This is an extraordinary book that traces the extraordinary history of an extraordinary place. Exhaustively researched, insightful and accurate, the story of Simla is told with verve and accomplishment. From a nondescript village in the early nineteenth century Simla (now spelt Shimla) grew to become the summer capital to British India. From this town in the Lower Himalaya, a fifth of the juman race found governance for a century, simla may have been called the summer Capital but for all practical purposes this was the real capital of India as the Government of India Stayed there for the better part of every year moving down to Kolkata (Calcutta) and later New Delhi only for the winter months. In his brilliant recreation of those years of splendor and the process of change a window is opened to a way of life and an age that has now vanished.
As the summer capital of the Raj, Simla came to be known as the workshop of the Empire. And awed visitor wrote, every pigeonhole contains a potential revolution, every office box cradles an embryo of a war or death. The heady misture of hill air, political power and social snobbery held an irresistible allure. Ambitious careerists, calculating matrons with daughter to marry off, enigmatic matrons adventuresses, bored young wives, and dashing roués flocked here, often with disastrous results. In a letter home, a correspondent lamented the pure atmosphere and foul rumours runed prospects, guilty passions, frivolity, intrigue jealousy, madness remorse unmitigated. Husbands went into debt to send their families to summer in Simla. A breath of scandal scented this holiday sojourns a consequence of a social climate which thrived on pleasure seeking and gossip.
Raaja Bhasin has published five critically acclaimed books and several commissioned booklets. Around fifteen hundred of his articles, stories and reviews have appeared in various publications in India and overseas and he writes regularly for several leading magazines and newspaper. He has handled assignments for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Government of India’s Department of Tourism and culture the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Various departments of the Government of Himachal Pradesh (especially Himchal Tourism) and various hospitality chains like the Oberoi group of hotels. He has also been associated in various capacities with several television networks including the BBC and Channel Four.
Simla is one of my favourite places. I was born there, in the Central Hotel, and christened in Christ church on the ridge. My birth certificate must still be there in the Parish registers, and on the right hand wall looking towards the altar, there is a tablet to the memory of my father that I modeled in clay when I was an art student in Landon and then had cast in bronze and mounted on a wooden plaque. My mother brought it back to India and had it put up in Christ Church, Because we thought that my father would like it to be there. He had always been very fond of Simla.
I went back there on a sentimental journey some sixteen years after Independence, and found that very little has changed so little that could find my way around without any difficulty. Which was not really surprising since I was ten when it was sent to boarding school in England and after I finished my schooling, I returned in my late teens to spend two happy seasons there. All the same the year that I remember best are from my childhood how beautiful simla was how cool and scented after the heat and dust of the plain. Wild flowers and pine needles and wood smoke. Lovely we used to spend our cold weathers in Delhi too hot and I still remember the first spicy smell of pine trees and the scent of those charming yellow roses as the little Kalka Simla train began to climb the higher foothills.
I loved the monsoons when the hillsides were thick with mist and every tree seemed to drip with fens. But the best of all was the view from simla ridge on one side the foothills, sinking down in line after line until beyond them, on clear days, you could see the plains stretched out like a faded yellow capet; and on the other, the true mountains; the high Himalayas, topped by a long line of snow peaks that dazzled white in morning sunlight and changed from rose to apricot to gold each evening.
Another fond memory of Simla is the crash and clatter of troops of brown monkey who used to scamper across our roof those corrugated in roofs that were the norm for almost all Simla houses. What a din those bunder-log made almost as much as the thunderous drumming of the monsoon rain on that same tin. Yet, Simla would not be Simla without them. I grew up knowing almost every yard of that town, including chota Simla and Sanjowli, Tara Devi and Summer hill and every mile of the train journey up from Kalka and back again. And when I returned as a grown-up I spent tow happy seasons there, complete with dances viceregal balls picnics and lots of acting at the little gaiety Theatre where when I was a child my mother used to sing and dance in the chorus of the musical comedies that the Simla Amateur Dramatic Club would put up each season.
Dear Simla how fortunate I was to be born there. And I’m very pleased that this book contradicts an absurd story that I can only suppose was invented in order to pull the legs of the authors of freedom at Midnight since they first printed it. The myth that no Indian was permitted in the old days, to walk on the mall.
