Anarchy is to the porters of New Delhi station what order is to the clerks of the Credit Suisse, Geneva: Without it they would be lost.
In the pre-dawn glimmer, Platform 7 buzzed like a kicked beehive. Red-jacketed coolies staggered toward first class under a mountain of packing cases and trunks. Lower down the platform, near third class, solitary peasant women sat stranded amid seas of more ungainly luggage: cages and boxes, ambiguous parcels done up with rope. Fleets of vendors trawled the platform selling trays of tea in red clay cups or the latest Bombay film magazine. In the middle of it all, the largest stationary object in sight, stood the venerable Himalayan Queen.
I took my seat and waited for the train to leave. In India, the timetables are metaphorical documents; like India's other sacred texts, they are not meant to be taken literally. Around me in the carriage India's middle class grumbled away in that old-fashioned, bubbly English heard in prewar British films and still apparently de rigueur in the Delhi Gymkhana Club:
"My God, Tiger! Damn railways are becoming more unpunctual every year!"
"Oh it's so exhausting, yaar? What with the children, the servants and the heat . . ."
This hustle and bustle, this huge national grouch, is part of a great annual tradition: the flight to the hills. For four months of the year the sun bakes down on the burning plains, turning north India into a vast, shimmering heat haze. For six hours each day it is impossible to move; the heat assaults you like a mugger as you leave the AC.
But with the Himalayas so near, there has always been an alternative, not just cooler, but also healthier. In the 18th century as few as one in three East Company officials made it back to England alive, so devastating was the climate of Bengal; but in the hills there was no malaria, no cholera and no typhoid. By 1822 Capt. Charles Kennedy had built the first house on the Simla ridge. Emily Eden, an early visitor, pronounced the climate "English and exhilarating."
Following Kennedy's lead, officials began clearing the forests and building hill stations all over the Himalayas: a succession of little half-timbered villages that looked as if they had been magically transported from Surrey, complete with mock-Tudor houses with net curtains, Gothic churches, miniature theaters, tea shops, and lines of English cottage gardens littered with croquet hoops and English roses -- yet all clinging to a series of perilous ledges 7,000 feet above sea level in Southern Asia.
The town of Simla, as described by Kipling in Plain Tales From the Hills, seems now a wonderfully absurd turn-of-the-century fantasy: It all ended less than 60 years ago, yet it is to us a world as distant as that of the ancient Romans. What, I wondered, was it like today, more than half a century after India won its independence, sending the British packing, and so initiating the modern post-colonial era? To find out, I packed my copy of Kipling in a bag and booked a berth on the Himalayan Queen. Before long I was steaming through the plains of Punjab.
At Kalka -- an arid, deserted place, all scrub, shale and cactus -- we changed trains; the Himalayan Queen reclined at the buffers as its passengers decamped onto a narrow-gauge miniature train. This looks like something out of a child's toy box: The old carriages are made of wood, painted a faded kingfisher blue, and they sit only 10 people each. The engine is newer -- it dates from the Second World War.
Accompanied by a great deal of hooting, it jarred to life and chugged uphill at a speed just a little faster than walking pace. The journey through the mountains was virtually vertical, and as the temperature dropped, minute by minute you could see the vegetation change. Leaves widened, colors brightened; the train stopped at Edwardian stations with high Swiss gables hung with flowering creepers. The relief was immediate and tangible, like coming up for air.
The train passed through 103 tunnels and over 24 bridges, and eventually, as evening drew in, we turned a bend and caught a first glimpse of the scattering of bungalows, country houses and offices rising unannounced out of the deodar trees. Crowning Summer Hill was Viceregal Lodge, a familiar silhouette of Victorian towers and pinnacles, a Scots stronghold looking strangely at home on the borders of Chinese Tartary. Suddenly through the window I felt the first drops of rain blowing into the carriage. The sky darkened and the hillside grew gray; a wave of nostalgia crept up on me unawares. This was not the torrential tropical rain of the plains, but the familiar, hesitant, halfhearted drizzle of my Scottish childhood.
