Mumbai News

Dinner with the Tatas: Letters from a Frenchwoman document life in Bombay as the 20th century dawned –

Marguerite de Bure (née Rousselet) was born in Orléans, France in 1872. She was the oldest of the five siblings. As a young girl, she grew up reading her uncle Louis Rousselet’s travelogue to India – India and its Native Princes. Inspired by the etchings made by her uncle, she nurtured the dream of travelling to India someday. It is said that she waited till the age of 30 to meet someone who would take her there.

She was introduced to Pierre de Bure, an officer in the French Merchant Navy (Messageries Maritimes) by family friends. They married in 1902 and soon left for Bombay were Pierre was posted for the next two years. In the letters written between 1902-1904, to her family and friends Marguerite documents the lifestyle, customs and social relations that she observes around her.

Adolescent Marguerite, around 1885, surrounded by her brother Paul and her sisters Jeanne and Suzanne (her youngest sister, Elisabeth, born in 1883, is absent from the photo).

Arrival at the ‘most beautiful city of the Far East’

Bombay, June 4, 1902
Dear mother,

I am very happy to tell you that I am enamoured by my new residence. It is with a lot of apprehension that I saw myself arriving at a place where, I was going to live for long, for better or for worse. Also, my reflections on this topic on the last day and especially the last night on board, when through the darkness, one sees the first lighthouse of Bombay, were not rose-tinted. Needless to tell you that I did not tell my gentle companion until when my anxieties were dispersed.

Several people had told me that Bombay is the most beautiful city of the Far East, I have no trouble in believing it. Everything seems reunited here. Firstly, the position, is incomparable. You know that Bombay is an island, so connected to the mainland by one of its coasts that one would believe that it is almost an island. The sea divides the magnificent bays, a gracious curve, surrounded by raised land which continues to promontory. They are Malabar Hill, Colaba, Walkeshwar, etc. On the top of the Malabar Hill, where we reach through steep slopes, after having had a magnificent stroll across the sea shore, Bombay seemed drowned in an ocean of greenery.

All the tropical flowers bloom here with exuberance and once again I am told that everything is dry because of late monsoon. The rubber trees here are 10 metres in height, the coconut trees, the mango trees, the areca nut trees, the Bodhi trees are married with flamboyant colour to a number of trees covered with multi-coloured flowers of which I once again forget the names. The shrubs spread rapidly in the middle of all this and even some flowers of France: Phlox, Zinnia, China Pink, etc. Malabar hill is covered with bungalows that are inhabited by the Parsis or the Europeans, for a moment we thought of living here, but it is far, we would need three horses. Pierre would not be able to come and have lunch with me and we need double the number of personnel. We would be, without doubt be happy with an apartment in the centre of the city and I would easily be able to sacrifice the garden now that I know what it is. In fact, there are public gardens and marvellous boulevards bordered with mango trees at all angles and banyans that form a kind of dome of greenery, this view is enough for me for the afternoon and evening and morning, I can walk under its shadows. Often the sea is close by and a well- located apartment could give us both the views. The veranda that encircles each apartment is a place, which everyone finds for breathing without disturbing each other. Apart from that, with reference to the previous topic, the doors and windows here are open night and day.

The European city is full of houses and hotels with six floors, all the public monuments, stations, stock exchanges, banks, etc. are made in a gothic style with a mix of Arabic and Indian and with perfectly bad taste.

The native city with its little Hindu shops and the big Parsi houses covered with hundreds of watchtowers are very interesting to pass by or visit. I will not speak to you of the population that fills the streets, this monotony of movement of colour, costumes and languages. I don’t have enough eyes to see it all. The women go about in the streets with a lot of liberty and freedom of style, and despite all this, their clothes are excellent. The Hindus are very hardworking and do not have the feebleness or the indolence that I expected. However, I met some Afghans who were noticeable by their proud and decided look which contrasted with the servile landscape and humiliated the Hindus.

View of Mazagon, in the suburbs of Bombay. Engraving extract from L’Inde des Rajahs, Louis Rousselet (Hachette 1877). Source:

Party at the Tatas’

December 22, 1902

Dear mother,

On Saturday, we had a brilliant evening offered by a rich Parsi Tata, for the Maharajah of Mysore. The Jambons, who dined with us and Estrangins who joined us after [and us], made an entry at the same time.

