SILLOO MEHTA

A nostalgic trip to the Simla of the early 1900s.

Simla during the Raj was an enchanting place. As the summer capital, it was kept spotless and beautiful. The rulers fled Delhi’s searing heat for Simla’s cool bracing air, fragrant pine walks, roaring fires and comfortable tweeds. Everywhere, there were flowers; along the roads and in the gardens.

Another world

It felt like a different world. Liveried rickshaws bowled along an elegant Mall and elegant equestriennes snootily trotted past. Warmly-clad ayahs wheeled pink and white babies and the hill people, though bent under heavy loads, seemed as cheerful as the visitors.

Tea dances at Davicos were the “in” place for meeting friends and seldom was a table vacant. Their “mille feuilles” were legendary and rarely has a cake been so justly renowned. The English amateur dramatic club presented the usual lightweight comedies with heavy play on cockney and north country accents, which sent the British audiences into hysterics but left the sprinkling of Indians cold.

Into this rarefied atmosphere landed my husband, my three-year-old son and myself on a snowy March evening in 1943. Our destination was Grand Hotel, which had been taken over by the government for the duration of the War.

Frozen to the bone by the unaccustomed cold and yet thrilled by the first sight of snow, my initial impression of Simla was unforgettable – to become positively indelible by events in the next few hours. Warmed by a fire and hot tea, our expectations of a relaxing bath were shattered by the warning that the dining room would close in an hour. Leaving hasty instructions with the ayah regarding baby’s bath and ordering his supper, my husband and I left for dinner.

Well-fed and beaming, we returned to our floor. Something unusual seemed to be going on. My heart sank; it was centred at out door. The ayah was chattering wildly in Goanese and appeared to be keeping a horde of enraged servants at bay. Her sari was damp, hair wet and bedraggled and she was shivering. Seeing us, she burst into tears. “I don’t know why all these men are shouting at me. I only went for a bath after putting baby to sleep and they started banging on the door.”

All unknowing, she had sparked a catastrophe of the first magnitude. After bathing the baby, the temptation of washing herself in all that hot water had proved irresistible. “I know you wouldn’t like me to use the tub; so I filled it, squatted outside and had a lovely long head bath.” She must have been enjoying herself too much to notice that there was no outlet for the dirty water and it was rising in a steady flood all around her. It was seeping into the bedroom and soaking the rugs. It was also dripping through the wooden floor into the suite below where, unfortunately, a choleric English colonel was dressing for dinner.

Wrath of the empire

Imagine a hefty, ruddy colonel luxuriating in an enormous tub, cheroot in one hand and scotch in the other, happily reviewing the pretty young chicks he would bowl over that night. Then incredibly, the first drip from the ceiling, then a shower of dirty water – the bellow of outrage turning into a roar of fury. A succession of underlings ran a path to our door. The bearer shouted that the Colonel Saheb’s bath water was ruined. The orderly raged that his immaculate dress clothes were stained beyond repair. I forget what sundry others said. The whole wrath of Empire was concentrated on poor ayah’s head and thus indirectly on us.

Well, we got busy mopping up. It was long past midnight before the last puddle had been squeezed out. In the meantime, the cold became colder and the damp room damper. We dragged ourselves to bed at last, not caring if we ever had a bath again. The only consolation was the baby slept through it all.

The writer (aged 91) is a freelance contributor to national newspapers and magazines. E-mail: silloo.mehta@yahoo.co.in