2006 November: Sunday
Old Delhi was the last leg of the tourist Golden Triangle. After the Amber Palace of Jaipur and the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort of Delhi had its work cut out to impress. However, as both the Taj and the Red Fort had been the creation of the industrious if prodigal Shah Jahan (and extraordinarily built at roughly the same time – 1648), it just about managed it.
Having made a sharp recovery from the horrors of the previous night on the road and even managing to eat a boiled egg for breakfast without retching, I rejoined Malcolm and Ann for the trip into town. Arjun dropped us off at the entrance to the Fort, a large open area of tarmac called the Maidan, over which loomed the massive 30metre high red sandstone walls and gatehouse. The perimeter walls stretched for a mile and a half and at one time the Yamuna River (aka the Jumna) had provided a wide moat as extra defence beneath them. Over the centuries, the Yamuna had annoyingly shifted its course and now flowed past about half a mile away. The moat had been left empty and now served as a dual carriageway.
The interior of the fort struck me as providing a pocket history of looting. Shah Jahan’s original must have been stunning – even the guidebook’s descriptions were pretty impressive. It had been a brilliantly subtle blending of Islamic and Hindu art: mosques made of pure marble, mosaics made of coloured glass mirrors, solid silver ceilings reflecting in water pools below, gold columns supporting flowering umbrellas of intricately carved stone, a water channel fed by water from the Yamuna and known as the ‘Stream of Paradise’ that ran through each airy pavilion, the famed Peacock Throne supported on marble pedestals; even the Koh-I-Noor Diamond had been part of the décor. An inscription from the Koran was inscribed on the walls: ‘If there be paradise on earth, it is here, it is here’.
Not surprisingly it couldn’t last. Successive Indian rulers (including the Marathas) stripped the place of its gold and silver; the Koh-I-noor Diamond ended up in the Crown of England; the Peacock Throne was removed to Teheran, (one of its marble pedestals is now in the New York Metropolitan Museum); even the ‘Stream of Paradise’ has lost its water supply from the river. To make matters even worse, during the Raj the British Army knocked down many of the pavilions to construct barracks and a water tower for the troops. These barracks now look like disused warehouses – turds floating on a lily pond.
Despite this desecration of his dream, Shah Jahan has had the last laugh though. From what remains, it is still possible to imagine what he created – and it’s still lovely.
We had lunch on the main street of Old Delhi, the Chandni Chowk. Across the street I saw one building that seemed to be simply a cascade of junk and dusty hoardings from its top floor to the street level. Most of the upper rooms were missing a wall, so that they opened directly out on the street. It looked a lot like the buildings bombed during the London Blitz. Then I noticed a sign at the front – unbelievably the place was a hotel. I had visions of going to the reception desk and the clerk responding: “Do you wish for a fourth wall to your bedroom, sir, or will three suffice?”
As we drank coffee, Vinod related a story about the early days of the Golden Triangle tourism. An Australian arrived in Delhi and hired a rickshaw. After being shown the city, he handed over what was an unusually generous tip of $20 to the driver. He was surprised at the driver’s reaction. The man did not seem particularly impressed or grateful. He just shrugged his shoulders, took the money, and walked away. It turned out that the driver thought that the Australian had bought the rickshaw.
2006 December: Wednesday
Our final foray was to the Himalayas and, at popular request, Arjun was once again hired as our driver. Starting from Gurgaon in the south-west, we circled around Delhi and took the northern road through the State of Haryana. The first day’s journey was surprisingly easy, travelling on a smooth dual carriageway (with not many cows), and passing through flat countryside and a few light industrial towns. Sonepat – Panipat (owing to a Muslim saint’s curse a few centuries earlier, reputedly the most fly infested town in India) – Karnal – Ambala. As night fell we bypassed Chandigargh and stopped at the town of Kalka at 6 30pm.
After checking into a hotel and having dinner with Ann and Malcolm (Vinod had remained in Delhi this time), I went to the bedroom and watched some TV – a good way to check the temperature of any country. American programmes dominated, mostly teen channels, all teeth and tits; an English sports channel; Star TV – another of the ubiquitous Murdoch franchises; a dire Indian soap opera based on the Latin American format of lengthy stares and pregnant pauses; a very dull news channel, populated almost exclusively by nervous bespectacled girl reporters whose respectful questioning of dubious politicians could have been handled by a six-year-old. “Minister, what do you think makes you such a popular man in Uttar Pradesh?”
The only time that things got genuinely serious was a news flash that India had just lost a one-day cricket match against South Africa. Consternation spread through the newsroom and a variety of pundits were scrambled into the studio to make gloom-laden predictions. One grim-faced Opposition minister promised that the government would be called to account in Parliament the next day. The atmosphere resembled the Berlin Bunker after the fall of Stalingrad – a dark searching of the soul.
2006 December: Thursday
Outside Kalka, the road continued along the flat plain and was bordered by almost continuous small shops and some extensive army barracks. Then, about five miles north, the hills began to loom ahead. We crossed over the border into the State of Himachal Pradesh – the land of the eternal snow peaks. And the road started to climb – and climb.
For four and a half hours we continued to ascend the Himalayan foothills in a constant zigzag of hairpin bends on a road clinging precariously to sheer cliffs, with the solid wall of mountain on one side, and the deep slash of chasms on the other. To this was added all the usual thrills of Indian traffic.
