Tuesday 19 March 2019

Shimla – Not Quite What It Seems

On a cold, wet public holiday in February, Shimla, the former summer capital of the British Raj reveals itself only slowly to the visitor.  It is worth the effort.

The first place to open its doors was the Indian Coffee House on the splendidly named Mall.  This tarmac street is less impressive than it sounds. Nevertheless, it was on this road that British India paraded itself and gossiped at Scandal Point.  The place where the daughter of the Viceroy eloped with a Maharajah in 1892.  The Indian Coffee House is one of a chain of nationalised coffee houses set up by the newly independent Indian government in 1947.  Inside white-uniformed and turbaned waiters serve coffee (no chai) and food from a menu that reads much the same as it did in 1947.  The mostly male clientele still practise the art of Adda, lively conversation and argument.  We, the few tourists to venture inside, were ignored though we shared a table with two cheerful Buddhist monks.

Coming out of the Coffee House, we were close to the Gaiety Theatre.  Built in 1887, it is a charming small theatre and remains in use today.  It is home to the Amateur Dramatic Club of Shimla (known as the ADC) established 50 years before the theatre itself in 1837.  It is well worth taking the tour and historical talk.  The theatre is very grand for its size. It even has a Vice-Regal Box. 

Upstairs there is a selection of production photographs.  The titles of the plays include The Merry Merchant of Venice and The Adventure of Lady Ursala, suggesting to me that the productions were not all that serious. I imagined they were full of in-jokes and innuendo. I even thought that the ADC might be a hotbed of flirting and more.  In rather an odd way, I found some support for my imaginings.

At Shimla’s railway station, waiting for the Himalayan Queen (The Toy Train) to takes us the sixty miles down to Kalka in just five hours, I bought some postcards at the small shop.  The shopkeeper silently pushed a small book in front of me. One glance and I bought it.  It was “Simla in Ragtime” by DOZ.  (Minerva Publishers, 150 rupees (£1.70)).  The anonymous author writes as an American.  It is a slightly naughty, gossipy commentary on life in Shimla in 1913 thinly disguised as a guidebook.  By the standards of the time, it is racy. Of the ADC, he says, ‘No professional company has any chance in Simla, as the local amateurs will not hire out the theatre. The fact is they cannot, because they are always rehearsing and changing the cast and eternally squabbling for leading parts.’ I do not know where else you can find the book but do not visit Shimla without buying it.

From Scandal Point, there is a ramp up to the Ridge, Shimla’s highest point with fine views of the mountains.  Behind Christ Church, we stopped at the Book CafĂ©. The chai and the cakes are good but there is something special about it.  The Himachal Pradesh prison department set it up.  It is run by long-term inmates.  It also runs as a lending library, so if you go there, please take a book to donate.  They will insist that you write your name in the book.  Then settle down with a borrowed book and chai served by a mild looking man who may be a murderer.

Walking back, I encountered a group of young men with a banner, shouting abuse about Pakistan.  A few days before, in Kashmir, a suicide bomber had killed forty-one Indian Border Guards.  In India, it was widely thought that the Pakistani army was behind it and people were angry. I went to talk to them.  They explained their anger.  I asked for a photograph.  Immediately, they forgot their cause to turn and pose with grins and those two fingered selfie salutes. Then they turned and continued their yelling.

Sometimes you have to dig a bit to find what a town has to tell you.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Recommended Guide, Delhi

I can confidently recommend Surekha Narain for Heritage Walks in Delhi.  She gave us a terrific tour of Chandni Chowk.  See my post below.

A Day in Old Delhi

We emerged from New Delhi’s 21st Century metro at Chandni Chowk station and put our watches back three and a half centuries to Shah Jahan’s great seventh city of Delhi – Shajahanabad. But our watches were still wrong; time does strange things in Old Delhi.

Chandni Chowk, the main street that gives its name to the old city, was originally built as a canal to reflect moonlight and that is what its name means.  It is hardly that today. Work is underway to pedestrianise it.

Looking up, I could see the upper floors of the great havelis, mansions built by courtiers and rich merchants in the seventeenth century. The women of these houses, kept in purdah, could talk to each other and spread gossip from window to window across the narrow streets.

Havelis look inward. A narrow doorway or dark staircase revealed nothing about what lay within.   Work was going on to restore it. Later, we paused for chai at a haveli now converted into a boutique hotel (Haveli Dharampura - http://www.havelidharampura.com).
Surekha, our excellent guide, led us through just such an entrance and we quickly found ourselves in the sunlit courtyard of a broken down haveli.

At street level, we might have been in Tudor London. Small shops, workshops and factories have taken over the front ground floors of the ancient houses. The street that had once been the Bhagirath Palace was now a street of electricians.  I concede that old London would not have had a street of electricians and in Chandni Chowk, the electrical shops sell cheap, gaudy, Chinese LEDs.  I told you that time does strange things in Old Delhi. There were streets of jewellers and silversmiths, where delicate silver ornaments, finely worked, were sold by weight. A delicate silver sculpture of basil leaves cost us about £6.

