The other day I got a call from my childhood friend Mani Shankar Aiyar. âI’m writing my memoirs,â he said in his booming voice, âdo you remember when Peter Sellers came to Cambridge? His question took me almost six decades back. Mani and I had overlapped as undergraduates at Cambridge University in England, and during my final academic year 1961-62 I had been elected president of the Cambridge India Society, while Mani had become secretary of the most prestigious Cambridge Union, the University’s main debate society. The union president at the time was Brian Pollitt, the son of Harry Pollitt, the legendary founder of the British Communist Party. Brian was the first Communist to be elected union president and we had become close friends, having shared the same âdigsâ (Cambridge parlance for âlodgingsâ) during our freshman year at university.
My most difficult job in the India Society, other than getting interesting speakers to address us at our monthly meetings, was to take the Society out of red, a state it had been in for many years. Our meetings usually only attracted 30 or 40 students. Even the presence of Kingsley Martin, the highly respected and influential publisher of The New Statesman and Nation, whose writings influenced Jawaharlal Nehru, failed to attract a wider audience. Camellia Panjabi, another contemporary who was then the secretary-designate of the India Society, and then joined the Tata Administrative Service (TAS) and became a key figure in the expansion of the Taj hotel group, once said : “Why don’t you try to get Peter Sellers?” “
Sellers was then one of Britain’s leading comedians, famous for a popular radio show called “The Goon Show”. He had starred in critically acclaimed British films, including the classic black comedy “The Ladykillers”, in which Alec Guinness also starred. But Sellers enjoyed great international success, opposite Sophia Loren, in “The Millionairess”, based on a story by George Bernard Shaw and released in 1960. He played the role of an Indian doctor and spoke in what was considered to be the typical Indian accent of the song. Because of Peter Sellers’ “Indian accent”, many of my English college friends tried to make each other laugh while conversing with Indian students with the same accent.
Inviting Peter Sellers was a long shot, but I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I didn’t get an immediate ânoâ, but a cautious response from his secretary. So I pursued the case and then, to my delight, she told me that he had agreed to drive from London to Cambridge to speak to us. I rented the largest room available, the Cambridge Union building, where his debates were held and which could hold several hundred people. We charged a small entrance fee of 2 shillings, I remember (the equivalent of Rs 10 today), but the rush was such that we had to turn away quite a few students. It was probably the most people to attend an Indian Society meeting in the history of the Society! More importantly, it got the Company out of the red, even leaving a healthy balance behind.
For over an hour and a half, Sellers had the overflowing two-part room. Being the wonderful impersonator that he was, he spoke in a variety of English accents. Of course, they included the Indian, but also the French, which he would later use in the hit “Pink Panther” film series, where he played the clumsy French detective, Inspector Clouseau.
As it happened, when Mani asked me if I could remember the date of the memorable vendor ceremony, I was rummaging through old files and newspaper clippings, trying to put them in some sort of order, now that I had a lot of time on my hand. And there, to my amazement, I found my college newspaper from 1961-62, and a yellowed clipping from a local newspaper, the ‘Cambridge Daily News’, reporting the event! It was dated June 12, so Sellers had approached the India Society the night before on June 11, 1962, over 59 years ago, a virtual life. I was then 21 years old. I even found the short handwritten speech I gave to introduce Sellers.
After the meeting, Camellia, Brian (since he was president of the Cambridge Union) and I took Sellers to dinner at a small Indian restaurant nearby. He brought Mario Fabrizi, an actor friend. At dinner, he revealed that the director of “The Millionairess” initially wanted him to play an Egyptian doctor, but he persuaded the director to change him to an Indian doctor because, as we do. Sellers said, âI had come to know many Indian doctors and liked them very much. He also made a surprising confession.
âDid you know,â he asked us rhetorically, âthat this was my first time speaking in public? I was so nervous about bringing Mario in, in case I broke down and couldn’t continue.
He didn’t need to worry. He had kept us all going with his masterful mimicry. Sadly, Peter Sellers passed away relatively young, at the age of 54, when he was still at the peak of his career.
Mani, thanks for the memories. And good writing from memory!
– The writer is a seasoned journalist