Thursday, October 18, 2007


The morning is bright, cloudless. On the way out to Kufri, a quick detour to Bemloe below the Clarke’s is a disappointment. In September, the stone-walled, slate-roofed cottage of memory would be filled with the sweet smell of Shimla’s own Golden Delicious apples, fresh harvest from the orchards of Chail. Evenings were spent watching the sun go down in flames behind the western ridge, striking sparks from distant windows, lying like lava upon streaks of evening cloud. Now the roof is a bilious green and the walls have been painted red. A fence shuts off the valley view from the sunset seat. The flower beds where gladiolii nodded amidst the verbania are now bare except for some apologetic marigolds.

You can never go home again.

Calcutta and Delhi may harp on memories of the times when they were the centres of Empire. In truth, for more than half that time India – and a greater India than we know now, stretching from Rangoon to Peshawar – was ruled from Shimla. The most tangible reminder now dreams in the sun amidst its manicured lawns.

Lord Dufferin in 1888 was the first occupant of the Viceregal Lodge. The building is imposing but, frankly, lacks harmony or a coherent design. The sobriety of stone and slate and the awareness of history save it from being ranked as Irvine’s Folly (Henry Irvine of the PWD was the main architect). For 17 years after independence, the building was a country home for the President, until Dr. Radhakrishnan turned it into the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 1965. Its current status as home and work-place for up to 50 scholars means that most parts are off-limits to visitors and photography is banned inside. The interiors are still worth a visit to see the table where the Govt. order of Partition was signed, or to admire the strangely Oriental carvings on the three-storey wood-panelled atrium. A walk round the grounds is also rewarding, especially for those who can make the mental leap to Shropshire and Blandings Castle. One can almost imagine Lord Em and MacAllister facing off on the gravel path that leads to the far garden …

Through the tunnel, Sanjauli is a traffic nightmare. The road inches tiredly past shabby tea-shops, past the bus-stand at Dhalli and the dirty workshops, opening suddenly onto a vista of terraced fields and farmhouses small in the distance.

The choice was between some time soaking in the view from Wildflower Hall, or a visit to the autumn orchards of Chail. Some of the orchards have day passes, where visitors can eat all the fruit they want. And, presumably, repent in a haze of acidity afterwards. The Himalayan vista seemed by far the better option.

At the last fork before Kufri, a brick-paved driveway leads up through an ornate gate. Wildflower Hall. As the car groans up, the horizon flowers with snow-capped peaks. Immediately, the air seems fresher, cooler. The building itself is ugly as a barracks, somehow reminiscent of a Nazi schloss, perhaps out of Where Eagles Dare. Alighting in a stone-walled portico beside a lawn so green it looks Photo-Shopped. Once through a slightly out-of-place revolving door, shoes squeak upon super-polished parquet floors, through the lobby, through the sun-washed morning room, to the terrace.

Words are not adequate.

Little red flowers line the parapet, framing the vistas beyond. On two sides pine forests, dark even in the brilliant sunshine, brood upon the songs of unseen multitudes of cicadas. In front of the terrace, layer upon layer of shaggy hills climb from green to blue towards the cloud-fringed horizon. But not all the white is cloud. On the edge of the sky, the Bandar Poonch range shoulders through the tumulus in its snow-streaked September mantle. Two eagles drift overhead; there must be a nest nearby. Say within twenty miles. Conversations slow, fade, die amid the cicada-lined silence.

Peace comes dropping slow.


Malavika said...

Ahhh..Wildflower Hall. Was there last September, for too short a time. The terrace is fantabulous. Especially if there are paneer pakodas within arms' reach.
Mala (delurking)

Revealed said...

Doesn't peace swoop? Always thought of it more as a swooper than a dropper.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Mala, druther mushroom omelette than paneer pakoras. Delurk all the way, please?

Revealed, check out Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree


Cynic in Wonderland said...

verr nice!

Cynic in Wonderland said...

lake isle of innisfree..oh man ..i used to have that tagged on to my softboard and look at it whenever things got too stuffy at work..if i couldnt go there, at least i could dream about it.. the most beautifully written lyrical lines...'for peace comes dropping slow" ..after nearly a decade and a half of learning this, i remember each word of this

Anil P said...

Agreed, words not adequate!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Cynic, Anil, thanks for dropping by. You're among the very few who don't find idylls f***ing boring - bless you!