Friday, August 24, 1984
Remnants of the Raj
Written for Geo in 1984, just before its untimely demise; published (much abbreviated) by Travel & Leisure in 1987, and (in full) by Gourmet in 1989
In July, when the rest of India was baking in terrible heat, cursing and hoping for the monsoon that would bring floods with its blessing, I decided to go up above it all, to the cool air and heights of Simla.
Delhi, Old and New, was unbearable. After one hundred and twenty degrees the mind and the spirit stop working properly, at the body’s urging; the air is a recipe of dust and sweat. This is the curse of the Indian subcontinent, and in part an explanation for the philosophical asceticism so prevalent for centuries. One must simply withdraw into nothingness, and accept it all. The monsoon, which beggars all description with its force (I saw it dent the roofs of cars), can be as awful. No wonder the British in India, early in the 19th century, created these oases in the lower reaches of the Himalayas—Darjeeling, Ooty, Mussorie—where the mind could still operate, tiny nirvanas for a master class, with elaborate support systems of numerous bearers from below. They were called, inadequately, "hill stations," and Simla was and is queen of them.
To get to Simla I took the toy train that begins at Kalka, in the Punjab, and carries one slowly and precipitously up. India has one of the greatest railway systems in the world; it is the efficient bloodstream that keeps the country alive. A father, three sons, and a snoring Sikh shared my half of the first-class car, which looked about a half-century old. It was like being on a motley picnic. The toy train, on its narrow-gauge toy track, crept audaciously up through mists and around mountains; below us lay folded valleys and terraced fields of an extreme green. We passed through forests of pines and cedars, and paused at small stations with melodious names like Koti and Sonwara, that resembled blue-and-white retirement cottages surrounded by careful gardens. We burrowed through stone tunnels cut into the hillsides, 103 in all, some only twenty yards long. Cows and water buffalo shambled away at the nearness of our train, and the air became fragrantly cool.
Just when I was wishing I’d had the foresight to bring some food, we stopped at Barog Station, at 5,024 feet, for a twenty-minute lunch. I purchased a five-course meal for an extravagant forty cents from a blinking hawker on the immaculate platform. The father in my car, who’d been watching me, said gravely, "I see you are left-handed. Yes? Let me be getting you some tea."
He whistled for another hawker, and soon we were sipping together. As we clambered higher into afternoon, the mountains were obscured by slow mists, and their shapes seemed more determined, like skin stretched tight across an animal’s back. We left wrinkled valleys behind, crossing arched stone bridges; dark hawks heard us coming, and swung out over wastrel gorges. And then, after Summer Hill, we came up out of the clouds to the majesty of sunlight burning on Simla.
Furiously packed onto a series of steep connecting ridges, all Simla looked precarious, a jigsaw-puzzle place. It seemed to tumble across the Himalayan spines, and from afar, set in tall trees, it resembled a British country town that had gone a-wandering, far from home. But for nearly a century, during the summer months, Simla was transformed into one of the most important, powerful spots on earth—for it was the summer capital of the British Raj, the play-paradise of ruling gods with idle wives and spoiled children, outnumbered by servants. I wondered what remained of the Raj now, here on Olympus.
As we neared, the social profile of Simla was rapidly revealed. On the highest level, where it appeared to stroll and bustle even at a distance, stood Simla’s most striking emblems of Britain: a Gothic church, a bandstand, a Victorian theater, and a Tudor stone town hall, all set along the winding esplanade known as the Mall. Dribbling in profusion below, connected by cart-roads and circuitous lanes and dizzying staircases, was a large community of lesser, chattering structures, the lower Simla bazaar, called "a crowded rabbit warren" by Rudyard Kipling in Kim:
"A man who knows his way there can defy all the police of India’s summer capital, so cunningly does verandah communicate with verandah, alleyway with alleyway, and bolt-hole with bolt-hole. Here live these who minister to the wants of the glad city—jhampanis who pull the pretty ladies’ rickshaws by night and gamble till the dawn; grocers, oil-sellers, curio-vendors, firewood-dealers, priests, pickpockets and native employees of the Government."
