Simla is similar but not the same

Peter Popham finds a case of nostalgia for the Raj
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The Independent Online
When Indians' thoughts turn to the 50th anniversary of independence, the prevailing note is of gloom and dejection. What is there to celebrate, people demand? Population explosion, massive illiteracy, environmental degradation, inter-communal violence - the list of ills goes on and on. "It would be wiser if India uses its golden jubilee more for introspection than celebration," advises a commentator in the Pioneer newspaper.

Then suddenly from deep in the foothills of the Himalayas comes a different note: someone has found something to cheer about. "Our history over the past 200 years is the history of our association with the British Raj," says Major Vijai Singh Mankotia, sitting in his government office in the old hill town of Shimla (its post-independence spelling). "I give the leaders of India in 1947 full marks for assuring that the breaking up of the Raj was done in a very graceful manner. For the British to have managed a smooth passage of power from the Crown to a free nation, and for that free nation to have no enmity or animosity towards the former colonial power - that's very rare."

Rare enough to cheer about, Major Mankotia believes, and as Minister of Tourism in the state, Himachal Pradesh, of which Shimla is now the capital, that's what he intends to do. Certainly, he's in the right place to do it: if there were to be only one memorial of Britain's 300-year involvement with India, Shimla would be the best candidate. An obscure mountain village when stumbled upon by exhausted veterans of the Gurkha War around 1816, Shimla was steadily turned into the best simulacrum of an English country town that the minds of white men frazzled by the subcontinent's sun could devise.

A handsome parish church, with a tower; a shopping street called The Mall; a town hall, several half-timbered post offices, "Tudorbethan" villas with names like Rose Cottage, an amateur dramatics society with its own little theatre, the Gaiety: all these Simla had. And when, in 1864, Simla became the Raj's summer capital, its refuge from the hot weather and bothersome natives in the plains, it got its own quasi-feudal manor house, the Viceregal Lodge. The only thing obviously missing from the place was a few decent pubs.

Major Mankotia says that as Simla was the capital of India for six or more months of the year during the Raj, it deserves to get its fair share of attention (and government money) during the celebrations, which will begin on 15 August and last for a year. His idea is to tempt the British back. "We want to bring in a lot of people who have feelings of nostalgia for India when it was part of the Empire, or whose families lived in India, who have those sorts of links. This would be a capital opportunity to revive our bonds of association with the British."

The Minister hopes to restore some of the town's colonial period features: temporarily bring back rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages, revive the May Queen Beauty Contest, put Shakespeare on at the Gaiety, and stage a three-way Indo-Pakistan-England one-day cricket tournament 25 miles away at Chail, which has the highest cricket ground in the world.

It's a programme calculated to lure anyone bitten by the Jewel in the Crown bug. But before rushing to book rooms at the Cecil or the Woodville Palace, they should be warned that Shimla may be similar, but it's not Simla. It is not what it was. In 50 years of freedom, this improbable town has prospered mightily - and that's its biggest problem.

It's hardly any easier to get to than it was in Lord Curzon's day, and though the Viceroy's "toy train" up the mountains is now hauled by diesel instead of steam, my journey from Delhi took 15 and a half hours instead of the projected 11. Almost nowhere takes 15 and a half hours to get to in the day of the Jumbo, except Mount Everest, but then Shimla is halfway to Everest.

So far so nostalgic. But arriving in the place is a nasty shock. One is prepared for a pretty little pine-shaded place; what you find is a boomtown with an exploding population of between 100,000 and 200,000, nearly 10 times what it was during the Raj, clinging like grim death to the slopes. From a distance it resembles a great tide of slurry consuming the mountain's flank. Get closer and it's an ugly riot of concrete hotels and shops and restaurants, slammed together with as little thought for nostalgic sensibilities as for fire codes. The bazaar, which was always a feature of Simla even when the British fantasised about making the town an Indian-free zone, has taken over.

At this point the crestfallen colonial may feel like skulking back to the toy train and rolling down the hill to Delhi. But British Simla has not been totally consumed; it just takes a little more ferreting out than it used to.

It's there in the faded shop signs, the Tip Top Hairdressers and the Deluxe Bakers and the New Look Ladies Tailors; in the neat red cardigans and grey flannel trousers of the children in the Happy Child Study Hall, in the hoarding that declares "The Hills Come Alive with the Times of India." The old villas and mansions are still there, some more dilapidated than others. The Mall is still car-free, and the tower of the church, painted a somewhat sulphurous yellow, still dominates the town.

The British came to Simla as a way to detach themselves from India while continuing to rule it, and as a way of restoring themselves in mild weather among their own kind. What they wanted was a sort of seasonal apartheid. Cultural evangelism was not part of the plan. But willy-nilly, the torch was passed on.

By a happy chance there was a show on at the Gaiety last week, and Major Mankotia managed to get me in to see it, even though I lacked the compulsory jacket and tie. I was the only white person in the place. It was a production of that old bedroom farce, Boeing Boeing. Nothing much has changed at the Gaiety since it was built in 1887; the crimson tabs, the boxes with their padded bolsters, the flaking gilt paint on the classical detailing, all could be original - and the place looks as if it might fall down at any minute. But today's AmDrams take themselves quite as seriously as when Kipling trod these boards, and many of the Indian actors who began their careers here have gone on to star in the films of Bollywood.

All the kissing had to be done offstage, but Boeing Boeing was a very creditable show, and Bertha the Maid, played by Neelam Dewan, who also produced, was especially good. The audience of be-blazered Indian majors, colonels, at least one general and their wives and children - le tout Shimla - laughed uproariously. Very little has changed in this town in 100 years, one had to conclude, except the ruling race.