Great India Drive

Memories of Simla goes back to British India

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Memories of Simla goes back to British India

Monday, 16 September 2019 | PNS/Dr Gaurav Sanjay/Dr BKS Sanjay

The capital of Himachal Pradesh which lies on the foothills of the Himalayas was created by the British because they could not bear the heat and dust of the Indian summers. In1863 Lord Lawrence, the Viceroy, decided that Simla would be the summer capital of the Raj. And thus every year the entire Government would shift from Calcutta to Simla.

Later when New Delhi was  built,  the Government would continue to move to Simla to get away from the scorching summer. Simla became in fact a carbon copy of England built in India. With Indian independence and the Partition, Simla became the capital of the Indian Punjab. This meant that many educated and professional Hindus and Sikhs from Lahore relocated to Simla in large numbers. Hence Lahore's cultural loss became Simla's gain. In Simla, I befriended Som Parkash Ranchan, nicknamed 'Larry', who like me was born in Lahore in the same year (1932). We met almost every day in the coffee house on the Mall which had become a club for politicians, poets and painters. I belonged to the last batch of students who passed out with a Cambridge school certificate from St. Edward's and, incidentally, during the same time that Ruskin Bond was at Bishop Cotton School. The prolific Ranchan wrote Bonding With Bond, an analysis of Bond's  work, and my contribution was the title.

In school a couple of years junior to me were Hamid Ansari and Kanwarpal Singh Gill. The former joined the Foreign Service, was India's ambassador in many countries, and later became Vice President; the latter became India's 'Top Cop' though he continued to write poetry in English and Urdu. In fact Gill, Ranchan and I used to go on long rambles discussing literature and reciting our verses to each other.

Suggestions were made on how lines could be improved and how metaphors and images might be sharpened. These were rewarding poetry workshops in which we argued about the weight of words and the colour of the syllables. When Ranchan and I published a selection of our poems titled The Splintered Mirror in London the book was well received in Britain and India.

The preface was written by Humayun Kabir who was India's Minister of Culture. Here are quotes from Kabir: 'In this book of poems the authors have retained in their writing some of the peculiar flavour of India. They have youth and sensitivity and sometimes they have found an image that is shot with beauty and have coined a phrase that lingers in the memory' and 'I hope they will continue to write, for the activity is itself a pleasure and nowhere is it so true as in art that it is better to travel than arrive'.

Nina Singha also from Lahore was a well known academic who held court in the coffee house. Her daughter Rina was a pupil of the Kathak guru Shambu Maharaj. Many of us, and especially Ranchan, were encouraged by Nina Singha. Ranchan got a Fulbright scholarship and left for the States where he became a professor of English. He then came back to Simla and was appointed head of the English department at Himachal Pradesh University.

And there was Professor Sud, another  Lahori, who directed plays at the historic Gaiety Theatre where Bollywood's Prem Chopra first tread the boards. Mona Singha (Kalpana Kartik) was a student at St. Bede's College and married Dev Anand. Vera Sunder Singh (Priya Rajvansh) was also at St. Bede's and I often acted with her at the Gaiety before she went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She returned to India and partnered Chetan Anand, Dev Anand's elder brother, for many years. Another friend of mine was Inder Kher who migrated to Canada and became a professor of English at Calgary University. The Maths professor Madan Sharma was  popular because apart from being an Urdu poet he was a leading ice skater.

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