Little seemed to have changed, though there were few rickshaws. An elevator lifted me in stages from the railway-station to the Mall; it took a huffing porter, with my bags strapped by a coarse rope to his back, twenty minutes to make the same journey. These men were the human trucks of Simla, and I saw them every day staggering along the winding roads, carrying sofas or chests or filing cabinets, glad to have the work.
Behind them, always, was the great panorama of mountains, and scattered across the dense ridges and rising from trees were the sloped roofs and weathervaned spires of private mansions and bungalows with names like Wingate, Prospect Hall, Knollswood, Strawberry Hill, Holly Lodge, Oakover.
I stayed at Woodville Palace, a mansion turned into a hotel, at the quietest end of the Mall. Surrounded by pines, protected by cannons, with great lawns, a gazebo, and chairs outside where the guest played cards over tea and watched their children, Woodville still looked like the summer home of the Prince Rana of Jubbal, a Punjab state. His wife, the Princess Brinda, had traveled widely in the Thirties, and the great rooms downstairs were hung not only with swords and tiger’s heads and old prints of local scenes, but also inscribed photographs of Tyrone Power, Laurel and Hardy, Hedy Lamarr, Clark Gable, and Queen Victoria. There was a gigantic billiards table, and ebony bronzes of Pan, Shiva, and a nymph.
It was maintained by the grandson, Uday Singh (his family occupied the entire second floor) and his mother, the Princess Ourmila, whose young portraits I mistook for Ingrid Bergman’s. I used to sit outside and watch the Indian families at tea: father and uncles serious over cards, mother and aunts pouring and discreetly spying on the hands, children on the swing or playing around the lawns among nodding flowers. Woodville was five minutes from the activity of the Mall, in its own secret grove, and some days I had the whole mansion to myself. Every morning at breakfast a barefoot servant in circular cap and gray Nehru jacket would bring me my newspaper, clasp his hands, give a slight bow, and murmur, "Sir, are you happy?" I always said, "Very happy," and he always looked relieved.
Simla was still a resort, but for the inheritors of Empire. Families were on promenade all day long on the Mall and the higher Ridge, stopping to gossip where the two met at Scandal Point. Men in holiday suits whirled their canes, women in swirling saris twirled parasols, and children happy on ponies were led about by impassive attendants. Simla monkeys, a local kind of rhesus, were everywhere. Nut-brown, with plaintive, concerned faces, they scampered along the streets or from rooftop to rooftop, discussing and disapproving of the human activities below.
My first day on the Mall I fell into step with a well-groomed boy in shorts and knee-socks, hand in hand with his little sister. The boy greeted me politely; perhaps he was eleven. I envied him his perfect diction.
"Good morning," he said brightly. "And how are you enjoying Simla? You have seen the Viceregal Lodge? No? You must. They’ve done quite a good job of keeping it up, I should think. And how do you like these Simla monkeys? A special breed. We don’t have them down in Delhi. I should show you my Star Wars collection. Do you know, I was up on Jakko Peak with two bags of nuts that cost me five rupees each and one of these jolly monkeys leapt on my head and grabbed one bag while his friend ran up and stole the other! Naughty fellows, they cost me ten rupees!" His sister wasn’t paying attention, staring after a trotting pony. The boy said to her, "Be polite to the gentleman. Show some manners to the uncle."
The children reminded me of what Ajay, a young, amiable sales representative for a British metal works firm, had told me on the train from Delhi, the Kalka Mail. "Simla is a society that talks," he said. "It always was. Why? Because up there people have time. They look down on the people in the big cities on the plains as being too modern. Always in a hurry. In Simla, in the summer, even if you work there, you go to work late, have a long lunch, close up early and go for a stroll along the Mall. In the winter you might not go to work at all. You might ring up and say, ‘Too much snow in front of my door.’ But people there gossip, gossip, gossip. Who was with whom last night on a bench on the Ridge and what x is having for dinner and why v was not invited. It’s a favorite honeymoon place. My parents had their honeymoon there, and their parents." He grinned. "So will I, next August. It’s an older style of living. Not like Delhi or Bombay. Like the British."
