2006 December: Friday
In the morning I drew back the bedroom curtains. The Shimla valley lay stretched beneath. Parakeets and large black ravens wheeled among the tops of the pine trees at eye level; monkeys squatted and played on the red roofs below; 500 feet further down, the distant traffic wound along the Lower Mall Road; the smell of cedar wood rose in the chill clear air; the blue sky beckoned. I ordered a pot of tea, settled into an armchair, and just watched.
Later that afternoon, Arjun drove me into Shimla to rejoin Malcolm and Ann. We walked along to the far end of the ridge up a long ceremonial driveway to the former Viceregal Lodge. This turned out to be a large baronial hall more suited to the Scottish Highlands than Himalchal Pradesh. The then Viceroy, the Earl of Dufferin, had built this slice of rampant Victoriana in the 1880s, every brick having been transported up the hill tracks by mule. It had needed four hundred servants to run the Lodge, eighty of them gardeners. A carefully tended lawn and flowerbeds led from the house to the glorious views of the foothills beyond. It was now a college for post-graduate Hindu students – the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
We joined a small group for a guided tour of the house interior. The impressive entrance hall soared above us to the roof and was entirely panelled with Burmese teak. As we passed through, each room seemed larger than the last, oozing aristocratic contempt for moderation. One vast ballroom now housed the entire university library. Another room had been kept intact more or less as it had been when it had witnessed the momentous decision to partition India and Pakistan in 1947. The walls were lined with photographs of previous Viceroys – Hardinge, Curzon, Mountbatten, etc. One photo was of Mountbatten’s wife Edwina and the Indian leader Pandit Nehru; it showed them roaring with laughter at a joke, while Mountbatten himself stood beside them alone and looking stern. Not surprisingly, I suppose, as Edwina was reputedly having an affair with Nehru at the time.
We strolled back into town to do some shopping – I particularly needed an extra sweater to combat the cold. Arjun pointed out a clothes shop which he said was a ‘government shop’ and therefore cheap. The interior was devoid of other customers and my entrance created a flurry of anticipation among the counter assistants. Having chosen a sweater and also two shirts I attempted to buy them.
The sweater counter assistant spent five minutes working out a lengthy form for the bill.
I then crossed to the shirt counter where a second assistant made out a similar bill.
I took both bills to the cashier’s booth, where the cashier wrote out two further forms, which I carried back to the shirt counter for a signature from the assistant, and then to the sweater counter for a further signature.
I then returned to the cashier’s booth, handed over the forms, and the cashier took the money for the sweater.
I took my original sweater bill plus the new form back to the first counter and handed them over.
The assistant (sweaters) then filled in a further form – which was made out in carbon copy triplicate – and handed me the sweater.
I returned to the cashier’s booth where I handed over a copy of the latest form.
The cashier then made out a second form for me to take to the second (shirt) counter.
I handed it to the shirt assistant who sent me back to the main cashier because it had not got the correct stamp on it.
Having received the stamp, I handed over the second money, and returned to the second (shirt) counter.
The second assistant made out a further form (again in triplicate).
I returned one copy to the cashier’s booth, having left a second copy with the assistant (shirts).
After roughly twenty minutes, I was allowed to leave with both sweater and shirts.
On the plus side however, the cost was roughly four times cheaper than the flashy corporate Delhi equivalent, (itself four times cheaper than in Britain).
We walked on to a large open triangular patch of ground, the highest and only flat part of Shimla town. Its nickname (and now official name) of ‘Scandal Point’ referred to its past as an area where the Victorians gathered to promenade and gossip about each other. By all accounts, they had quite a lot to gossip about – Victorian India was considerably more louche than they would have liked posterity to believe. Now the statues of Mahatma and Indira Gandhi presided over more subdued groups of modern day holiday strollers.
On both sides of the Ridge the views were good, but to the north they were spectacular. In the far distance lay the snow-covered slopes of the real Himalayas – Everest was not that far away. (Neither, as the crow flies, were Afghanistan or the Chinese border.) It seemed like a good spot to say goodbye to India – we were flying back to London in three days anyway.
In the far corner of the Scandal Point promenade we reached the small Anglican church, built in 1857. The interior was oblong and, owing to restoration work, had been stripped of its pews. A few turbaned workmen stood on stepladders carefully repainting cornices. An organist in the loft was practising carols for the forthcoming Christmas Eve service. Although it was growing darker outside, the electric bulbs inside were bright.