There were hill stations, and there were smart hill stations, and there was Simla. Simla was chic -- always in a different class from its rivals -- and for a simple reason: From 1830 until 1947 it was the summer capital of the British Indian Empire. Every April, when the heat of Calcutta became unbearable, the entire bureaucracy and the top brass of the Raj military used to trek over a thousand miles to the cool of Simla -- as crazy an undertaking as the entire State Department and Pentagon moving for the summer to, say, Colorado. For seven months of the year, from April to October, one-fifth of mankind was ruled from a Himalayan village connected to the outside world by a road little better than a goat path. Here, willfully ignoring the geography of their location, generations of mandarins and their memsahibs gossiped, took tea and went to the races.
For above all, despite its extreme remoteness and inaccessibility, Simla was about homesickness and the cloying nostalgia of the English exile for home. The town was an escape from the heat, but it was also, tacitly, an escape from India. As one disapproving official put it, "Sedition, unrest and even murderous riots may have been going on elsewhere in India, but in Simla the burning questions are polo finals, racing and the all-absorbing tennis tournaments." Simla was, and remains, the ultimate symbol of the enviable -- if often criminally careless -- self-confidence of the Raj at its 1920s climax.
In the wake of the viceroy and his staff came the cream of Raj
society: the commander in chief of the army and the moguls of the
Indian civil service, as well as the greater part of British India's womenfolk. While the administrators got on with the running of the empire -- building the railways, planning the invasion of Tibet, sending off spies to watch the Afghan border -- the women set about organizing a swirl of races and dances, picnics and flirtations. As most husbands had to stay behind in their stations, women outnumbered men, and romance was inevitable. As Kipling put it:
Jack's own Jill goes up the hill, to Murree or Chakrata;
Jack remains and dies in the plains, and Jill remarries soon after.
Fifty years after the British went home, I found to my surprise that the ghosts of the sahibs still haunt Simla. Their shadow lies everywhere: in the shooting sticks and riding whips in the shops, in the windows of the bungalows named "Pine Breezes" and "Fair Views," in the crumbles and custards of the boardinghouse menus.
Today Simla is a strange place. The Sikh families up from the Punjab for a weekend look understandably uncertain about the mock-Tudor High Street, and they take refuge in a self-conscious formality. Everyone is on best behavior. They dress smartly in brand-new turbans complemented by tweeds and ties, and they finish off the outfit with a walking stick bought at the Lakkar Bazaar. Children who slurp their ice creams are scolded: You don't slurp in Simla.
Simla may be the best-preserved Raj townscape in India, but no one could really describe it as architecturally beautiful. Nearly all the buildings are roofed in corrugated metal, giving even the grandest of houses a feeling of makeshift impermanence. In the town's heyday, the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens remarked that if Simla had been built by monkeys, "One would have said, `What wonderful monkeys, they must be shot in case they do it again.' "
Yet, if not beautiful, Simla remains endlessly intriguing, as unreal, as unlikely and as surprising as a theme park -- but built in all earnestness by people who genuinely believed that mock-Tudor bungalows were just what was needed in the Himalayas. Just walking up the Mall -- Simla's main street -- you come across the strangest sights. Arguably the oddest of all is the Anglican Christ Church, where the vicar once preached a sermon against "the enormity of the crinoline, the extravagance of its wearers and the room it took up in the sacred edifice to the exclusion of would-be worshipers"; the following Sunday all the women appeared in their riding habits. Today there are few Christians living in the town, and the vicar counts himself lucky to fill more than two or three pews at the Sunday service.
A little down the Mall lies the Gaiety Theatre, the place for amateur theatricals during the Raj. The theater is tiny, just nine rows deep, 12 seats across, with the box of honor for the viceroy and his staff still containing its full complement of faded, crested chintz armchairs. You could easily spend a whole day in here studying the production photographs: wonderful images of plays that must have been outdated well before they were performed in 1927. Under titles such as "The Fatal Nymph" and "Dear Brutus," tall men with false mustaches are pictured kneeling down, proposing marriage to comely girls in flapper hats, while conspiratorial housemaids in starched linen hold up the vicar out in the front hall. Sometimes you mistake the names of the actors with those of the parts. Did names like Major Trail, Mill Mold and Miss Dunett ever really exist outside the pages of an Agatha Christie?
