Glimpses of Simla

Glimpses of Simla

Simla — the
summer capital of british India
Raaja Bhasin
Rupa and Co
2011, pp 458

Sir John Lawrence, governor-general and viceroy, and a workaholic, found Kolkata — then the capital of British India — too muggy to work in the whole year through, and officially made Simla the summer capital in 1864.

Raaja Bhasin’s book, Simla — The Summer Capital of British India, was first published nearly 20 years ago, and this is a fresh edition. It has retained the fascinating foreword by the late M M Kaye — she was born there — but has a fresh preface by the author. And it is not just a history of the hill-town — it’s far more than that. Bhasin travels back and forth in time, and gives us an insight into the working and living styles of the various viceroys sent by London to “rule” India.

Bhasin has a very interesting opinion of why the British could have chosen Simla out of the many hill stations to choose from. He says that the British always had an image of themselves as a race that fanned out from the relatively tiny British Isles to rule over a large part of the globe.

This, Bhasin says, translated into an image of the mighty British Empire ruling the sub-continent from a tiny hill station, almost like a littoral town with the ‘sea’ of the Empire lapping at the foothills of the Himalayas. It is an interesting image.

Apart from this theory, there were practical reasons as well — and not just the weather. History has shown that whoever ruled the North of India ruled the country. Also, the ‘hill-states’ — a conglomeration of royal Indian states — were already friendly with the British, and these hilly kingdoms ringed the hill station.

The Indian Sepoy Mutiny — or the First Great Uprising as Indians prefer to say today — also alarmed the British, and Simla was felt to be safe and impregnable. In addition, they established checkpoints and cantonments in the lower towns leading up to the top, making it even more exclusive. There was trouble at the North West Frontier at that point in time — the British having been badly mauled in the second Afghan War in 1878 — and so it was felt that they could also keep a closer eye on this front from this lofty outpost.

The book has numerous little nuggets of information — like the massive amount of money used to build the Viceregal Lodge and the Retreat. By 1930, a staggering Rs 44,80,480 had been spent on the construction, maintenance and modification of the Lodge! (Sadly, the building, now housing the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, is reportedly in disrepair today.

The Retreat is now the property of the president of India) Rudyard Kipling, the man who made a name for himself writing about India and its characters, spent a considerable amount of time in Simla. The locales of several poems and stories are from in and around Simla, as well as numerous characters that Kipling either met or heard about. Kipling’s Mrs Hauksbee, who ‘had the wisdom of the serpent, the logical coherence of the man, the fearlessness of the child and the triple intuition of the woman’, is believed to have been modelled after Mrs Isabella Burton, whose husband was a major in the famed Skinner’s Horse Regiment.

As Bhasin wistfully says, many of the places in the stories no longer exist, and “now, a century and a quarter later, they live on in Kipling’s pages.” The book is full of fascinating details — like the large number of servants employed just to shoo away Simla’s monkeys; railway anecdotes, the huge costs involved in building the rail link between Simla and Kalka (the link thus formed between Howrah and Kalka was the first numbered service of the Indian Railways, referred to as One Up-Two Down); the introduction of apples to the hill region around 1916 by an American called Samuel Stokes (the region is now famous for this fruit); Francis Younghusband’s “expedition” to Tibet in 1903; a conference in Simla in 1913 under Viceroy Lord Hardinge which decided on the MacMahon line as the Sino-Indian border...

Just as the British made Simla their hub of administrative activity all over India, Bhasin has weaved together a number of important historical points with the hill town at their very centre.

But, what perhaps sums up this hill town’s position in British India is this passage written by George Aberigh-Mackay of the Viceregal Office at Simla that is quoted in the book:

“...What famines, what battles, what excursions of pleasure, what banquets have sprung to life here? Every pigeon-hole contains a potential revolution; every office box cradles the embryo of a war or death. What shocks and vibrations, what deadly thrills does this little thunder cloud office transmit to far away provinces lying beyond rising and setting suns...”

A most absorbing book. It will take you far away into the mists of time.

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