Every March, when the rhododendrons stain the slopes crimson with their blooms, a sturdy little steam engine goes huffing and puffing through the 103 tunnels between Kalka and Simla.
This is probably the most picturesque and romantic way of approaching the hill station, although the journey by road is much quicker. But quite recently I went to Simla by a little-used route, the road from Dehradun via Nahan and Solan. It takes one first through the subtropical Siwaliks, and then after Nahan into the foothills and some beautiful and extensive pine forests, before joining the main highway near Solan. By bus it is a tedious ten-hour journey, but by car it is a picturesque ride, and there is very little traffic to contend with.
But those train journeys stand out in memory — the little restaurant at Barog, just before the train reaches Dharampur, where the roads for Sanawar and Kasauli branch off; and the gorge at Tara Devi, opening out to give the weary traveller the splendid and uplifting panorama of the city of Simla straddling the side of the mountain.
In Rudyard Kipling’s time (that is, in the 1870s and ’80s), travellers spent the night at Kalka and then covered the sixty-odd hill miles by tonga, a rugged and exhausting journey. It was especially hard on invalids who had travelled long distances to recuperate in the cool clear air of the mountains.
In his story "The Other Man" (Plain Tales from the Hills), Kipling describes the unhappy results of the tonga ride on one such visitor:
“Sitting on the back seat, very square and firm, with one hand on the awning stanchion and the wet pouring off his hat and moustache, was the Other Man — dead. The sixty-mile uphill jolt had been too much for his valve, I suppose. The tonga driver said, “This Sahib died two stages out of Solan. Therefore, I tied him with a rope, lest he should fall out by the way, and so we came to Simla. Will the Sahib give me bakshish? It,” pointing to the Other Man, “should have given one rupee.”
Today’s visitor to Simla need have no qualms about the journey by road, which is swift and painless (provided you drive carefully), but the coolies at the Simla bus stand will be found to be as, adamant as Kipling’s tonga driver in claiming their bakshish.
Simla is worth a visit at any time of the year, even during the monsoon. The monsoon season is one of the most beautiful times of the year in the Himalayas, with the mist trailing up the valleys, and the hill slopes a lush green, thick with ferns and wild flowers. The call of the kastura, or whistling thrush, can be heard in every glen, while the barbet cries insistently from the treetops.
Not far from Christ Church is the corner where a great fictional character, Lurgan Sahib, had his shop —Lurgan being the curio dealer who took the young Kim in hand and trained him as a spy. He was based on a real-life character, who had his shop here. Kipling wrote Kim a few years after he had left India. His nostalgia for India, and in particular for the hills, come through in his description of Kim’s arrival in Simla in the company of the Afghan horse-dealer, Mahbub Ali.
They led their horses below the main road into the lower Simla bazaar — “the crowded rabbit warren that climbs up from the valley to the Town Hall at an angle of forty-five!” And then together they set off “through the mysterious dusk, full of the noises of a city below the hillside and the breath of a cool wind in deodar-crowned Jakko, shouldering the stars.”
Shouldering the stars! That is how I always think of Simla — standing on the Ridge and looking up through the clear air into the vault of the heavens, where the stars seem so much nearer… And they are reflected below, in the myriad lights of the shops and houses.
For those who want a bit of history, Simla came into being at the end of the Anglo-Gurkha War (1814-16), when most of the surrounding district — captured by the Gurkhas during their invasion — was restored to various states; but the land on which Simla stands was retained by the British — “for services rendered”! Lieutenant Rose built the first house, a thatched wooden cottage, in 1819. His successor, Lieutenant Kennedy, in 1822 built a permanent house, which survived until it was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. In 1827 Lord Amherst spent several months at Kennedy House and from then on Simla grew in favour with the British. Its early history can be read in more detail in Sir Edward Buck’s Simla Past and Present, copies of which sometimes turn up in second-hand bookshops.
From 1865 until World War II, Simla was the summer capital of the Government of India. Later it served as the capital of East Punjab pending the construction of Chandigarh, and today of course it is the capital of Himachal Pradesh.
It is not, however, as a capital city that Simla attracts the visitor but as a place of lovely winding walks, magnificent views, and romantic links with the past. Compared with some of our other hill stations, it is well looked after; the streets are clean and uncluttered, the old Georgian-style buildings still stand. And the trees are more in evidence than at other hill resorts.