The Woodville Palace Hotel, where I was staying, was once the home of the maharajah of Jubbal and is another extraordinary survival. The porte-cochere of the building is hung with wisteria and flanked by a pair of old cannons. At the bottom, below the wicker deck chairs, a last gardener can be seen manicuring the grass with nail scissors and pulling out the clover by hand, one by one. Inside, as liveried (but barefoot) waiters bring you a glass of whiskey, you sit and take in the clash of different worlds in the decor around you. Above the doorway, the sightless eyes of stuffed tigers stare down from their plinths; below is a signed daguerreotype of Queen Victoria. But on the opposite wall, beside the fireplace, lies the debris of a rather different side of a maharajah's Simla season: "To Princess Brinda, with our sincere good wishes." The picture is of Laurel and Hardy. Beside and around it are other signed photographs of Hollywood stars: To Princess Brinda . . . from Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Clark Gable. Shooting and snobbery, viceroys and film stars -- everything that might interest a maharajah is here.
Most resonant of all, however, is old Viceregal Lodge, a grim Scotch baronial confection variously compared to a lunatic asylum and London's Gothic St. Pancras Station. For despite appearances, there was always a deadly serious side to Simla. The viceroy was the spider at the heart of Simla's web: From his chambers in Viceregal Lodge, he pulled the strings of an empire that stretched from Rangoon in the east to Aden in the west. Simla may have looked like Margate or some other English seaside resort, but the town was in fact one of the great political capitals of the world, at its height every bit as powerful as Paris and Berlin. Here, behind the deceptively suburban facade, were to be found all the departments of a great power -- its strategists, soldiers and foreign office, as well as the formidable secret service.
In the evenings the viceroy would hold balls as grand as anything thrown by the czar, his only rival in Asia: From all over Simla, rickshaws would converge on Summer Hill spilling out their cargo of dinner-jacketed men, ball-gowned memsahibs and bejeweled maharajahs: "At the Viceroy's evening parties," wrote Aldous Huxley "the diamonds were so large they looked like stage gems. It was impossible to believe that the pearls in the million-pound necklaces were the genuine excrement of oysters."
Today Viceregal Lodge houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, a hilltop retreat for Indian academics: Where the British once waltzed and sipped cocktails, earnest seminars now debate the relevance of structuralism to Indian anthropology. When the lodge was first built, the furnishings were supplied by London's smartest outfitters, Maples of London, and it was said that the Indian income tax was introduced to pay for it all; but now the council chamber is an office, and fusty periodicals gather dust in the great Durbar Hall, where the viceroy used to receive delegations of maharajahs. Modern India does not adequately support
its academics, and the institute is left critically short of funding and in continual fear of eviction. While I was there a rumor was circulating that the government was planning to throw out the academics and to sell off the lodge to an international hotel chain.
In the meantime, the stonework decays, the elaborate plasterwork is overcome with mildew, and the windows are broken and not replaced. Saddest of all, Lady Minto's famous rose garden behind the lodge is falling into ruin: Dog roses run wild, the lawns, thick with clover, are uncut, and docks and ragwort spread between the paving stones.
Nearby, in a bungalow in the woods below Viceregal Lodge, I met the Haxby sisters, the two last British "stayers on," who had chosen to remain in India long after the empire that brought them there had vanished into the history books. The Haxbys' house had once been quite grand -- a rambling half-timbered affair with a wide veranda and cusped Swiss gables. But the estate had clearly fallen on hard times. A lint of withered spider webs hung from the beams of the veranda, and only thin, peeling strips of burnt sienna indicated that the house had ever been painted.
At first I thought no one was at home. But after 10 minutes of knocking on doors and peering through windows I was rewarded with the sight of one of the sisters hobbling across her sitting room. She undid the multiple bolts of the door and slumped down in one of the wickerwork chairs on the veranda.
"And who are you?" she asked.
I explained, and complimented her on the view from her front door.
"It may be beautiful to you," she said abruptly. "But it's not beautiful to us. We want to go back home." They had been living in Simla for most of their 70-plus years.
Phyllis Haxby was a frail old woman with mottled brown skin and toothpick legs. Her tweed skirt was extravagantly darned and her thick brown stockings were a jigsaw of tears and runs. She began rapping on the front door with her stick: "Edith! Edith! There is a boy here to see us. Says he's British." The drizzle that had followed me to the bungalow turned into a downpour. The water dripped through the roof of the veranda and we moved inside.