On the Mall, where no cars were allowed—only horses and rickshaws—I was able to have coffee in a coffeehouse, tea in a teashop, buy a sari, buy goggles, go roller skating, play billiards, sit by a waterfall, hire a rickshaw, feed a monkey, select a carved walking-stick, ride a horse, purchase a faded photo of a British hill-picnic, eavesdrop, pick up Martial’s Epigrams in paperback, have my fortune told, my head examined, and my picture taken in front of snowy peaks in the distance. Had it been winter I could’ve gone ice-skating.
I’d been wondering if there were any British left, and a gentle antiquarian bookseller named O.C. Sud told me of an elderly lady named Mrs. Montagu, who lived on the Upper Bharari Road. He was busy reorganizing his shop, since a Japanese Mountaineering Society had come through and bought up masses of rare Himalayan books. He seemed, cannily, to have plenty more. "You must meet Mrs. Montagu," he said. "She’s a bit of living history, and she’s the last one left. She’s been here since 1909. She’s ninety-two this year. Be sure to speak up."
The next day I made my way along the twisting lanes that lead away from the Mall. Grand bungalows perched on the slopes above me, in stages of absolute decay or preservation, and flowers grew around them: zinnias, dahlias, pink cosmos, and others in yellows and whites and purples. All the gabled bungalows had country gardens that might’ve been found in Kent, though unfamiliar blossoms of the East grew among them, especially where the gardens had gone to abandonment. Some bird calls, too, I recognized from walks in England: thrushes, and the unexpected cuckoo, imported permanently by a homesick officer a century ago. All Simla had about it, beneath the memory of cheroots and wine and officers’ clubs and dances and flirtations and tattling servants, a profound sense of homesickness. There were carved hearts clasping British names, pierced by arrows, still on some trees.
I found the dark, gabled cottage behind a green gate, amid the scents of honeysuckle and roses. Stone steps led from the garden into the woods. The cottage would’ve been at home in Tunbridge Wells, but the ayah who answered my insistent knocking was a skinny Indian woman named Rada who spoke little English. I was led into a shadowy hallway rich with the odor of newly-polished wood and the hollow ticking of an old clock. By the staircase was a many-paned window with lace curtains, and old prints of wild tribes, men on horseback, palaces on cliffs. Upstairs, a sitting room full of books. A tiny fireplace, wicker furniture, and armchairs with handmade cushions. Rada left me mysteriously, then returned five minutes later. "Come."
I was led into Mrs. Montagu’s bedroom, that gazed out on her garden. It began to rain very lightly, a falling mist. She lay on a settee in one corner, and she was so old she seemed miniature, though her skin glowed and she still had a beautiful, open Renoir face. She was wearing a square green Indian cap that made her look jaunty, and she was wrapped in a blanket. Near her, in a hanging cage, a parrot hopped from foot to foot, and behind her were several framed photographs of British men in uniform. Her eyes were squeezed open, but she stared past me. She put her hand out, palm upward, on the small table between us. It was an effort. I touched her hand with mine, and she took it and squeezed my fingers.
"I am a hilly-billy." she announced. "I love these hills. I have lived in them all my life and I will die in them. I have my place already. At Jalore. My grave."
"How old are you, Mrs. Montagu?"
She said with surprise, "I can’t remember." She paused. "I’m sorry. I was here in Simla when I was a little girl. It’s changed."
"Were you born in the eighteen-nineties?"
"I—I think so. I’m very old, you know. I’m a hilly-billy." She loved saying that word—it made her smile sweetly.
"What do you remember most?"
She said firmly, "There were so many dances then. And parties nearly every evening. At Viceregal Lodge. And the Hotel Cecil. I was more beautiful then." She squeezed my hand more firmly. She said suddenly, "Are you married?"
I said I wasn’t. "Should I get married?"
"Well, I expect it would be a good idea. Then you and your wife could call on me more frequently."
I pointed to the photographs. "Was one of those men your husband?"