Simla has a special place in my affections. It was there that I went to school, and it was there that my father and I spent our happiest times together.
We stayed on Elysium Hill; took long walks to Kasumpti and around Jakko Hill; sipped milkshakes at Davico’s; saw plays at the Gaiety Theatre (happily still in existence); fed the monkeys at the temple on Jakko; picnicked in Chhota Simla. All this during the short summer break when my father (on leave from the Air Force) came up to see me. He told me stories of phantom rickshaws and enchanted forests and planted in me the seeds of my writing career. I was only ten when he died. But he had already passed on to me his love for the hills. And even after I had finished school and grown to manhood, I was to return to the hills again and again — to Simla and Mussoorie, Himachal and Garhwal — because once the mountains are in your blood, there is no escape.
A Time For All Things; by Ruskin Bond, Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
Simla beckons. I must return. And, like Kim, I will take the last bend near Summer Hill and look up and exclaim: “Ah! What a city!” “Romance brought up the nine-fifteen,” wrote Kipling and there is still romance to be found on trains and at lonely stations. Small wayside stations have always fascinated me. Manned sometimes by just one or two men, and often situated in the middle of a damp subtropical forest, or clinging to the mountainside on the way to Simla or Darjeeling, these little stations are, for me, outposts of romance, lonely symbols of the spirit that led a certain kind of pioneer to lay tracks into the remote corners of the earth.
Recently I was at such a wayside stop, on a line that went through the Terai forests near the foothills of the Himalayas. At about ten at night, the khilasi, or station watchman, lit his kerosene lamp and started walking up the track into the jungle. He was a Gujar, and his true vocation was the keeping of buffaloes, but the breaking up of his tribe had led him into this strange new occupation.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To see if the tunnel is clear,” he said.
“The Mail train comes in twenty minutes.”
So I went with him, a furlong or two along the tracks, through a deep cutting which led to the tunnel. Every night, the khilasi walked though the dark tunnel, and then stood outside to wave his lamp to the oncoming train as a signal that the track was clear. If the engine driver did not see the lamp, he stopped the train. It always slowed down near the cutting. Having inspected the tunnel, we stood outside, waiting for the train. It seemed a long time coming. There was no moon, and the dense forest seemed to be trying to crowd us into the narrow cutting. The sounds of the forest came to us on the night wind —the belling of a sambar, the cry of a fox, told us that perhaps a tiger or a leopard was on the prowl. There were strange nocturnal bird and insect sounds; and then silence.
The khilasi stood outside the tunnel, trimming his lamp, listening to the faint sounds of the jungle —sounds which only he, a Gujar who had grown up on the fringe of the forest, could identify and understand. Something made him stand very still for a few moments, peering into the darkness, and I could sense that everything was not as it should be.
“There is something in the tunnel,” he said. I could hear nothing at first; but then there came a regular sawing sound, just like the sound of someone sawing through the branch of a tree.
“Baghera!” whispered the khilasi. He had said enough to enable me to recognise the sound — that of a leopard trying to find its mate. I thought how fortunate we were that it had not been there when we walked through the tunnel. A leopard is unpredictable. But so is a khilasi.
“The train will be coming soon,” he whispered urgently, “we must drive the animal out of the tunnel, or it will be killed.” He must have sensed my astonishment, because he said, “Do not worry, sahib. I know this leopard well. We have seen each other many times. He has a weakness for stray dogs and goats, but he will not harm us.”
He gave me his small hand axe to hold, and, raising his lamp high, started walking into the tunnel, shouting at the top of his voice to try and scare away the animal. I followed close behind him.
We had gone about twenty yards into the tunnel when the light from the khilasi’s lamp fell on the leopard, who was crouching between the tracks, only about fifteen feet from us.
He was not a big leopard, but he was lithe and sinewy. Baring his teeth in a snarl, he went down on his belly, tail twitching, and I felt sure he was going to spring.
The khilasi and I both shouted together. Our voices rang and echoed through the tunnel. And the frightened leopard, uncertain of how many human beings were in there with him, turned swiftly and disappeared into the darkness.
As we returned to the tunnel entrance, the rails began to hum and we knew the train was coming. I put my hand to one of the rails and felt its tremor. And then the engine came round the bend, hissing at us, scattering sparks into the darkness, defying the jungle as it roared through the steep sides of the cutting.
