Stevie heads for the hills :)
'That's it! I've had enough! I can't take it anymore! NOT ONE DAY MORE!' Well they say "if you can't stand the heat then get out of the kitchen". But I'm not in a kitchen. I'm somewhere in India, 15 months into a sun-scorched jaunt around the world. This little Englishman - aka 'The Sunshine Kid' - whose near every step around this globe has been spot-lit by a ceaseless sun has finally had too much of Hot. I've been getting mild illnesses with a troubling frequency since arriving in India and my mind (largely incorrectly I know) is beginning to associate this fact with a general overheating of the system. Slow cooked for 15 months straight. A miniature meltdown.
Yep, it's time to head for the hills. Cooler climes.
The quaint little Himalayan Queen chunters across one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site mutli-tiered viaducts on route up to Simla
To Simla, the hill station summer capital of the British Raj government where the starch-collared prigs, purveyors and pride of Empire would escape each year to administer misery from on high whenever the Calcutta summer (or latterly New Delhi
) commenced to cook their lobsters. So, in a way, my own escape is in keeping with a great British tradition. And when the cool breeze runs across the platform at Kalka train station and caresses my sun-flushed cheeks I almost want to cry with relief.
It is from Kalka station that one can catch the daily run of the famous Himalayan Queen train. This iconic stretch of the vast Indian railroad network was built by the British (well by the hard sweat of Indian labour under the frowns of British engineers - ya know whatta mean) in the early 20th Century and winds its way up through the verdant Himachal Pradesh slopes for 96 kilometres threading through 102 tunnels and crossing 988 bridges over its 5 hour duration before arriving at 2,075 metres above sea level and Simla town.
It's an UNESCO World Heritage Site for its efforts and a cute little toy train of an experience to boot. It's tiny rickety carriages, banded lemon yellow and aqueous green on the exterior, rock from side to side like fishing boats on the shore when people step up on board. Inside, little room for baggage so 'stuff-stuff-stuff!'
under the blue faux-leather seats or prop on the grey wooden slatted shelves above. All smiles. All aboard. 'Toot toot!'
Off we go!
The ride is a pleasant one. I am slightly fearful that my innards won't behave and hold out. I have been a victim of recurrent 'bottom trouble' for a couple of days now. Haunting my progress north from New Delhi and through an undignified day in Chandigargh.
Bold as Brass Monkeys :) (these are the annoying and aggressive Rhesus monkeys)
But I survive embarrassment today.
By evening, now safely arrived in Simla though feeling unwell, I have my wish. The mercury falling rapidly here after sun down. Pretty quick it's brass monkeys outside. "Brass monkeys?!" you ask. I apologise. One of those British curiosities. A seemingly inexplicable and surreal turn of phrase. An abbreviation of the saying "It's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". Still none the wiser? Well actually neither was I. It's just (mostly) known, accepted and used to imply "it's f**king freezing!". And it's a phrase that rolls around my head the entire time I'm in Simla owing to its synonymity with monkeys.
The much calmer, shyer and cuter Langoor monkeys
Especially in those late evening moments when it gets so chilly my own balls are in danger of freezing off and I wonder how the poor Indian labourers whose hands construct the new concrete monsters of Simla‘s tourism development by day but huddle under no more than tarps draped over washing lines make it through the night! [ If you're curious to learn, as I was, the origins of this odd British phrase then look no further than the end of this blog. ]
Yes, monkeys are a subject and a presence one can't escape in Simla. They are everywhere running and jumping with babies clutched to chests, sleeping, eating, picking nits off of one another and - on one occasion - even fornicating in the middle of the street. And they are a problem.
'Lilliput Lane' aesthetics of the Simla Library
Officially designated an 'Urban Menace' the local authorities have been rolling out programs of entrapment, expulsion back to the forests and sterilisation since the mid-noughties (2000s) but they still seem to scamper about here in healthy numbers. Simla's chaotic slope-slanted architectural topography and the usual Indian vine-like web of overhead electrical cables the perfect environment for their clinging, swinging, leaping progresses about their territory. Bold as brass monkeys.