She blinked at me. "No," she said finally. I saw a memory pass across her face like a cloud, but she let it go out of sight. "I can see you, but I can’t read anymore. I ruined my eyes. Have you seen my animals? I’ve got lots."
I’d seen none but the parrot, and it seemed tired. I stood up to go, and Mrs. Montagu, still holding my hand, leaned forward on the settee a few inches. She was waiting to be kissed, and when my lips brushed her cheek her skin was as soft as a flower’s petal. "Perhaps I’ll see you again tomorrow," she murmured.
Rada led me downstairs in the gloom, past the pictures of old India. Somewhere in the inner reaches of the house a clock struck once. It had stopped raining. Rada followed me nervously out to the gate and closed it behind me, giving a little wave. I felt I was walking out of the deep recesses of the past. In the garden a young English rose was glistening with the rain.
One morning I walked to Viceregal Lodge, at the top of Observatory Hill. It was a tiring haul without a carriage and horses, up a long steep road that during the Raj had been covered, on festive occasions, with more than a mile of red carpet. Now the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Indian Institue for Advanced Studies), the once-center of British power in Asia looked the same as in old photographs: a grand stone mansion in the high Victorian style, almost a castle, surrounded by carefully manicured lawns with solemn rows of blooming flowers and gardens on many levels linked by mottled stone staircases. Ivy still climbed the walls, and a great bell hung in a cradle before the entrance. The interior, all five floors, was entirely of carved Burma teak. Once the ballroom had welcomed nearly a thousand guests at a time; now it was devoted to the natural sciences.
It had been built during the rule of Lord Dufferin, from 1884 to 1888. This Viceroy had not been as enamored of Simla as most; in a letter he wrote, "That the capital of the Indian Empire should be hanging on by its eyelids to the side of a hill is too absurd." Viceregal Lodge still seemed invested with enormous power. It wore an aura of military theatricality, of plumed pomp, and from here Viceroy after Viceroy had decreed, absolutely, the fate of several hundred million people and the movements of the mightiest army on the entire continent.
I sat outside by a sundial, beneath an oak, and watched the gardeners at work. The entire scene was so British, but for the hypnotic mountains, that it was easy to enter that past. More than the gabled, polite buildings of the Mall, Viceregal Lodge was an act of total confidence, authority, and conviction—from the balustraded balconies wrapped around every wing, as if waiting for some commanding officer to perform his morning constitutional, to the shaded walkways with their hanging lanterns and the weathervane perched on the highest painted dome. It was a good old British cock, and today the wind was blowing firmly from the east.
On my way back I stopped at Sidhuwal Lodge, perhaps the oldest building in Simla, dating from 1826—about five years after the town’s inception. It nestles just above Christchurch and the Simla Library. There I met the ex-major Bhai Fateh Jang Singh, a stooped gentleman of seventy-five in a turban, with a white beard, glasses, and a steadfast gaze. A Sikh, he was a reservoir of stories. He’d known Simla since the Twenties, and I asked him if there was a tale behind the name of Scandal Point.
"Which tale? Which scandal?" he said. "I can tell you several. The best, and don’t bother to try to verify it, is that around the turn of the century a local maharajah was scouting around for girls for his harem, and one of his servants collected a daughter of the Queen’s Viceroy for him. He had to give her back and move twenty miles away." He shrugged. "I don’t think the British would have been satisfied with that." I asked what he thought of the British rule. He rested his hands on his cane. "Considering the fact that they were an alien culture, and had to do certain unpleasant things to control India— " He paused. "They were all right. It was quite a life we had in Simla with them. Polo thrice weekly. Other days, train our horses in the morning, lunch, three rubbers of bridge, cocktails, dinner, bed. Dances. Hunts. Pheasant-shooting. I was a fine shot. And a great deal of tennis." He preened his white mustache. "You must remember, the British never sent us politicians. I was a politician—I won my first election in my early twenties. No, the British sent us statesmen." He arched his eyebrows. "Look around you. Until recently every stick of every building in Simla was put up by the British. Like Folkestone or Sussex, old chap, yes?" He was teasing, putting on the accent. "They all knew how to give fine parties. One Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow—his real name was Sir John Hope—had three daughters. We called them Hope, Little Hope, and No Hope."