Somehow, even here, small shops and cafes managed to teeter on patches of land no more than fifteen feet wide. This was vertical living with a vengeance. Arjun halted the car outside one of these shops and went inside. He came out again with a scratch card which he rubbed, then threw away. I had a sudden fantasy that he rubbed it, stared delightedly at the result, gave a whoop of joy, and ran off back down the mountain leaving us stranded in the Himalayas.
As we drove further and higher, it started to get increasingly chilly. By 1pm we had travelled fifty-seven miles and risen 7000 feet.
Ann asked Arjun to explain one large road sign that we passed. It read: ‘Help Fight the Monkey Menace!’ He explained that monkeys were the bane of Himalchal Pradesh and a cull had been proposed. But owing to the problem that they were under the protection of the Monkey God, nothing had been done.
We reached Shimla by 2pm.
Unlike the great cities of the Ganges and Rajastan, Shimla was a creation of the British. They reached the area in 1819 and by 1864 they had made it the summer capital of India, shifting the entire apparatus of government up here, first by packhorse and elephant, then after 1903 by the narrow gauge railway. This was due to the summer temperatures down in Delhi or Calcutta that could (and can) reach 50C. It also displayed the self-confidence, even arrogance, of the Raj in that it felt quite easy about ruling all India from its most northerly tip. It was rather like governing the USA from a small town in Alaska.
Shimla was built on an eight-mile long mountain ridge with its buildings occupying every conceivable scrap of ground down the slanting western slopes – it looked like an architectural avalanche frozen in mid collapse. We drove along the main Cart Road for about three miles until we reached the Hotel Ashianti Regency. After parking the car we entered the foyer to find that the foyer was actually the sixth floor of the building – the other five floors were layered down the cliff beneath us. It was that steep. The place had a distinct resemblance to a Swiss Alpine chalet, even down to the wooden roof in the lounge. The resemblance was increased by the fact that the weather was now bloody cold – after the Ganges plains, this was ridiculous.
Having checked in, we drove back along the Cart Road before alighting near what looked like the centre of Shimla. A public lift beside a large hotel raised us about one hundred feet above the main traffic road and deposited us on the Upper Mall. We walked out of the lift and into – Victorian Shrewsbury!
The whole upper area of the town – the mile and a half long top of the ridge – was a tribute to the mock-Tudor and neo-Gothic efforts of late nineteenth century English taste. It was a small-town English high street. The fact that it was a pedestrian precinct with no vehicles at all (apart of cows, of course) added to the effect.
The Mall was lined by the Town Hall, the Public Library, the Police Station, and rows of shops that would have fitted perfectly well into Lichfield. A second hand bookshop seemed to have been lifted wholesale out of Hampstead – it even had a bound set of 1880s Punch magazines in the window. Perched on top of the hill was a cream coloured village parish church; presumably last seen emigrating from the Cotswolds.
The name ‘GAIETY THEATRE’ projected out from an awning and on the crumbling façade beneath was a notice: ‘Shimla Amateur Dramatic Society. Estd 1837’. Malcolm and I tiptoed into the auditorium – there was just enough light to make out a horseshoe-shaped little music hall with a gallery and dusty plush-lined pews. An unspoiled theatrical diamond. It later transpired that both Kipling and Baden-Powell had trod these very boards. Even more amazingly, the Dam Busters hero, Guy Gibson, had been born in this town.
We stopped for a meal at a restaurant that turned out to be an entirely English café. I remembered from my childhood in the Tea Shoppes of England those awful metal teapots with an inadequate spout from which it was impossible to pour without dribbling tea on the tablecloth, or to hold without burning your hand. I thought they had disappeared but, for the first time in decades, I found that they hadn’t. Shimla – faithful to old England in every respect.
The only incongruity was that the clientele were entirely Indian. It struck me how odd an Indian must find it to arrive in Britain, go to an Indian restaurant, and find it full of Britons. Why?? I ordered sausage, egg and chips. It felt so exotic after a month of curry.
However, despite all these Anglicised features, the town was now absolutely Indian, and almost entirely thronged by Indian tourists. I watched the parade of pedestrians along the Mall – Asiatic-looking Tibetans, tall turbaned Sikhs, all shades of delicately handsome Indians – virtually no white faces at all.
That this was now (and always had been) an Indian town became even more obvious with the next phenomenon – monkeys. One of the local scams turned out to involve spectacles. Monkeys had been trained to leap up at tourists, grab their glasses, and make off with them. They would then take their spoils to local traders and exchange them for food, while the traders would return the glasses to their owners for a fee.
I avoided falling victim to this, but I did witness a further crime. As I passed a shop, a burst of shouts and laughter broke out. A monkey had scrambled down the shop front and stolen an embroidered scarf from the display. The shopkeeper ran out and stood in impotent rage as the monkey scampered back over the roof and waved the scarf in triumph. I couldn’t help noticing that the colouring of the scarf was identical to the Eton College school tie – black with broad turquoise stripes. So, somewhere in the Himalayas, presumably there is now a monkey wearing Etonian colours.
Back at the hotel, the December temperature outside fell to literally freezing – 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Shimla – feral dog pack sleeping it off