By Amit Roy
DIP SINGH WHEELER, whose late husband Sir Charles Wheeler was the distinguished BBC correspondent in Delhi, has died at her home in Sussex, aged 88.
I am told by my friend Rahul Singh, who is the son of the author and journalist Khushwant Singh, that when Dip was young, “she was stunningly beautiful”.
Dip, who had belonged to the top drawer of Delhi society in an age of much greater elegance in the Indian capital, had previously been married to Daljit Singh, Khushwant’s younger brother. Rahul once told me that his uncle, who was briefly in politics, had also been a “national junior tennis champion”.
Khushwant’s elder brother, Bhagwant Singh, was married to Dip’s sister Amarjeet – “in other words, two sisters married two brothers”.
Dip “met and fell in love with Charles Wheeler” and they married in Delhi on March 26, 1961. Their wedding was considered sufficiently important to be carried by the wire services. The couple had two daughters, Shirin and Marina, a QC who was, until recently, married to Boris Johnson.
In 2012, the Indian Journalists’ Association in the UK gave a lifetime achievement award posthumously to Wheeler. The trophy – an inscribed Waterford crystal bowl – was presented by the then Indian high commissioner in the UK, Jaimini Bhagwati, to Shirin and Marina. I remember the two sisters performed a very entertaining double act, recalling their father’s journalistic achievements.
Recordings were shown of Wheeler’s work in India – he reported on the arrival of the Dalai Lama in 1959 and the Queen’s visit in 1961. Having joined the BBC in 1947, he became its longest serving foreign correspondents, and when he died in 2008, aged 85, the Daily Telegraph’s obituary said he was “one of the few British television journalists to whom the term distinguished could properly be applied”.
Dip, herself an intellectual who was a lover of literature and poetry, was accomplished, too. According to family members, she worked for Amnesty International in London, in the Middle East section on torture and political prisoners in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait. She was a vocal opponent of the invasion of Iraq.
She was also a great linguist, learning German when the family moved to Berlin, enrolling at the American university in Washington DC where she studied Russian and learning French in Brussels. Dip was, of course, fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. Later at Amnesty, she applied herself to Farsi.
In Delhi she was known as a highly accomplished tennis player while also working at the Canadian embassy as social secretary.
After the death of her husband, Dip settled in the picturesque village of Warnham, near Horsham, West Sussex. A source close to the Wheeler family was quoted as saying: “Dip was not only the head, but also the much respected darling of the family.”
I look forward to Marina’s forthcoming book, The Lost Homestead: My Family, Partition and the Punjab, which, I am sure, will be widely read both in Britain and in India.
According to her publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, “on June 3, 1947, as British India descended into chaos, its division into two states was announced.
“For months the violence and civil unrest escalated. With millions of others, Marina Wheeler’s mother Dip Singh and her Sikh family were forced to flee their home in the Punjab, never to return.
“Through her mother’s memories, accounts from her Indian family and her own research in both India and Pakistan, she explores how the peoples of these new nations struggled to recover and rebuild their lives.
“As an Anglo-Indian with roots in what is now Pakistan, Marina attempts to untangle some of these threads to make sense of her own mother’s experience, while weaving her family’s story into the broader, still contested, history of the region.
“This is a story of loss and new beginnings, personal and political freedom. It follows Dip when she marries Marina’s English father and leaves India for good, to Berlin, then a divided city, and to Washington DC where the fight for civil rights embraced the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi.
“The Lost Homestead touches on global themes that strongly resonate today: political change, religious extremism, migration, minorities, nationhood, identity and belonging. But above all, it is about coming to terms with the past, and about the stories we choose to tell about ourselves.”
I know Marina to be a remarkable woman. I am sure she has written from the heart.