I said, "Besides the town, what did the British leave behind?"’
He grinned mischievously. "The bush shirt."
One afternoon, at his invitation, I was taken to lunch at the estate in nearby Mashobra of Rajah Harinder Singh. He is one of the thirty-odd rajahs still alive in India who actually ruled, in his case the large province of Faridkot, in the Punjab, from 1934-47. This, his summer estate, had been named Kenilworth (after the Walter Scott novel) by its previous owners. Harinder Singh turned out to be jolly, obese, rakish, and kind; he acted and looked the part of a good-humored despot. For years when he traveled he took his own orchestra with him, so he could hear the music he preferred. When I asked about a crack regiment from his province, and how long he’d led it, he said, "My boy, I owned it!" He had a pronounced sense of humor. "I’m an arms dealer," he proclaimed over soup. It turned out he owned two gun shops in Delhi. He said, "In the old days in Simla, every May there was Wife-Buying Day, when you could sell yours and buy another. This did not apply to the British, of course." A French couple were also lunch guests. He told the wife, "We would’ve fetched a good price for you, my dear."
He showed us some of his rare motorcars—Rolls, Bentley, Jaguar—which he started once a year and had polished daily. With his vast lawns and fruit-trees, his numbered and alphabetized library of 8,000 English books, his many gliding servants, his immense windows looking past kneeling clouds down the hillsides he owned, he seemed the healthiest survivor of a bygone age. "Polo? I was a terrible player," he scoffed, then admitted he’d played on a cavalry team that won an unprecedented two championships in one day. "You see, I loved the cavalry. Such esprit de corps. Like being in the Masons." He guffawed. "We fought the Afghans, the Germans, the Japanese." When we left, he somehow shifted his girth onto a motorcycle and accompanied us to the gate. "Tally ho!" he shouted, and we heard him roaring as we drew away.
On the way back we stopped at the golf course in nearby Naldehra, named after the Viceroy Lord Curzon’s daughter. A tournament was in progress, and against some of the most stupendous views in Simla the golf course looked demure, though there was only a slight difference between overshooting a hole by eight feet and by eight thousand. A Delhi lawyer said to me, "Hello, sir. Lovely to be here, isn’t it? Far from the maddening crowd." I stayed out of the way and regarded the arcade of forest and sweet air and height. A few couples were chatting on the course, plummeting valleys beyond them. Holiday snaps were taken. Gaily-clad families wandered through the pastoral scene as if in a painting by Constable. On the cedar slopes above me a speckled white horse, saddled but riderless, was flicking its tail in the mists.
At the Gaiety Theater on the Mall, built in 1837, I saw on successive evenings a Punjabi dance troupe, a magic show, and two plays, presented with different casts—one night in Hindi, and the next in English. The director was a young lady. The first play, Two Feet Off the Ground, was by a local playwright, N. Varna. The second, Anniversary, was by an out-of-towner, A. Chekhov. Upstairs in the theater, in the private club rooms, were aged photographs of old productions: The School For Scandal, The Constant Nymph, Aren’t Men Beasts?
The theater completed the picture of the British town. In these gilded boxes had sat the officers and wives, leaving after the show in order of rank. Here had posed the infamous beauty Mrs. James, soon to become the most famous amoreuse of the 19th century: lover of Liszt, the Czar Nicholas, and King Ludwig of Bavaria; actress, dancer, and horsewhipper of an Australian newspaper editor—but by that time Simla and her first husband were long behind la grande horizontale, and she was using the name Lola Montez.
I never got used to the Indian method of entering a theater, which was to wait until the last possible moment, when the lights dimmed, then loudly stampede the empty house. At the Rivoli Cinema, just off the Ridge, I went to see Tootsie in English. Every seat was filled, the audience was entirely Indian, and here the film was a hit as well. In mid-scene the film suddenly stopped, huge doors in the side of the theater rattled open: intermission. I stood on the balcony, looking out at the white ghosts of the Himalayas. In the dusky light, through gathering mists, I saw a woman on a roof below me spreading out her laundry to dry. She finished her task and straightened; as the mists crept in, she began to knit, just standing there; and when the mists covered her ankles it looked as if she were standing on cloud.