It charged straight at the tunnel and into it, thundering past us like some beautiful dragon from my childhood dreams. And when it had gone the silence returned, and the forest breathed again. Only the rails still trembled with the passing of the train. As they tremble now to the passing of my own train, rushing through the night with its complement of precious humans, while somewhere at a lonely cutting in the foothills, a small thin man, who must always remain a firefly to these travelling thousands, lights up the darkness for steam engines and panthers.
And yet, for the khilasi himself, the incident I have recalled was not an adventure; it was a duty, a job of work, an everyday incident.
For me, all are significant: the lighted compartment with its farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, clerks and occasional pickpockets; and the lonely wayside stop, with its uncorrupted lamplighter.
Romance still rides the nine-fifteen.
The Kipling Road
As boys we would often trudge up from Rajpur to Mussoorie by the old bridle path, the road that used to serve the hill station in the days before the motor road was built. Before 1900, the traveller to Mussoorie took a tonga from Saharanpur to Dehradun, spent the night at a Rajpur hotel, and the following day came up the steep seven-mile path on horseback, or on foot, or in a dandy (a crude palanquin) held aloft by two sometimes four, sweating coolies.
The railway came to Dehradun in 1904, and a few years later the first motor car made it to Mussoorie, the motor road following the winding contours and hairpin bends of the old bullock-cart road. Rajpur went out of business; no one stopped there any more, the hotels became redundant, and the bridle path was seldom used except by those of us who thought it would be fun to come up on foot.
For the first two or three miles you walked in the hot sun, along a treeless path. It was only at Jharipani (at approximately 4,000ft.) that the oak forests began, providing shade and shelter. Situated on a spur of its own, was the Railways School Oakgrove, still there today, providing a boarding school education to the children of Railway personnel. My mother and her sisters came from a Railway family, and all of them studied at Oakgrove in the 1920s. So did a male cousin, who succumbed to cerebral malaria during the school term. In spite of the salubrious climate, mortality was high amongst school children. There were no cures then for typhoid, cholera, malaria, dysentery and other infectious diseases.
Above Oakgrove was Fairlawn, the palace of the Nepali royal family. There was a sentry box outside the main gate, but there was never any sentry in it, and on more than one occasion I took shelter there from the rain. Today it’s a series of cottages, one of which belongs to Outlook’s editor, Vinod Mehta, who seeks shelter there from the heat and dust of Delhi.
From Jharapani we climbed to Barlowganj, where another venerable institution, St George’s College, crowns the hilltop. Then on to Bala Hissar, once the home-in-exile of an Afghan king, and now the grounds of Wynberg-Allen, another school. In later years I was to live near this school, and it was its then principal, Rev W Biggs, who told me that the bridle path was once known as the Kipling Road.
Why was that, I asked. Had Kipling ever come up that way? Rev Biggs wasn’t sure, but he referred me to Kim, and the chapter in which Kim and the Lama leave the plains for the hills. It begins thus:
This description is accurate enough, but it is not evidence that Kipling actually came this way, and his geography becomes quite confusing in the subsequent pages — as Peter Hopkirk discovered when he visited Mussoorie a few years ago, retracing Kim’s journeys for his book Quest for Kim. Hopkirk spent some time with me in this little room where I am now writing, but we were unable to establish the exact route that Kim and the Lama took after traversing Mussoorie. Presumably they had come up the bridle path. But then? After that, Kipling becomes rather vague.
Mussoorie does not really figure in Rudyard Kipling’s prose or poetry. The Simla Hills were his beat. As a journalist he was a regular visitor to Simla, then the summer seat of the British Raj.
But last year my Swiss friend, Anilees Goel, brought me proof that Kipling had indeed visited Mussoorie. Among his unpublished papers and other effects in the Library of Congress, there exists an album of photographs, which includes two of the Charleville Hotel, Mussoorie, where he had spent the summer of 1888. On a photograph of the office he had inscribed these words:
Wutzler was the patient, long-suffering manager of this famous hotel, now the premises of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration.
A second photograph is inscribed with the caption "Quarters at the Charleville, April-July 88," and carries this verse:
Pleasant enough, but hardly great verse, and I’m not surprised that Kipling did not publish these lines.
However, we now know that he came to Mussoorie and spent some time here, and that he would have come up by the old bridle path (there was no other way except by bullock-cart on the long and tortuous cart road), and Rev Biggs and others were right in calling it the Kipling Road, although officially that was never its name.
