The Past Is Simla
Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His fourth book of essays, Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published later this year.
I was beginning my journey to India – inauspiciously. The day before I’d gone to Dr G’s clinic: G was a young, enthusiastic medical man from Mahatir’s Malaysia; he was keen to establish his practice in the newest suburb of Canberra. Dr G examined me thoroughly. I was declared fit to travel.
There were rumours of plague from Surat, Bombay and Delhi. The news headlines were grim: first bubonic, now pneumonic. And television pictures brought their own images of horror in our drawing-room.
In Shimla the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), was hosting an international conference on ‘Interrogating Postcolonialism: Theory, Text and Context’. A challenging topic for me but the venue selected had its own fascination: Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, a place I’d visited during my student days in the summers of the Nehruvian sixties. So I was determined to revisit the only hill station I’d known in my youth.
Sydney to Bangkok takes about nine hours and Bangkok to Delhi four. A journey to Delhi is always a delight to me: it’s a city I love revisiting and amidst its reverberating monuments live so many people who mean so much to me – and memories.
This time it would be a brief stopover: Shimla was my destination. After nine hours of non-stop flying from Sydney I landed at Bangkok, bang on time.
My connecting flight to Delhi was leaving in forty minutes. So I disembarked quickly and rushed towards Gate 48. Suddenly I saw two women holding a huge placard, a large white sheet – it said starkly: “Prof Nandan PLEASE Ring your home!”
I got a shock. Fortunately a lady explained to me that it was about matters in Delhi rather than in Canberra. I’d barely thirty minutes, so I thought I’d ring Jyoti from Delhi. As I strode towards Gate 48; which is the last gate at the end of an endless corridor, I was accosted, in the eddying stream of passengers, by another hostess:
“Sir, have you lung your wife?”
I said: “No, I’ll call her from Delhi. I’ll miss my flight. Please.”
But the attendant insisted: “No, no, sir. Linging now: we just got another calling from Canberra. Plane wait for you.”
I was propelled in the opposite direction towards Gate No. 4. At Gate 4 I made a collect call to Canberra. Dr G had rung Jyoti and advised her: I should return from Bangkok; Delhi had become dangerous.
Airlines were cancelling flights. I reassured Jyoti if things got really bad, I’d fly back by some other airline.
I ran all the way to Gate 48.
Breathlessly I dived into TG 954 and as I slumped into seat number 31C another airline official came in with a walkie-talkie: “Dr Londan, have you nung your wife?”
I convinced him that I had, that all was well and the service on Thai International was out of this world. He left smiling. I ordered a Bloody Mary and with it gulped down a tablet Dr G had prescribed. The flight left 20 minutes late – I felt a bit guilty – keeping a whole jumbo jet waiting.
Arriving at the Indira Gandhi InternationalAairport gives me a thrill but also fills me with dread. Perhaps a bit like Mrs Gandhi herself. Thrill that I might see a familiar face waving; dread, the baggage could take up to two hours.
But, it seems, the fear of plague had made people more efficient: ten minutes at the immigration, thirty at the baggage belt and I whizzed through the green gate: nobody was keen to open even the incoming suitcases.
As I came out into the cool morning air of Delhi, there was Saeed Naqvi, standing larger than life, waiting, I suspected, more for the bottle of duty-free whisky than me.
In the evening Saeed took me to a special performance by Vilayat Khan, the 74-year old sitar maestro. I’d heard him play in the sixties.
This was, therefore, a rare privilege. As we drove to Kamini Hall, we saw a few people riding their scooters wearing white cotton masks.
The Evening News had bold, black headlines: PLAGUE DEATHS IN DELHI. Once inside the hall, the dread of Delhi disappeared.
For the next three hours we were treated to a virtuoso performance. It is then that I realised how much this is an Indian experience: plague raging outside and the magnificence of a master’s art inside, blissfully undisturbed.
We returned home after midnight – the fears of plague far from my mind; ragas haunting the dawn.
The next morning my friend VM, who was staying at the IIC, then gave us the bad news: the airlines were cancelling their flights to and from Delhi. We should fly back before Thai and Singapore airlines followed suit. Otherwise we’d be stranded for weeks. I invited VM to spend the evening at Saeed’s.