My last afternoon in Simla I went to have tea at Chapslee —"the most beautiful house in the hills," people said. I found it on one of the lanes past the smoky clutter of Lakaah Bazaar, up a flagstone path by a tennis court. It was one of the more discreet old houses in Simla, without the grandiose melodrama of some of the mansions; in bygone days it had been a Secretariat. Among its shrubberies it wore a country-cottage aspect, but it was large.
A servant showed me into a hall of carved teak. Paintings of lakeside castles, mountainscapes, princely forefathers were framed on the walls by elegant daggers. Gleaming blue-and-white Mogul vases ushered me into a sitting room of velvet chairs, painted miniatures, silk drapes, and a marble hearth; the carpets seemed an ornate lawn. In a farther room were books in glass cases and ivory-inlay tables.
A boy came to greet me, with a sweet, open face that held all the humor and intelligence of Kim himself. "May I show you around? My father will be along in a minute. My name is Chandrajit."
He caught me staring at a silver-framed photograph on the mantle, from the time of the First World War. The young woman in it was British, and beautiful in a soft-complexioned, spirited way, without fuss or pose. She looked oddly familiar. The photograph was inscribed: From Hermione M. with love in a flourishing hand.
The boy said, "That was Mrs. Montagu. There’s a lovely painting of her upstairs, as a girl with long, long hair."
His father said quietly, "A very interesting woman," and came into the room. Lithe, calm, misleadingly fierce-looking with his black beard, Ratanjit Singh had a kind of slippered ease that put me at ease. He put his hands in his pockets and said, "She was a great friend of my parents, so my wife and I look after her. She was born in 1892, in India, and lived here until she was seven. Then she went back to school in England for ten years. Her father wanted her to stay there, but she threatened to swim back if she had to. A long swim."
"What did her husband do?" I asked. "She didn’t talk about him."
"Ah," said Ratanjit. "Very strange. She went back to England only once, in her early twenties, and she married some handsome young man on a dare. It lasted less than a month. That’s when she came back." He picked up the photograph. "She never married again, but she had a great love affair. With an Army man here who was already married. It lasted almost thirty years. He went back just before our Independence in 1947, and she never saw him again. A few years later he had died." He shook his head. "She was quite a beauty, as you can see. But she was very vain about her looks. She loved to read, but she wouldn’t wear glasses, and when her eyes weakened she looked through a magnifying lens. Now she can’t read anymore."
I said, "What about her animals? I didn’t see any."
Ratanjit nodded. "She used to keep dozens, dogs and cats and thirteen parrots in her bedroom. Now there’s only the one."
Over tea we were joined by his wife, Proneti, and their daughter, Mandira. We talked of foreigners’ expectations of India. Proneti said, "I think it’s films that do the most damage. What was that film you talked of, Ratanjit? Octopussy? Full of snake-charmers and fire-eaters. People come to India and they expect all these things. And beggars, beggars, beggars. Tigers everywhere. And elephants." She sighed wearily. "I’ve almost never seen a snake-charmer."
It was time to go. Ratanjit walked me down the flagstone path, and said, as if in afterthought, "Did Mrs. Montagu sing to you? No? It’s a shame. Sometimes she sings. She still has a lovely voice." He smiled. "She remembers the old songs."
We shook hands, and he wandered back to the house. I stood there, watching the dusk descend and the lights begin to twinkle across the valleys and around me, making Simla an enchanted place. Voices floated to me, a monkey capered in the road; in a few hours those winding roads would be filigreed by moonlight. Now it was still day, though, an in-between time, and the bungalows were lordly among the trees. Ravens flew out over the pines and cedars; the mists were lifting. As I made my way back, a dark-eyed girl wearing the navy skirt and white blouse of a British schoolgirl passed me, humming to herself and plaiting her long, long hair.