The three of us arranged ourselves around a table and Phyllis poured the tea. The two sisters fussed around with the teacups, trying to spoon in the sugar and the powdered milk with shaky hands. At length, when this was achieved and they had relaxed, I asked them about Simla in the old days.
"Oh, it was such fun when we were young and blond and had admirers," said Edith. "At night we went to dances and drank champagne, and by day we would sit up here and watch the soldiers riding by, four abreast. Those were the days."
"But my God has it changed. Imagine -- I now do my own sweeping . . ."
". . . and the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry. Us -- colonel's daughters."
"Don't complain, my dear. It could be much worse."
"My aunt's husband was in the 23rd Punjabis. I told the grocery boy last week. The 23rds! He couldn't believe that such grand people lived in such . . ."
"In, um, such . . ."
"Simplicity?" I suggested.
"Absolutely," said Phyllis. "Simplicity. That's the word. That's how we live, isn't it, darling?"
It wasn't just the Haxbys. Simla as a whole seemed to be suffering from a sort of architectural Alzheimer's. The town -- breathtaking yet tatty, grand yet decaying -- is like nowhere else on earth.
Even in its glory years, it was always a hybrid: an idealized, picture-postcard memory of Britain, the romanticized creation of enervated exiles, as if re-created from the paintings on tins of shortbread. A cloud of nostalgia -- memories of better days -- hangs over the town and affects everyone in it. But it is still a unique place, more heavily flavored with the aftertaste of that long-lost era of early 20th-century imperialism than anywhere else in India.
It won't always be that way. The developers are moving in. The Mall was once as chic as any street in the empire; but now the tearooms and grand hotels with their string quartets and starched linen have all disappeared, to be replaced by discount boutiques and cheap takeout shops. Piece by piece, the Englishness of Simla is being dismantled.
On my last day in Simla I visited Raja Bhasin, a local historian who has written the best modern book on Simla. I asked him how much of Victorian Simla was likely to survive in the next century.
"There's going to be little bits left behind," he replied, "but anything distinctive is going to go. Things are changing very, very rapidly. One by one, the old British bungalows are being knocked down. In time nearly everything will go."
"So Simla's finally going to become part of India now?" I asked.
"In the end, India overcomes all the forces that invade it," said Bhasin. "That's what happened to the Moguls. Now the same has happened to the British. In India time has a remarkable placidity to it. In the long run the British presence in these hills is going to be like -- how do you put it? -- a stone dropped in water. There are some ripples -- maybe quite big ones -- but after a while the surface is placid again. After a while it will be as if the stone never existed."
William Dalrymple has written two books on India, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi and The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters. Portions of this article appeared previously in the Sunday Times of London.
Simla is best in September and October and again from March to May, when the hot season begins. It is very wet from June to August, and very cold November to February.
From New Delhi, the most reliable way to get there is the daily Himalayan Queen, which leaves at 6 a.m. You transfer in Kalka and arrive in Simla around 5 p.m. It is a stunning journey, particularly if you travel first class in a glass-sided rail car. On arrival you will be besieged by porters offering to carry your luggage to your hotel. It's not a bad idea on this one occasion, as cars are banned from central Simla and the station is a distance away.
Deciding where to stay is easy: either the wonderfully characterful Woodville Palace (011-91-177-223-919) or the Oberoi Cecil, a super-swanky five-star hotel; a fallback is the Oberoi Clarkes, cheaper and less flashy but with terrible food (for Oberoi reservations from the United States, call 800-562-3764). Or you can stay with the local maharajah, Reggie Singh, at his remarkable house, Chapslee (www.chapslee.com). The Britain-based Western & Oriental Travel (011-44-171-313-6611) has access throughout India to private properties and palaces normally closed to travelers.
To read up on Simla, start with Kipling's Plain Tales From the Hills, most of which are set in the town; but any Kipling collection is bound to contain some of his Simla tales. Barbara Crossette's The Great Hill Stations of Asia and Jan Morris's Stones of Empire set Simla in a wider context. Recent studies of Simla by Indian writers are Raja Bhasin's Simla: Summer Capital of British India and Pamela Kanwar's Imperial Simla. -- W.D.