As you climb up from Barlowganj, you pass a number of pretty cottages — May Cottage, Wakefield, Ralston Manor, Wayside Hall — and these old houses all have stories to tell, for they have stood mute witness to the comings and goings of all manner of people.
Take Ralston Manor. It was witness to an impromptu cremation, probably Mussoorie’s first European cremation, in the late 1890s. There is a small chapel in the grounds of Ralston, and the story goes that a Mr and Mrs Smallman had been living in the house, and Mr Smallman had expressed a wish to be cremated at his death. When he died, his widow decided to observe his wishes and had her servants build a funeral pyre in the garden. The cremation was well underway when someone rode by and looked in to see what was happening. The unauthorised cremation was reported to the authorities and Mrs Smallman had to answer some awkward questions.
However, she was let off with a warning (a warning not to cremate any future husbands?) and later she built the little chapel on the site of the funeral pyre — in gratitude or as penance, or as a memorial, we are not told. But the chapel is still there, and this little tale is recorded in Chowkidar (Autumn 1995), the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA).
As we move further up the road, keeping to the right, we come to Wayside Hall and Wayside Cottage, which have the advantage of an open sunny hillside and views to the north and east. I lived in the cottage for a couple of years, back in 1966-67, as a tenant of the Powell sisters who lived in the Hall.
There were three sisters, all in their seventies; they had survived their husbands. Annie, the eldest, had a son who lived abroad, Martha, the second, did not have children; Dr Simmonds, the third sister, had various adopted children who came to see her from time to time. They were God-fearing, religious folk, but not bigots; never chided me for not going to church. Annie’s teas were marvellous; snacks and savouries in abundance. They kept a beautiful garden.
“Why go to church?” I said. “Your garden is a church.”
In spring and summer it was awash with poppies, petunia, phlox, larkspur, calendula, snapdragons and other English flowers. During the monsoon, the gladioli took over, while magnificent dahlias reared up from the rich foliage. During the autumn came zinnias and marigolds and cosmos. And even during the winter months there would be geraniums and primulae blooming in the verandah.
Honeysuckle climbed the wall outside my window, filling my bedroom with its heady scent. And wisteria grew over the main gate. There was perfume in the air.
Annie herself smelt of freshly baked bread. Dr Simmonds smelt of Pears’ baby soap. Martha smelt of apples. All good smells, emanating from good people.
Although they lived on their own, without any men on the premises, they never felt threatened or insecure. Mussoorie was a safe place to live in then, and still is to a great extent — much safer than towns in the plains, where the crime rate keeps pace with the population growth.
Annie’s son, Gerald, then in his sixties, did come out to see them occasionally. He had been something of a shikari in his youth — or so he claimed — and told me he could call up a panther from the valley without any difficulty. To do this, he made a contraption out of an old packing-case, with a hole bored in the middle, then he passed a length of thick wire through the hole, and by moving the wire backwards and forward produced a sound not dissimilar to the sawing, coughing sound made by a panther during the mating season. (Incidentally, a panther and a leopard are the same animal.)
Gerry invited me to join him on a steep promontory overlooking a little stream. I did so with some trepidation. Hunting had never been my forte, and normally I preferred to go along with Ogden Nash’s dictum, “If you meet a panther, don’t anther!”
However, Gerry’s gun looked powerful enough, and I believed him when he told me he was a crack shot. I have always taken people at their word. One of my failings I suppose.
Anyway, we positioned ourselves on this ledge, and Gerry started producing panther noises with his box. His Master’s Voice would have been proud of it. Nothing happened for about twenty minutes, and I was beginning to lose patience when we were answered by the cough and grunt of what could only have been a panther. But we couldn’t see it! Gerry produced a pair of binoculars and trained them on some distant object below, which turned out to be a goat. The growling continued — and then it was just above us! The panther had made a detour and was now standing on a rock and staring down, no doubt wondering which of us was making such attractive mating calls.
Gerry swung round, raised his gun and fired. He missed by a couple of feet, and the panther bounded away, no doubt disgusted with the proceedings.
We returned to Wayside Hall, and revived ourselves with brandy and soda.
“We’ll get it next time, old chap”, said Gerry. But although we tried, the panther did not put in another appearance. Gerry’s panther call sounded genuine enough, but neither he nor I nor the panther thought that his wired box looked anything like a female panther.
(Excerpted with permissions of the Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited from A Time For All Things by Ruskin Bond.)