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Memories in the mist

Sometimes the very slimness of a book attracts. While there are times that one loves the feel of several tomes on the bedside table, each read to a stage marked by a bookmark cut carefully from some old greeting card, there are days when one wants th e journey from cover to cover to be swift. It is in such a mood that I pick up what is not even quite a book. It is Monograph no.18, put together in 1935 by one Mr. H.L.O. Garrett, the Keeper of the Records of the Government of the Punjab, bless him. Its title “The Punjab a Hundred Years Ago” is fetching, particularly since Old Man Time, with his relentless assiduity has piled on 70 more since Garrett made his effort.

Different sensibility

The monograph contains the translated journals of two foreigners who travelled through Ranjit Singh’s Punjab in the first half of the 19th century — Victor Jacquemont and Prince Alexis Soltykoff. Following in the footsteps of George Forster, Malcolm, the political agents Murray and Wade, Moorcroft, Emily Eden and several others, these two contributed a different sensibility.

Jacquemont was a young French aristocrat and naturalist on mission from the Natural History Museum of Paris to explore the Himalayan region, one of his delectable tasks being a search for roses. He travelled from Calcutta to Delhi via Benaras and Agra, then to Simla and the Simla Hill States right up to Tibet and then finally through Punjab and Kashmir. His journal, written in 1831, has ample evidence of his trained scientific mind and careful observation.

Soltykoff, a Russian artist from a distinguished family, came 10 years later sketchbook in hand, in search of exotic colour. He too covered Delhi, Simla and the surrounding hills and Punjab. The scientist met a keen and curious Maharaja Ranjit Singh at his zenith, who bombarded him with a hundred questions on politics, Bonaparte, science, medicine, God… The artist, known for his paintings of Sikh chieftains on elephants in motion, reached Lahore after the old Lion had passed on and the violent and bloody unravelling of his empire had begun. But of all that, some other time…

For the moment, this damp and misty morning finds me with the monograph on a relatively unspoilt hillside 20 km away from Simla. A massive cloud is flirting with the ridge on which stands Wildflower Hall, the one-time summer retreat of Lord Kitchener. The mist with the shadowy imprints of the deodhars and pines creates a sense of timelessness and it is easy to imagine the Simla of the early days when Jacquemont came here. Having been set up only in 1815, the frontier outpost on the edge of Ranjit Singh’s empire was quickly becoming popular with military and civil officers of the Company, though it would be another 35 years when it would become the administrative summer capital of the Raj.

The Frenchman spent a year among the summer houses, drinking champagne and frolicking with dancing girls. “Isn’t it strange,” he said “to be dine in silk stockings in such a place, to drink a bottle of Rhine wine and another of champagne every evening?”

He died, let us recall, of liver failure at the age of 32 but not before he had managed to introduce the stately deodhar to Europe. By the time Soltykoff came along in 1842 to “this delightful mountainous spot, covered with forests, rhododendrons, pines (of which there are 16 or 17 varieties), firs and a kind of green oak,” the station had expanded to house about 50 English gentlemen, 100 ladies and “children in abundance” who passed the summers there to “avoid more or less certain death in the plains”.

Though there was still no club or hotel, there was a general store “where one can get anything” which serviced the several houses “scattered among the trees, on the edges of precipices and on the peaks of mountains.”

Soltykoff took a large house for the season for 600 rupees, stocked it with beer and claret (not being able to stand the local favourite brandy-pani) and hired 20 Indian servants, including a cook who, like any rest house chowkidar, cooked “plainly but well.” Regular milk supply was ensured by keeping six goats.

Life in the hills

Soltykoff roamed the hills on one of his three horses or in a carrying chair called jampan, his “almost naked” porters having been provided with uniforms. He spent six months painting portraits, reading Don Juan and visi ting ladies whom he had come to know in Delhi or Agra and even attending a ball “given on the occasion of the defeat of the Afghans, and the release of all the prisoners, the capture of Nankin, and peace with China.”

He seems to have been least perturbed by 100-strong groups of grey langurs laying siege to his house regularly in search of strawberries and raspberries in the garden and shows more emotion when expressing his distaste of mangoes, which reminded him of turpentine!

He had some harrowing adventures in the inner Himalayas and was glad to reach the plains from where he could admire the hills as a “soft lilac outline seen against the rosy dawn.”

In the end, the artist much preferred the plains where he found “grace and beauty for which one needs a hundred eyes and a hundred hands, to see all and paint all….”

Wondering how long we would take to spoil this mountainside too, like we have the Simla of Jacquemont and Soltykoff, I put away the slim monograph.

The cloud has rolled down from the ridge, taking the entire hillside and valley in its embrace. It spreads its thin and wispy fingers through my open windows and comes in like a familiar neighbour. And the wind chimes begin their dance.


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