I suddenly felt a small and very unexpected, shiver of patriotism. Now, I’ve always felt there was something shady about patriotism, being in agreement with Dr Johnson. When someone declares himself to be a patriot, that’s when I tend to start counting the spoons. (I also think that the British National Anthem is the dreariest sound in the pantheon of nationalist music. It’s like someone sawing a log very…very…slowly. It must be the only national anthem that – in its ‘rebellious Scots to crush’ fifth verse – openly advocates the mass slaughter of fifteen per cent of the people singing it.)
However, the sheer strangeness of such a familiar pre-Christmas scene in such alien surroundings stirred something odd in me. We looked around the walls of the church – brass plaques spelt out the past.
‘Lady Hardinge of Penshurst died 1909’.
‘Captain Jones of the Bengal Regiment who died at Kut in the Mesopotamian campaign of 1915’.
‘Colonel Downing who was torpedoed in the Red Sea in 1917’.
Civil servants, soldiers, wives – the roll call of a dead empire.
We walked outside into the freezing air. It was the final minute of sunset, as the long horizontal glimmer of deep crimson along the western hills was squeezed out by the night. The light from the church door spilled on to the dark path. Then the organ started to wheeze out ‘Once In Royal David’s City’. I had never felt quite so British before in my life.
Visiting Shimla was like visiting the house where your grandparents once lived.
POSTSCRIPT: INDIA – DEC 2011
Five years later, I made an unexpected return to India. Although the theatre show had been laid to rest (after a tour lasting 27 years), I had developed a dramatised speech based on the monologue that incorporated much of the original material. This was performance-lite.
In 2011 I received an e-mail from the indefatigable Vinod – could I come back to India and do some more shows? She had managed to persuade the Irish Embassy to back us. Although initially reluctant, I couldn’t ignore the call. Vinod had been such a stalwart defender of Irish literature that the Embassy had suggested she should be made an honorary Irish citizen for her immense loyalty and generosity. From Wilde to Shaw, from Behan to Synge, she had done her considerable best to illuminate and educate India about the glories of Celtic culture. I couldn’t let her down.
So, in December 2011, I found myself back touring the sub-continent. We travelled and performed from the pleasant city of Coimbatore near the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, to the lively metropolis of Indore in Madhya Pradesh.
But the two most memorable shows were back around Delhi.
The first, at the Gurgaon Epicentre Theatre, was a nightmare. I had spent the previous 36 hours groaning on a bed and totally laid low by an unwise meat curry. Even sitting up had been a struggle. Due to a rigid contract I HAD to perform that night – no understudy, no excuses, no way out. It was a good theatre and everything was in order – except myself.
I slumped in a chair awaiting the start of the show with a lack of interest that was frightening. Then the normally highly efficient figure of Sharat, Vinod’s son, gave his usual short introduction to my speech. Unfortunately as he finished and walked off the stage he accidentally managed to knock my already positioned notes from the lectern to the floor. The show commenced with my grovelling around on the stage gathering up the scattered pages. Then, of course, they were out of order, so I had to waste further time sorting them out. It was a dreadful start.
For the first twenty minutes or so ‘Dr Theatre’ kicked in – that adrenaline rush that normally could bounce even cadavers through to the curtain call. For once, it failed. I started to sweat badly – then felt very cold. The darkened auditorium in front seemed to sway as dizziness took hold. I could feel my energy levels dropping like a stone – a slight trickle of nausea crept into the back of my mouth. Feeling as if I were in a bad dream, I announced:
“Ladies and gentlemen, my deep apologies but I can no longer continue”.
I walked offstage to a shocked silence. For the only time in almost thirty years of Wilde shows – for the first time in almost fifty years of performance – I had abandoned a show in mid speech. And I felt too ill to care.
The other show was back at my old haunt, the Habitat in Delhi. Once again, Vinod had drummed up a capacity audience and, again, it included a sprinkling of celebrities, including the Irish Ambassador and his consular staff. The show itself, despite the new format, went extremely well – a lot of laughter and a warm bath of applause at the end.
Then Sharat, again in his role of Master of Ceremonies, invited the Irish Ambassador up on stage to make a few comments. The Ambassador did so, praising the show, Vinod’s contribution to Indo-Hibernian relations, and her courage in promoting an unfamiliar but welcome cultural event in Delhi.
He then turned towards me for the presentation of an enormous bunch of flowers. It must have been three feet high and two feet wide. I went forward to shake his hand, but he decided that this was too formal a greeting for such a situation and went for the full body hug instead.
The problem was that he was at least one foot shorter than myself and his arms went around my lower waist. I had nothing with which to reciprocate this embrace except his head, which I grasped towards me. The flowers, of course, were still squashed between us, so I became entwined by hydrangeas thrusting up into my nostrils, while the Ambassador’s head was wreathed in tulips. Amidst the audience applause, I could also hear hiccups of laughter.
As someone said later: “It looked like Elton John’s wedding.”