They have history here too. Ancient claims. The Jakhu Temple, in honour to Lord Hanuman, sat at Simla's highest point, and at the end of a long sloping path bedevilled by the often aggressive Rhesus monkeys (who will have your glasses or camera away if you're unguarded and unfortunate!) attests to the following tale :
Monkey Magic : Way, way, way back in Hindu legend a great war (subject of the Hindu epic Ramayana text) was instigated between the forces of Rama and the Demon King Ravana, ruler of Lanka (Sri Lanka now to you and I).
Cute architecture - part of the main Simla post office building
A war for Rama's honour, to rescue his wife Sita who had been tricked and kidnapped in the woods by Ravana. At some point in the war Rama's younger brother Lakshman is mortally wounded by a poisoned arrow. his only hope of survival the healing properties of a rare Himalayan flower. At this point Hanuman - general of the armies of the Monkey King, Rama's constant ally and I'm told the 12th and final incarnation of Vishnu - is despatched by Rama on a quest for said flower. Hanuman duly flies north to the Himalayan range (as only super heroes and magic monkeys can) and commences his search.
Being more of an expert in bounding oceans in a single stride and chopping demon heads off and not much of a botanist our hero soon realises he ain't got a flippin' clue which flower to pick 'and anyway picking flowers is for girlies!' He thinks to himself 'This needs a subtle Man solution' and so exclaiming 'Sod this for a game of cards!' he picks up the entire mountain (some say the entire Himalayan range!) and commences carrying it back by airmail to Lanka 'where the nancies can pick their own bloomin' flowers!' The site of the Jakhu or 'Monkey' Temple at 'Simla Monkey Point' is said to mark the place where either a sandal fell from Hanuman's foot as he flew overhead or where he stopped to rest depending on which version of the tale you hear.
Simla, as with many British era Hill Stations makes for a popular gettaway for Indian tourists equally keen to get to a cooler scene.
Either way, Simla and the monkeys have history. It would be several millennia to come before the British would arrive and plant their own Size 9s upon the hills here about.
But plant them firmly we did. Creating another British curiosity in the process. Simla. And though the wax-moustached representatives of the Raj packed their bags and left over 60 years ago, little traces of Little Britain can still be spied in details of daily life in the city.
Mornings and late afternoon Scandal Point is criss-crossed by Simla's schoolchildren on their way to and from classes. This large, sociable public meeting square turned to a busy playground at recess. The boys kick plastic bottles along in creased smart grey trousers, white shirts, blazers and jackets with school emblems stitched to left breasts.
The girls wear the latter with pleated grey skirts; their woolen socks drawn up to the knees and gloves upon hands to fend off the cold. Visions of an English public school winter. At all hours of the day their fathers and grand-fathers can be seen proudly pacing the pedestrianised streets, the latter with walking canes in hand and backs as straight as the years will permit. 'Deportment my dear!'
Creased smart trousers, woolen blazers over stiff-collared shirts and cravats. A coffee with your book at the co-operative Indian Coffee House on Mall Street essential to observe these gracefully fading Anglo-Indian vestiges of the crucible era that formed modern India chatting and laughing about life and politics and whatnot over their teas.
Traces in the architecture too.
The String Seller
Back toward Scandal Point and lining the main road between the railway station and the proud yellow glow of Christ Church (construction completed in 1857 - the year of the Indian Mutiny - and the 2nd oldest Christian church in India) still remain a good sprinkling of uniquely British, Raj era buildings. Chief amongst them the Lilliput Lane charm of the Simla Library, the Gaiety Theatre and the fabulous Town Hall with its grey slate roof, red brick chimney, lattice windows and exposed wooden beams. Various 'castle' villas or offices of former administrators can be visited too and crowning the lot - although a good stroll out of the town centre - the Scots-Baronial miniature grandeur of the former Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Its cold grey, somewhat stern (oh yes, British all right) facade offset by the warmth of its small but well maintained and colour dashed botanic gardens.
Up Into the Hills
The Viceregal lodge gardens bathed in an Indian sunshine yet cooled by a breeze that plays with the early fall leaves offers me one of the most relaxing afternoons I have had in recent memory.
