Hill heritage Not for sale

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Hill heritage Not for sale

Sunday, 02 December 2018 | Madan lall Manchanda

Hill heritage Not for sale

Kasauli Club  — like the famous structures in other Indian hill stations — is a part of our nation’s invaluable heritage and the lived experience of its people. The very essence of Kasauli, this club must be cherished, writes Madan Lall Manchanda

In the lap of lower Himalayas, atop the Kasauli hills stands the famous Kasauli Club. It is linked by road to Barog Railway Station, which is 43 km from the Kalka-Shimla track. Considered as an unmatched engineering and architectural marvel and often called ‘British Jewel of Orient’, it consists of 103 tunnels, 800 bridges, and 900 curves. The track was opened by Lord Curzon in 1903 and since then the toy train has been chugging up and down it. It’s seen as a global benchmark as it has a railway line passing through the mountains without destroying the beauty of the hills. There is a glimmer of hope that its ‘world heritage’ tag would be saved when a UNESCO committee reviews its status.

Strangely, however, a futile attempt was made to sell off The Kasauli Club Ltd. It was foiled by Major (later Major General) Mohinder Singh Chopra who was amongst the first Indian members of the elite Club. The club was destroyed by fire in 2002, but was re-built with active participation and contribution of members and was re-inaugurated within a short span on March 27, 2005. The present structure in magnificent glory is a testament to the stellar work and spirit of the managing committee, members and the staff of the Kasauli Club. Today, guest rooms, tennis court, billiard room,  and bar have been further created. The landmark building has a striking appearance. It is a magnificent structure re-built in a style reminiscent of traditional British structures.

What distinguishes Kasauli Club from other clubs is its strict adherence to timings and observance of a strict dress code that permits no relaxation or exemption even for guests. The club has maintained its reputation for good food and drinks. The strong points of the British administration are followed in letter and spirit by this club, which is now governed by Military and Civil Officers.

The area also houses an old Christ Church which was built in stone in 1844, a military Hospital and a Research Lab. But what takes the cake is what is known as Khushwant Singh Villa. Singh  was a celebrated Indian author who has books like Train to Pakistan and Punjab, Punjabis, and Punjabiyat to his credit. His short stories like ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ are still taught to students in most of the CBSE-affiliated schools. His sharp wit and virulent comments on people and affairs gave him the title of “Not a nice man to know,” which he was rather pleased with. Singh also got appreciation for his newspaper column which was aptly titled ‘With Malice towards One and All’. The distinguished author passed away in 2014. But his legacy continues in the form of literary festivals that are held in the Kasauli Club.

Why I talk about this author at length is because of what happened when I visited the Kasauli. It was heartening to know that our host and his Mrs were close to Khushwant Singh and talked about him at length. I owe him gratitude for inviting us to spend a few days of summer months in his villa. Pine Drive Resort being too steep and uphill  a drive, our host had cautioned us and made prior arrangements for us  from Barog. The young lady in the driver’s seat was confident and took a plunge. She did well and was able to negotiate the first sharp turn of the Pine Drive Resort. We were nearing the second sharp turn when she mistakenly took the right turn instead of the left and the car reached a dead end. The road was indeed very narrow and seemed too risky for a novice to handle. Even so, she attempted to release the handbrake slowly and the vehicle gradually slid backward.

Soon, our host sent Captain Malhotra, who had expertise in driving in hilly terrains, to our rescue. When we finally reached the villa, we got a hearty welcome. But soon, we saw a group of monkeys moving in line steps away from us. “Avoid eye contact with them,” our host quickly cautioned us. Our bags were carried into our rooms. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal and went to bed, hoping to get a taste of the hill heritage the next morning.

As planned, a taxi arrived at the appointed time in the morning. I was requested to change my casual vacation wear and put on formal clothes so that I could enter the club. Since I was not carrying any formal clothes, we decided to buy new ones. We tried to buy some from Barog but couldn’t find the right size. Then, we moved to Kumarhatti, but our hopes were belied once again.

We were left with no option but to move on to the next market on the way but to no avail. Our host became a bit tense. But at last, our ordeal was over when we saw that a store that had plenty of collared shirts and trousers. As I proceeded to try them on, our host selected a belt for me. My daughter, who was observing all this, was rather amused at how specific this club was about what people wore. But, that only added to her curiosity about what made it so special. Finally, the purchase was made while our taxi waited.

As the dress code was taken care of, it facilitated our entry in the Club. Inside, near the entrance gate, we saw a typical red pillar box (post box), a relic from the British Raj days. Our host wanted to photograph me with the post box and I readily complied. We moved ahead and as I peeped through the glass window, I saw the reading room full of old and new literary treasures. We walked through the corridor leading to an open space outside. We soon reached a sprawling courtyard with three giant trees in a row. We made ourselves comfortable on the chairs kept around a tiny iron table. A crowd of people seated on the edge, blocking the view of the valley down, started moving into the hall and in a few minutes, they disappeared. Cold drinks were placed on the tiny iron table and then, delicious food was served. As I sat there, a cool breeze blew. I took a sip of my cold drink whilst enjoying the glamorous green valley. The experience reminded me of a couplet from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). It was translated from Persian into English by Edward Fitzgerald. It says:  

‘A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness — Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!’

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