In 1946, when India was on the verge of attaining independence, Abraham Erulkar, an eminent Jewish doctor in Bombay who had attended to Mahatma Gandhi during many of his fasts, received an unexpected letter from London. “I am Glafcos Clerides,” the letter read. “To you I am an unknown quantity of unknown quality but I am going to marry your daughter for the following reasons: (a) my in-laws will be 6,000 miles away. (b) she doesn’t know my language so I can say whatever I want, and (c) I love her.” Erulkar’s daughter Lila, who was 25 at the time, had been living in Britain for 14 years. His calmly replied to the man, who would become the president of Cyprus a few decades later, in a telegram with the following message: “Advice wait a year.” This exchange was dictated by Clerides to Cypriot political scientist Niyazi Kizilyurek, who documented it in the book Glafkos Clerides: The Path of a Country.
Erulkar’s blessing was the last hurdle for Clerides, a former prisoner of war, who had met Lila at the BBC headquarters in London when he went to see his sister. That day, he took both women out to Vienna Café and then asked Lila out on a date. Lila only agreed because she took pity on the “scraggy youth who had just been released from a concentration camp.” After a few dates, Clerides proposed. Kizilyurlek quoted him as saying, “Lila said to me, ‘You were a prisoner of war and have seen no women, let’s wait a little’.” She finally agreed after much persuasion, and the couple had a civil wedding in London in 1947.
Lila Erulkar was born in Ahmedabad in 1921 to an illustrious Jewish family. Her great-grandfather Abraham Benjamin Erulkar was the main pillar of Ahmedabad’s Jewish community. The city’s synagogue was named after him. Lila’s father Abraham Solomon Erulkar completed his post-graduation in medicine in London but chose to come back to India, where he supported the Indian independence movement as an ardent nationalist. Her uncle David was one of the junior lawyers who worked under Muhammad Ali Jinnah to defend Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1916 during a sedition trial. Lila grew up partly in Surat and Bombay, before moving to London at the age of 11.
Exposed to the fine arts in her upper class family, Lila enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. Several reports on Greek websites suggest that she took a stab at acting in London, before joining the BBC’s India service, where she worked with George Orwell. By the time she met Clerides after World War II, she must have been working with the BBC for a few years since Orwell’s brief stint with the broadcaster ended in 1943.
Clerides was a gunner in the Royal Air Force during the war. After the couple married, he earned a law degree at King’s College, and they moved to Cyprus, where they joined the island’s freedom struggle from British rule. Lila integrated herself into the Cypriot society, but did not completely master the Greek language. Clerides, meanwhile, entered politics in the 1950s and became a public official during the transition period from British rule to Cypriot independence in 1959-’60.
Following a coup in July 1974 that led to the ouster of Makarios III and the subsequent Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island, Clerides became the acting president of Cyprus, a role he held for six months. For her part, Lila volunteered with the Red Cross during the Turkish invasion.
Clerides remained a public official over the next couple of decades, and in 1993, he was elected the president of Cyprus. The victory at the hustings was followed by a request from the island nation’s archbishop for the couple to have a church wedding. At the time, Lila was 72 and her husband 74. The couple, nonetheless, agreed. Before the renewal of her vows, Lila formally embraced Greek Orthodox Christianity and added Irene to her first name.
A humorous anecdote related to the couple’s second wedding can be found in Kizilyurek’s book. When talking about Cypriot Archbishop Chrysostomos I’s request, Clerides said, “I answered: I dare not ask her to marry me again. This time she might say no.” Later the archbishop asked Clerides how he convinced her. He replied, “I told her that when she died you would not bury her next to me, and since she wants to carry on nagging me in the next life she said yes.” Lila renewed her vows with Clerides in 1995 in the presence of their daughter Katherine.
Zealously guarding their privacy, Lila refused to move to the presidential palace and instead insisted the couple live in their private home. In her role as the first lady, she dedicated herself to the cause of children with special needs and asked that the front yard of the presidential palace have a children’s playground, according to the Cypriot 24 Sports website. Another cause close to her heart was juvenile diabetes. The Cypriot 24 Sports report added that Lila appeared “somewhat insecure” about her social obligations since she did not speak Greek well. However, her excellent English made her a diplomatic asset for Cyprus.
In 1997, the child of Ahmedabad returned to India as a state guest when Clerides accepted an invitation for a six-day visit. In an era before the proliferation of the internet and 24/7 television news, the Indian-origin first lady managed to get a fair bit of media attention.
“I love India,” Lila said during the visit. “I love the people. I love its history. I was brought up as an Indian and I have to admit that my pride in India is noticed by everybody. I have not changed in that in one iota.” Given the lack of wider public interest in India-Cyprus ties, these comments all but vanished from the web, but were preserved in an archive of articles written by international affairs journalist Ramesh Ramachandran.
Lila was delighted when the Indian government announced that then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would visit Cyprus in October 2002. He spent two days on the island before going for the third India-EU business summit in Copenhagen. She took personal care to make sure that the official banquet organised by the president was something that the Indian prime minister, who had a penchant for fine food, would remember for a long time.
During the presidency of Clerides, which ended in 2003, Cyprus became a member of the European Union, but his efforts to help reunify the island did not meet with success.
Lila’s health started to deteriorate after 2003. After battling health problems for a few years, she died in her family home in the coastal town of Larnaca in 2007. She was 86. Such was the grief at Lila’s passing that Turkish Cypriot politician Rauf Denktash, who was a long-term rival of Clerides, offered condolences by noting the love shared between the couple. “I’m very shocked and sorry,” Denktash said. “They were the most devoted couple. Everybody who came in contact with her loved her as a lady and a good wife.”
Clerides was devastated about losing his partner of six decades. “He was not the same man that everyone knew, and in the midst of the turmoil, his own health began to show problems,” 24 Sports wrote. “In fact, some say that Glafcos stood reverently next to Lila and held her hand, even when she could not respond. His emotion when talking about her in each of his interviews was characteristic, as he always said that he owed her so much.”
Clerides passed away in 2013 at the age of 94. Their daughter Katherine is active in politics in Cyprus, and has been working on reconciliation efforts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Cyprus is now home to almost 7,500 people of Indian origin, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, and is positioning itself as a gateway for India to the European Union.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.