By the next morning he was convinced that India was a large ocean and some small storm in one corner doesn’t quite cause a tidal wave in Delhi; and Shimla was still further to the north, indeed farthest from Surat. We cancelled our train tickets and hired a car.
Exactly at eight the next morning, Charanjit Singh arrived in his blue Contessa. October 2 was Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday: all roads leading in and out of Delhi seemed guarded and closed. Finally at about 10.00 am we managed to cross the Jamuna river.
From Delhi to Shimla, we were told, would take about eight hours. It took us twelve.
We stopped at several places on the way: by a lakeside restaurant for lunch; for tea on the top of a hill. The beauty of the plains after the monsoon is breathtaking. An abundance of rain had greened every tree and field. There was not a dry pond and the lilies bloomed among bathing buffaloes.
The animals moved on the roads fearlessly; the truckies drove recklessly. We travelled through an antique land – places like Panipat, Kuruchetra– a palimpsest of civilisations. Having grown up on the Mahabharata, I found this journey across the real-mythical battlefields particularly moving.
So much blood and thunder, vision and lightning: the pity of poetry, the hurt of history.
I also realised that to see India one must travel by road: in a plane or a train one misses so much. We crossed three states to arrive at the fourth: Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and finally Himachal Pradesh – Shimla is its capital.
The landscape, the light, the languages, the colours and styles of people’s dresses, the sweetmeats kept changing as if in a kaleidoscope.
Finally, in the dark, we arrived at the gate of the viceregal Lodge. Nothing had prepared us for the splendour and setting of the Lodge itself. After dinner, I’d a dreamless sleep.
The next morning we saw the grandeur of the Lodge and its salubrious gardens.
My trip to Simla, it became Shimla in the late sixties, in the early sixties was a student’s escape from the heat and dust of Delhi: one simply went to a hill station.
We’d stayed in Young Women’s Christian Assocaition (YWCA), with the curiosity of tourists. This time it was different.
Postcolonialism inescapably made one conscious of history, identity and a cultural context.
The place was seeing you as much as you were seeing it.
The conference was being held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study sited in the viceregal Lodge which after independence became the Rastrapathi Nivas, the President’s summer mansion.
From the courtyard one could glimpse the awesome beauty of the western Himalayas through blue-white peaks and pines. No wonder the ancient Indians called it devbhumi, land of the gods.
The Lodge was constructed between 1884 and 1888 during the tenure of Lord Dufferin.
The building has a sombre, imperial look of Himalayan grey stone partly ivy-thatched Renaissance architecture, surrounded by gardens and tall, susurrus pines running down the valleys on every side.
The structure is three-storeys high; and the inside is radiant in timber with spacious rooms, salacious bathrooms.
The Raj really did live it up. One couldn’t imagine how such a monument could be maintained but it was, after a fashion.
After independence it became the Indian President’s residence during summer and when Dr S Radhakrishnan, the former Spalding Professor of Philosophy at Oxford, became the Republic’s President, he inaugurated the place as the Indian Institute of Advanced Study – possibly the best use to put it to: it could easily have become a white elephant or a shabby hotel.
So when the conference began we had about fifty scholars from all over India, a few from abroad, and about a score from the Institute who sat in on the discussions.
The subsequent presentations, during the next three days, through their interrogation of fiction, poetry, drama and literary theory, demonstrated that a whole new harvest of literary culture had grown beyond the shadows of the traditional, epical banyan trees.
The concerns were regional, national and international with the human and the personal never out of focus.
The multi-cultural voices, to me, were most impressive: usually one goes to a conference and one hears the sounds and rhythms of a single language.
At Shimla, for the first time for me, the polyphonic presentations made such a difference. The humanity of literature in ‘the time of plague’, the warmth of human voices in an age of critical anxiety, shone through in a variety of accents.
One wished there were more local writers reading. However, we were compensated by local singers with their folksongs and a couple of dances in which everybody joined in, much to the delight of the singers.
One song of the hills and the light in the eyes of the singer remained in my heart long after it was heard no more.