SHILLONG, July 20: Lila Elwin, widow of noted anthropologist Verrier Elwin, travelled a long distance in her life, criss-crossing geographical and psychological barriers.
Daughter of a Pradhan Gond tribal chieftain from a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, she never went to school and never had more than a smattering of English, but married an Englishman and went on to play hostess to scholars and politicians with effortless ease. She passed away in Mumbai on July 14 after a brief illness, (aged around 80), bringing to a close a fascinating cross-cultural chapter in the history of tribal India.
Lila came to Meghalaya’s capital as the young bride of one of India’s most celebrated anthropologists, whose books on the tribals of Bastar, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh — or NEFA as it was then known — are still regarded as classics. She never went back to her native village Patangarh in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh.
A devoted homemaker, wife and mother, Lila Elwin was also an active social worker. Till the time of her death, she was the president of the Stoneyland Ladies Recreational Centre and helped out at a crèche. She was a mother figure to many and was well known for her hospitality and acts of charity. Though there is no official record of her birth, her 11 grandchildren from her three sons celebrate September 20 as her birthday. Lila used to regularly send money orders to her mother in her native village.
Lila Elwin hosted many prominent guests, including two Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. She would occasionally accompany her husband on his tours, though they never went to England after they got married. He could speak broken Hindi and they managed to communicate with each other.
A calm and soft-spoken lady, she knew the art of dealing with adversity. When her husband passed away in 1964, she coped with everything including the household budget. Her son Nakul remembers her as someone very dignified, who could hold her own on any occasion. Her last days were difficult as she lost her eldest son Wasant less than three months ago. She was cremated according to Buddhist rites as per her last wish, like her husband. Verrier Elwin liked the Buddhist philosophy and found a lot of peace in the ideals of Buddhism in his later life. His ashes were immersed in the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh. The family now intends to immerse the ashes of Lila Elwin and her son Wasant too in one of the rivers of Arunachal Pradesh.