Pierre already knew, partly, the master of the house with whom he was in relation with during his last stay at Bombay, in a way that I was totally not in an unknown territory. Many English people, all expressing disgust had accepted the request. Apart from that there were the Arabs, the Japanese, a Chinese household of which the woman, which is very rare, and naturally the cream of the Parsi household.

When we arrived, the Maharajah had already entered and stood in the centre of the salon. He was a young man of 18 years, with fine features, but a bit fat, wearing white pants, and redingote of black silk, with a European cut, on his head a golden silk turban a little bit voluminous, in his ears big diamonds, on his neck an enormous river and two necklaces of huge emeralds, buttons of redingote and a watch chain of enormous diamond in his hand, a bulbrush cane with a head of diamond that he did not leave even for a single second. His brother, a little bit more younger than a good looking boy, followed him all around like a shadow – same costume, but a with sky blue turban and only one river of diamond on the neck. I was presented to His Highness who gratified me with a handshake to which I responded with my most dignified reverence. He honoured me with a sentence, I responded in third person calling him “Your Highness” and after some friendly words, our meeting was over. The poor boy (it is the king of whom I speak) confided to Mrs Vossion and me that he was tired of these parties and they delayed him from going to Mysore. But he had to still attend the parties of Delhi where he will be the first head with the Nizam, because Mysore is the biggest Hindu state.

The second attraction of the party was a French woman brought from Paris as a spouse by one of the nephews of the master of the house and who had landed in the morning with her husband. It seems, she was dressed as a Parsi from Aden, and already accustomed to his new position. She already looks like an old working dressmaker and I think she is one. The marriage had made the whole Parsi community protest, some of them accepted them, the others rejected them, and they wanted to know if they would marry following the Parsi rite and if she will embrace their religion. The Tatas spread the rumour that she was from an illustrious French family and the wife of our landlord asked if she was related to me. Finally, I wished that she got accustomed to this new life, but I hardly have any hope for her, because the Parsi soul is not the same as ours.

Parsi woman and child. Engraving extract from L’Inde des Rajahs, Louis Rousselet. (Hachette, 1877). Source:

No regrets about not going to Delhi

(for the proclamation in Delhi of the crowning of the King of England, Edward VII)

January 12, 1903

My dear papa,

We haven’t been to Delhi, and we haven’t stopped applauding ourselves for this decision since the day we took it. In fact, apart from the considerable expense there were also other essential inconveniences. With the total absence of spirit of organisation that is an English characteristic.

1st) there was no way of surviving the cold that descends in the night of about 0° – a Muslim prince of the south, at 45 years, died on arrival.

2nd) we did not know, food was collected for 6 months, to nourish simple mortals who may have been like us – some came back to Mumbai at the end of two days dying of hunger and fatigue;

3rd) the camps where the long distance travellers were lodged, about 14 kms from the Durbar, were connected badly by the little trains, which for three days of the ceremony accepted only people with reserved cards and who paid a huge surcharge (what do you imagine, business is business).

4th) eight days before the ceremony, the disarray was such Indian Chronicles on all the railway lines that those going there were not sure of arriving and as for baggage, if it is not there in its proper compartment, might as well say goodbye to it. It is in this way that the Nizam and the Governor of Madras remained stuck for 24 hours with their special train, even as the escort, who waited for them on their arrival in Delhi, fretted in vain.

Finally, but this time, I wouldn’t blame the English, the dust of Delhi, which is very well-known in the whole of India came to such heights that the English themselves complained of the day. The procession was thus, viewed through a cloud of dust at least from a place reserved for government invitees and we were not there. The palace of Mughals, too small to accommodate the crowd invited for the proclamation, became big with the extensions of wood and plaster and completely decorated (!!) with chiffons and chandeliers which masked the colours and the sculptures. After all this, you realise the regrets reduced, we prefer to see Delhi at a time when there are no festivals.

Excerpted with permission from Marguerite de Bure: Indian Chronicles, Letters from a French Woman in Bombay 1902-1904. Collected and Presented by Marie-Anne and Laurence Merland. Translated from French by Elsa S Mathews. Published by Sanbun Publishers.