years every year, sharing with her anything I had to share in terms of literary work. She is one of the people in MH I admired most, always willing to reach out to help her students. I haven’t seen her in years after my family left Delhi, but always like to hear news of her well being. Thanks again for this great piece.

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