For 50Rs (60p) you can join one of the regular tours (given in Hindi and English) of a few of the Lodge's principle interiors. The main hall with its beautiful unvarnished Burmese teak construction and decor. The ballroom, crown jewel of the Raj era socialite scene now turned library. In the modest main conference room, a long table with microphones running its length, large monochrome portraits of some of the modern Subcontinents architects hang. Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. Ambedkar, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Gandhi in the centre, framed above a large vase of marigolds.
Simla's narrow streets dictate their own attempt at NYC's Flat Iron Building :D
Some of these men attended the pivotal Simla Conference at the Vice Regal Lodge in June 1945. Efforts finally being made post-war to start discussions on forms of more autonomous unified governance (under British auspices) for India. The talks foundered though owing to objections on the subject of Muslim representation and Jinnah and his Muslim League's now firmly entrenched desire for a separate independent Islamic nation state to be called Pakistan.
In the next room across the way, a smaller circular varnished wood table sits. Capable of seating maybe six or so. But only two mattered. 'This we call the Partition Table' explains our guide. He relays how in a meeting between Lord Mountbatten (last Viceroy of British India) and Jawarharlal Nehru (then head of the Indian National Congress) in mid 1947 it was upon this table that the Radcliffe Line* of partition was first shown by the former to the future first Prime Minister of independent India.
‘You see the table comes apart in the middle here’
The ginger-gold of delicious sickly sweet Jalebi (best had dunked in warm milk "Yum!")
our guide points out, ‘so the table splits in two as our nation was here split in two you see.‘
Jinnah was not invited to this meeting, however both he and Nehru were present at a later meeting in New Delhi where the Line was formally agreed to - in theory - by all affected parties.
Gandhi's dream of a unified independent India having long been in tatters and his political relevance fast waning, many see his heart as cleaved in two - as his beloved nation - by the event and the cruel and violent consequences of Partition. He was not present at the Line's 'agreement'. Nor was he present in New Delhi on the night of India's independence - August 15th 1947 - to hear his political protégé Nehru's famous 'tryst with destiny' speech.
'At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.'
'Mighty Milk' :)
He would return to New Delhi only later that year to continue his struggle to assuage post-Partition inter-communal violence but meet his end - long predicted and arguably wished for by himself, his life's work done and rapidly coming undone before his eyes - at the hands of a Hindu zealot Nathuram Godse and his gun. He was 78. The nation he had helped father not yet six months old. 'Hai Ram! Hai Ram!'
Things fall apart. For me though sometimes the main interest lies in this process. Taking a look where the lines of cultures and histories begin to blur and breakdown.
Ganesha glowers in the shadows of the vegetable market
As ever in India, a myriad forms of disintegration, rather than creation, seemingly the path chosen back to its own sense of identity. The forms of India's Past fragment and crumble away to reveal the edifice of its Present-Future, but unlike the usual outcomes of this inevitable process of change; of Progress, what lies beneath looks older than what went before. Presentation giving way to necessity. 'Chaos out of order please!'
Simla therefore a nicely decorated but crumbling Christmas cake. An Anglo-Indian curiosity. Tourist icing and quaint little buildings decorating the top but giving way to something more recognisably, chaotically Indian; more nutty and fruity beneath. Just one flight of stairs down from Mall Street dropping you into the snakes and ladders bazaars that slope down the hill flank to Cart Street.
'The Old Man and the Butterfly'
Here tiny retail holdings stand uncomfortably shoulder to shoulder, treading on each others toes, trying to keep their balance and not tumble down backwards in streets often made extremely narrow as dictated by the available topography. Endless stationary shops piled high with pads and pens and text books for all those studious children in their public school blazers. Tiny electronics, hardware boutiques and haberdasheries with men and women sat in the streets before them selling plastic wears and jewelry, fruits, nuts and pulses or wanting to fix your shoes. Little tin-shack snack outfits with rickety wooden benches and tables cling to the street sides by the very tips of their fingers, hanging out over Simla's sides. Yiftach (my Israeli Simla pal) and I - returned from a pleasant walk down to the deodar Pine wooded Glen and back - have great fun squeezing into these miniscule eateries and raising Indian eye brows in so doing for our 15 Rupee (18) plates of fried noodles, glasses of sweet chai, cookies and the luminous, sticky orange scribbles of syrup saturated jalebi to be dunked in the hot milk kept boiling in pans almost as wide as the shops themselves.