What old days? Which old days my grandfather spent a summr or two in Simla in the 1870s and he like my father after him used to stroll along the mall with his Indian friends and colleagues, send messages along it through a chaprasi be pulled along it in a rickshaw by jampanis or ride along it with his syce while his children walked long it in the charge of their Ayah or a pram boy in any case, there are loads of ancient drawings and early photographs of Simla available and every one of which shows scores of Indians around the place, and Rudyard Kipling writing in the 1880s gives a description in kim of Lurgan Sahib’s shop on the mall and list the people who visited it many number of Indians among them and since at least three quarters of the shops were owned run and staffed by Indians, I’d love to know how the originator of that fable imagined that all the people got there if they could not use the mall unless of course, he or she had never been to Simla and did not realize that the town is built precariously on the side of a very steep hill.
One of the things for which I am most grateful is that I knew Simla from the days before cars were allowed there. In my time only two people were permitted to bring a car into Simla; on was the viceroy and the other, the Governor of the Punjab. No petrol fumes; no loud bangs, blaring horns or screeching tyres no rackety lorries belching reeking clouds of diesel, and no hapless pedestrians leaping for cover as an overcrowded but roars past. Ah me those were the days peace it was wonderful.
It is said that the hardest part about doing anything is starting off, but in preparing this chronicle of Simla it was a task that seemed easy when it was begun and became more and more difficult as information and material surfaced. The obstacle was not in collating the stacks of photo states, interviews, books and letters as much as it somehow seemed necessary to have or develop a view point. Having been as an Indian at the receiving end of the imperial stick it is hard to be sympathetic to something that was virutually the quintessence of the empire and Britain’s and the raj have emerged in every work connected with the period, be it history, political thought, economics or fiction and it has somehow become obligatory to rise in defense, or bow to a more recent trend and let nostalgia strike the keynote. On the other hand, with a long pointing finger, one can climb a pedestal and pour forth the hellfire of condemnation.
A colonical legacy as a patrimony creates problems one does not know what to do with it and it refuses to be wished away. At the risk of over simplification, Simla was a joyous idiosyncrasy of that often callous father a colorful mistress if you like. It created a way of life that was, to put it mildly, enigmatic. The town lived on different levels, a government steeped in files, its society reveling in an older day Disneyland and all shored by the wealth and sweat of an entire subcontinent.
Historical perspectives changes with their writers for, example, the Revolt of 1857 which was once bad is now good and simla is still sitting on the fence. In a way, this work is an attempt to retain that place on the fence. In the past (apart from the Indians who were a service provide population in search of a living), for the Britisher in India Simla was a districts, the homesickness for a distant land an opiate from the pressures of rule.
My generation has grown up with a dislike for the Raj and all it stood for. But today, with much of the aura of an English mutant gone, simla needs to put the arrogance of the British Empire Behind it; this town is not sacrosanct and I ask for no diadmes, but have always felt that viewed as a whole, the greatest cultural trait of the Indian people is their ability to accept, absorb and adapt to practically every influence to which they are exposed. In this resilience lies the future of Simla. Here as impartially as possible, more than a hundred and fifty years of the Queen of the hills, the summer Capital of British India, are lived in a manner that cannot be any think but empathic.
In the next the spelling Simla is use except for the time when it officially became Shimla. The common or official spelling of other places is used and variations if any, accompany these in brackets. The metric system has been used as far as possible.
I am going to earn a good bit of flak for the number of quotations I have used. By admitting this, I am not trying to preempt the criticism but would like to place my viewpoint before the proverbial gentle reader. These are placed as they are at the risk of reducing this volume to an exercise with scissors and paste to try and recreate the past years through the eyes and words of those who were actual witnesses the men and women who felt the vitality of those transient moments. To some measure, I hope to have succeeded. To keep an even pace in the narrative, the description of Doze in chapter Ten has been kept as part of the text’s main body.
Preface to this Edition
Some two decades have passed from the time the last edition of this book was written. On the ground in Simla, some things have changed and most have’t. The pace of ubanisation has accelerated the colonial legacy especially the architecture, continues to be viewed with reverence and treated with a measure of indifference. The bridge of disconnect between an idealized past and a pressing present continues to lengthen. Many of history’s gridlines and monkey-ladders may have been ironed flat by economics and realpolitik, but the aura of Simla is still there. This trophy at the end-game of colonialism may have been social mythem has demonstrated a measure of its worth and continues to outlive the end of the Raj.
The way Simla is now spelt Shimla, the names of some other places have changed, too. Calcutta is now Kolkata, Mandras is now Chennai and Bombay is now Mumbai and for these three cities, the new and official spelling is used except when the older one is historically appropriate.
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