We walked on. A slight widening of a narrow street gave room to splendid gentlemen who tucked the instruments of their calling into crimson turbans. Their customers stood quietly, heads cocked to one side as the turbaned practitioners chose exactly the right instrument to clean their ears. The customers were about to hear more clearly the motorbike horns, bells and the yells of hawkers in the busy street.

The motorbikes were yet another 21st century intrusion into Old Delhi. Their riders drove them expertly between handcarts, cycle trishaws and nonchalant pedestrians.

It was hungry work, walking the alleys and streets.  Our wonderful guide, Surekha, was alert to our noses twitching at the smell of some new delicacy.  Lentil pancakes, sweet puddings of thickened milk with spices and Kulfi ice cream gave us precious moments of rest and refreshment.

Even before we turned the corner, we knew that we were approaching the spice market.  There were also sellers of nuts and dried fruits sold either in bulk or as pretty house decorations.  Our fruit, not and mango stone decoration now hangs in our kitchen with a clear instruction that it is not to be eaten.  Not only were their bowls of lemons decorated with green chillies for sale, people had also hung them up outside houses to ward off evil. 

Not every street was quite so aromatic and delicate. From the front room, open to the street, of a small house came the rhythmic clank and thump of a sheet metal press.  We were in the street of iron and metalworkers where proper ironmongers still presided over man caves of pots, pans, tools and fixings. A man could spend an hour in such shop imagining himself a craftsman.  Copper gleamed from shops selling plumbing. 
On a smaller scale, teams of men squatted in workshops making office ring binders.  You know the finger hole in the back of a ring binder?  Well one man punched the hole and the next fixed the metal ring with three taps of a hammer on an anvil.  He made about five a minute, every minute of a long day.  He did it yesterday and will do it tomorrow, perhaps every day for the rest of his life.  He must be paid a small proportion of the pennies that the ring binder sells for.  At this level, India is a penny economy and yet the high-rise buildings of modern, booming New Delhi can be seen from here.

A modern Delhi person might ask why we tourists insist on spending our time in a tiny, outdated and poor part of Delhi, while ignoring prosperous, booming and modern New Delhi.  They have a point but visitors to London do not come to gaze at Canary Wharf but the Tower of London and the Changing of the Guard.  All modern cities resemble each other.  A bar or modern coffee shop in New Delhi will be much the same as in Tokyo or Hackney.  What we tourists want to see is what is different and, perhaps, soon to be lost. The street of wedding dresses and fabrics, fabulously coloured and bejewelled was where Old and New Delhi came together.  Modern, young Delhi women, in jeans and tee shirts, sat cross-legged in tiny shops while the sellers flung down swag after swag of red wedding dress fabrics that would do a Bollywood film proud.  Only Chandni Chowk can give a modern Delhi bride the look she wants on her wedding day.

Adrienne’s purchase in such a shop was more modest, she blew about £1.20 on a chunky necklace made out of wood shavings.  Nothing goes to waste.

I have not mentioned the names of the streets. There were no signs though some businesses showed their address.  Few of those matched anything I  had on a map of Old Delhi.  I can identify where we went in to Shahjahanabad and where we came out but everything in between will always be a mystery.  As the crow flies, we had covered about two miles but we must have walked six.

The metro, like a time machine, brought us back to our hotel and 2019.

Our guide was Surekha Narain, Website

Friday 8 March 2019

Falling Over Myself to Make Friends at the Golden Temple of Amritsar

I went down like a struck skittle. The Golden Temple at Amritsar is a wonderful and fascinating place; don’t let my story put you off.

In the rain, its shiny marble floors are slippery. One step off the mats, my feet went out from under me and I was down on my left side and in pain.

I sat for a few minutes until I reckoned my hip was not broken - always a danger at my age. A thought kept going through my mind, ‘Poor old chap, he was never the same after that fall of his.’

I decided to find a place to sit out the rest of the tour.  The place I chose was among a group of people who had fallen on hard times.  I was the object of some curiosity in this group and soon made friends.  Immediately to my right was a man, whose name was Chooky, which sounded unlikely. Chooky had little to say but, for the next forty minutes, gazed intently at me from a range of about eighteen inches.

To my left was Amar. Do you know Amar? His people farm just north of Amritsar. Amar and I quickly became good friends. He had worked, as had I, in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.  He had earned good money there in construction.  We soon got chatting about these great cities’

Singapore good.’

‘KL good.’

Singapore very good.’

And so our repartee continued for about ten minutes until we both felt that we were beginning to run out of things to say to each other.

Just then, a tourist walked past and stopped to talk to us. He was a Sikh from Vancouver where he was in finance. In his 5th Avenue casual wear, he had obviously done well for himself. I introduced him to Chooky but they did not seem to have a lot in common.  Neither Amar nor I knew whether Vancouver could be described as good though we had heard excellent reports.

Our visitor moved on.

Amar and I parted company, the best of friends. Chooky looked thoughtful

I should add that I soon recovered from my fall.