Wednesday, 04 March 2015

My father's own Indian Summers

As Julie Walters stars in a new drama about Raj-era Simla, Elspeth A Grindlay recalls her father’s extraordinary years in Britain’s colourful Indian summer capital

Written by Elspeth A Grindlay
My father arrived in this world when horse-drawn carriages still rattled along cobbled streets and left it having seen men walk on the moon. Even though I’ve now lived more than half my life without him, I still think of my father with huge affection every day, no more so than, a few weeks ago, when I settled down to watch Indian Summers, Channel 4’s drama set in Britain’s former Indian summer capital, Simla.

WarShimla-Mar06-02-590Julie Walters in Channel 4's Indian Summers

My father, Alan Philip Young, was born in Ayr on 18 August 1910 and like so many of his generation, his life would be changed forever by the Second World War. In September 1940, his career as a Classics teacher was put on hold and, in June 1941, only three months after marrying my mother, he set sail for India – his ultimate destination, Burma. The following year, however, fate intervened and he was transferred to the 6th Rajputana Rifles and posted to Simla to serve with the Military Secretary’s Branch at the General Headquarters of the Army in India. In 1944, he was promoted to the rank of major and appointed Deputy Assistant Military Secretary – his outstanding administrative skills were recognised with an MBE in the 1946 New Year’s Honours list.

After my father died, I came across a folder containing speeches, letters and documents pertaining to his time in India, a place Mark Twain called ‘the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds’, an opinion my father obviously shared. What follows is his own description of the gruelling journey to Simla and some of the adventures he had there during the final days of the British Raj:

'It was at Deolali that I had my first real experience of the monsoon. Months of drought and sunshine gave way, first of all, to a few scattered showers and then, in the middle of June, the heavens opened and an almost solid sheet of rain came down. We settled down to weeks of continuous rain but, fortunately, in August, before the rains were over, I had been posted to Simla – the old summer capital of India.

Having previously experienced the horrors of travelling by troop train, this time we crossed India on a train with padded seats, comparatively comfortable bunks, airy compartments cooled by electric fans and good food. Dirty the train still was, though, and once again it was made worse by the inevitable invasion of armies of sweepers who, brandishing their brooms, jumped aboard at every stop, managing to send the dust flying everywhere except outside the door!

One particularly amusing incident comes to mind. The train was packed and there was absolutely no possibility that the enormous crowd waiting on the platform at one small wayside halt could be accommodated. However, despite the best efforts of the railway police, as soon as the train stopped, there was a wild surge forward. Suspecting a political demonstration, I must confess I was, at first, rather alarmed – until I realised that the crowd was in good humour.

WarShimla-Mar06-04-590Left: The long and winding road to Simla, and right: Alan Philip Young, shortly after his arrival in India

Then, all of a sudden, one bold spirit broke through the police cordon and hurled himself headlong through the open window of the adjoining compartment amidst the cheers of everyone on the platform. However, a moment later, accompanied by screams of rage, he shot straight back out again much quicker than he’d gone in. The unfortunate man had picked on a ‘Ladies Only’ compartment – the ladies, whose privacy he had invaded, proved to be a far more formidable obstacle than the police!

With its great arched viaducts spanning chasms and more than 100 tunnels bored into the mountains, the Kalka-Simla Railway, which would take us on the final stage of our journey to Simla, through the rugged terrain of the foothills of the Himalayas, is a prime example of the skill and ingenuity of British engineering. The narrow-gauge railway was commissioned by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, who having made the arduous journey by road, decided that a railway would make Simla more easily and comfortably accessible. Work began in 1899 and was completed four years later, having cost double the original estimate.

The line was always fairly busy with passenger traffic, especially in the summer months when the governments of India and the Punjab moved up to Simla to escape the blistering heat of the plains. Throughout the year, it handled a considerable amount of goods traffic, including timber, fruit, potatoes and the general supplies needed by the various towns and villages on the route.

After leaving Kalka, we wound our way laboriously up the richly wooded mountainside, twisting and turning in bewildering fashion past breathtakingly beautiful scenery and yawning valleys dropping sheer from the edge of the railway track. In all, we crossed more than 800 bridges, viaducts and culverts and negotiated more than 900 curves and it was sometimes possible to look out and see the rear carriages crossing a bridge that the front of the train had traversed a short time before. Although I was to travel this route many times, I never lost my sense of awe at the majesty of nature.

My first trip was not without incident. The track had been blocked by a landslide and so we had to get out, make our way with difficulty over the mass of greasy yellow mud, board a train waiting on the other side and then wait until the mail and baggage had been manhandled across. Delayed there for several hours, we had breakfast followed almost immediately by lunch. When we finally arrived in Simla that evening, it was raining heavily, the visibility limited to a few feet by what at first sight looked like mist, but which turned out to be clouds scudding past our faces. After my ordeal, I was glad to stagger into a rickshaw and make for the nearest hotel.

However, the next morning showed Simla in a whole new light, as the driving rain had abated and I was able to appreciate the beauty of the town’s situation. Perched on a spur of the foothills of the Himalayas, the bazaar and houses clung precariously to the sides of the slope on a series of terraces. The only flat piece of land was Annandale, the former site of the town’s racecourse, which was used as a sports ground.

So high did Simla lie, some 2,075 metres above sea level, that it was not uncommon to find oneself looking down on the clouds gathered in the valley below. The sight was especially breathtaking in the early evening, when the tops of the clouds were tinged with shades of pink and saffron from the rays of the setting sun, looking for all the world like candyfloss. Unfortunately, so quickly did the sun set in the east that this amazing spectacle only ever lasted for a few minutes.

Like Rome, Simla was built on seven hills, and my home for the next 18 months was Craig Dhu, situated on a commanding position on the Elysium Hill. The house, which dated back to 1882 and was one of the best-built and most meticulously finished buildings in Simla, had three owners before the Indian government took it over as a residence for members of the Governor-General’s Council. In 1916, Craig Dhu was converted into a hostel for officers and, when an additional block was added at a cost of 300,000 rupees, there was accommodation for 18 married and 25 single officers.

WarShimla-Mar06-05-590Left to right: Craig Dhu, a hostel for officers, and the Kalka-Simla Railway

GHQ, my place of work, was also located on the Elysium Hill, which was so steep that, although literally only a stone’s throw from Craig Dhu, it took me about a quarter of an hour to walk down the winding paths cut out of the hill and, of course, much longer to come back. Practically every trip, no matter how short, involved a bit of mountaineering and the road was especially dangerous in winter, when there was frost and snow on the ground but, at any time of the year, the walk up was a killer so thin was the air.’

NEXT WEEK Don’t miss part two of Alan Philip Young’s fascinating account of his time in Simla and discover why the arrival of a telegram would ‘send him hastening to the station on the sweetest vigil of all time’.

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