Thursday, August 23, 1984

Kipling’s Simla

Written for Geo in 1984, just before its untimely demise; published by Gourmet in 1989

There are certain places that, once colonized by authors, remain inexorably theirs even many years later. London has been written of by countless authors, but it will always be Dickens’ city. In much the same way, Simla—the Indian "hill station" on the lower, forested slopes of the Himalayas that was the summer capital of the British Raj—will always belong to Rudyard Kipling.

He saw it in the 1880s, at the height of its theatricality, glamor, and power, as a young reporter for the Civil and Military Gazette. He was just commencing his literary career, and Simla’s visual excitement, ready-made stories, and constantly revolving cast of characters were perfect for the burgeoning writer. Thus Simla figures predominantly in Kipling’s early books of verse, Departmental Ditties And Other Verses and Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads, and in his first volume of stories, the punningly-titled Plain Tales From the Hills, as well as The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Ghost Stories, and Under the Deodars. And in Kipling’s later masterpiece Kim, Simla is where the Anglo-Indian boy goes to be trained by the mysterious Lurgan Sahib in the ways of the British secret service.

The ghost story The Phantom Rickshaw is a good place to start, and it’s easy to trace the tale’s route around Simla. From within a rickshaw the ghost of the jilted fiancee, Mrs. Washington, torments the hapless, jilting officer, Jack Pansay. Observatory Hill and Jakko Peak—the highest point of Simla, and a frequent slope for lovers on horseback—are both there, beneath "the black, powder-riven cliffs and rainswept sky". Today’s astute traveler may find, along the Mall, Peliti’s Coffee-house, the center of gossip in Kipling’s day, where Pansay took his cherry-brandies.

All the Mrs. Hauksbee stories concern Simla ("where all things begin and many come to an evil end") and its gossip. Some plays in The Story of the Gadsbys are set in the hill station, and may have been performed there; the black comedy of Gadsby’s death by marriage seems appropriate to the place.

I found Simla still full of ghost stories, as in Kipling. Anybody taking a stroll along the Mall cannot help but notice, at a frequented curve, a large white bungalow perched high on a cliff over a dangling waterfall. This is Richmond House; ages ago a young lady lived in it who was having an affair with "someone important" from Viceregal Lodge. Every night at three o’clock, even now (it is said) a ghostly carriage makes its way up the back hill path and her ghostly lover alights.

Kipling’s finest, deepest portrait of Simla is in Chapters 8 and 9 of Kim. The figure of Lurgan Sahib—secret agent, master of the Jewel Game, orientalist, magician—was based on a real person, A. M. Jacob, who arrived in Simla in 1871. His profession of curio-dealer did not stop people whispering that he was a Russian spy, and a mystic who could make himself invisible. The description of Lurgan Sahib’s shop in Kim was, apparently, accurate: "ghost-daggers and prayer-wheels from Tibet; turquoise and raw amber necklaces; devil masks; gilt figures of Buddha; carpets in dusty bales, smelling atrociously; dull copper incense-burners, neither Chinese nor Persian, with frieses of fantastic devils running around them. . . arms of all sorts and kinds. . . ."

It is a long description, and the Kipling of 1901 writes with more command than the journalist of a decade earlier. Jacob left Simla after a purported jewel fraud and trial, in which he was found innocent; one wonders if he ever read about himself. His shop on the Mall (I was told) is now Batish’s Bookseller’s, whose back veranda is still "built out over the sheer hillside."

Finally, one mustn’t forget that Kipling was at heart a critic of the society he wrote about; Simla itself was not particularly pleased with his stories about its goings-on. For a look at Simla written from within that society, a curious reader should hunt down the 1898 novel Jadoo, by Lieutenant Colonel N. Newnham-Davis. The prose is rather mannered at times, but the book is set almost entirely in Simla—"the Mecca of India, to which so many longing eyes are always cast." (The figure of Emanuel is also based on A.M. Jacob). It, too, concerns an adulterous affair and its unhappy end, due to sinister and watchful Indian gods—the title means "magic." But it evokes those days beautifully:

"Something of the feeling that of old came to the boy, going London-wards to make his fortune, at the first sight of the great city, came to every man and woman in India at their first sight of Simla. On that green hill, with its dots of white and its long offshoot of ridge, there is a perpetual struggle going on for fame and wealth and honours. Never a man, never a woman, goes up that hill for the first time but has some dream, social or professional, that they have to realize. It is the casket that holds all the big prizes of the East. Victory or defeat lie there. For a man, the rulership of a province, the pulling of the threads that set all the crowned princelings dancing, the command of some successful expedition. For a woman, the pleasure of finding the rulers of India sitting at her feet, the incense of clever men’s praise, the glory of power."

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