'Sub Post Office'
The further you descend the greater the disintegration. Without wanting to paint too cruel an image of the 'real' town as I enjoyed it immensely, Simla almost has the feel of someone or somewhere trying to retain its exterior deportment whilst its spine starts to give way and rotting over time from the bottom up. Just like the Empire once arguably did. Here the old British era buildings - their splintered wooden window frames and ceramic tiles of English roses and Hindu gods alike - are mere empty carapaces of their former selves. The fronts broken or removed to create dingy open market stall spaces where Indian men sit (or often slumber) beneath their marigold-strung puja posters waiting to sell off their large grubby mountains of vegetables.
Waiters at the fabulously old fashioned and charismatic Indian Coffee (Cooperative) House
Darker recesses yet, with no lights but odours of fish and meat markets within. Not for me. I am still unwell and have no stomach for fly-blown viscera right now.
Back up top, surveying it all - this hybrid scene - as if still taking stock of what had passed and what has come to be in his absence, we're back in the company of our friend Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as he strides, frozen in time, a golden statue sat at the eastern end of Scandal Point. Indira stands regal to the north, her famous 'Bride of Frankenstein' black and white hair tamed to a uniform statuary grey. It is she who holds the suns kind attentions the longest as it dips lower to the west. My far distant first glimpses of the hills and Himalayan ranges fading to a dusky purple opacity behind her.
The Scots-baronial grandeur of the former Viceregal Lodge (now Indian Institute of Advance Studies)
A crisp two-thirds moon continues to rise above Christ Church. Monkeys clamber up God's house chasing the last of the warm light. The floor of the square has now turned into a curious forest of shadows stretched long upon a sheet of dull gold tarmac, the sun causing trees many tens of metres long to bloom and stretch forth towards Gandhi from our toes. The tallest I will ever be! I shiver a little and blow my nose. It'll be getting cold soon. It really is brass monkeys up here.
[ Notes :
"Cold enough to freeze the balls off/ from a brass monkey" : A phrase of naval/ military origins. Back in the days of wooden Men of War ships and cannon warfare the large triangles or hoops of brass that were used to hold the lower layer of a cannonball pyramid in place on deck were called 'Brass Monkeys'.
'Rebellion' - a large crowd gather for labour rights protest.
Named either after the Monkey Brass Company of their manufacture or after the small destitute deck boys - the only ones small enough to scurry through the tiny below deck galleries to replenish the gunpowder magazines and named 'powder monkeys' for their troubles. When the temperatures dropped low enough, brass contracting quicker than other metals under such conditions, the Brass Monkeys would shrink, causing the pile of cannonballs to roll off of them. Hence “freezing the balls from a Brass Monkey”.
* The 'Radcliffe Line' so named after Sir Cyril Radcliffe the British administrator called out at phenomenally short notice by Lord Mountbatten to chair the two Boundary Commissions that would research and craft the line that would form the future border between the newly formed nations of independent India and Pakistan.
Radcliffe was given hopelessly little time and ample amounts of pressure to aid his task. Pressure from the British Government, committed by legislature to a swift exit now. A fixed date. Pressure from the Indian leaders as keen as the British, keener of course to conclude the fact of British rule in the subcontinent. Nehru champing at the bit to get into the history books as the first Prime Minister of an Independent India. Jinnah champing at the bit to get into the history books as first President of an independent Pakistan and only too aware of his secret failing battles against Tuberculosis and Lung Cancer that would claim him just one year after his nation's birth. So Radcliffe had just five weeks to look at a land area of 175,000 square miles (450,000 square kilometres) and propose a line of division that would serve with the best possible parity the demographic, social, cultural, historical and practical rights, claims and demands of all affected parties.
The lovely Raj era Simla Town Hall in its rather curious after dark neon garb :)
A thankless and impossible task with inevitable, tragic and far reaching consequences. ]