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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Farrukh Dhondy in Dalhousie

This is what Frarukh has been up to the last couple of weeks (courtesy Asian Age)
Plainspeak On Hills
Jun 26th, 2010 -- Farrukh Dhondy
"Underneath the lamplight
She stood those tortured hours
Waiting for the ones who knew
She wasn’t selling flowers.”
From Bictorian Bull
by Bachchoo
I am in Dalhousie, a settlement on five hill in the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by the Punjab where all roads seem to lead. I have lost my way twice walking down and up the mountain roads of this beautiful natural spot, a colonial town, entirely now Punjabised, if that’s a word, a suburb of Delhi with hill folk thrown in.
I am the guest of a friend and his family and, very grateful for his sumptuous hospitality meet the elite of the hill resort at his lunch and dinner parties and am courteously included when his guests reciprocate with invitations for a drink, a barbecue or dinner. Most of the people I meet during this short sojourn, which I am using to finish some pieces of sustained writing, discuss the weather — here, on the plains and in London, talk about literature, international and national, discuss their pastimes of golf, tennis and their keep-fit regimen, talk international politics assessing Barack Obama and the almost new coalition government of the UK’s David Cameron with acute analysis and even committed concern, a contrast to the annoyance and disgust which they profess for the latest news of the tactics of the Bharatiya Janata Party to get their nominees into the Rajya Sabha or the antics of the Shiv Sena in calling a strike of rickshaw and taxi firms and drivers.
These are international people who can discuss the shopping, art and wines of Europe and, perhaps with greater familiarity, the prices and promises of America.
There are local topics of course — the access to the Internet, the flexibility of civic supplies and, interminably, how much their houses have acquired the trappings of modernity — the constructed cutting that makes it possible for the 4x4 to drive to the front door of the house, the storage tank for water that defies all shortage of supply, the annexe which can be rented out as a summer getaway.
I encounter these gentle folk, people I have inevitably already met, as I take an evening walk, a necessary ritual of being here.
The town was named after the Viceroy of India who introduced the infamous “Doctrine of Lapse” whereby Indian Kings without heirs would cede their territories to the British East India Company.(cf. Many books and films including Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players). In London I met a direct descendant of this reviled Viceroy who told me that his illustrious or infamous ancestor had never been to the place and didn’t in fact found the resort. It was named after his departure from India or even from this mortal dispensation. It somewhat surprises me that no politician of Himachal Pradesh, a relatively new and presumably possessively inclined state has sought to rename the town. After all, “Bombay” and “Madras” despite not being Hastingspur or Curzonabad had to go. Compared to Dalhousie, their names were in the scheme of things inoffensively neutral. (Indians pronounce the name as “Del-How-Zee” even though the British retain the Scottish pronunciation for the name: “Del-hoo-zee”, though in my brief sojourn I haven’t seen any itinerant Scotsmen here).
The people I do pass on the beautiful mountain walks are either those I have met at the lunch parties taking their pre-prandial exercise, middle-class Punjabi families waving holiday sticks and moving noisily along or gangs up from the plains for a break in the hotels clustered around the armpit of the hills know as the town centre. I also pass, every hundred yards, the servants of the “barabecue-Tandooratti” crowd walking the family dogs and then at larger intervals, coming out from paths in the lower hill or descending from the “pug-dandis” of the upper slopes, the hill peasantry who live in the shanties of the town or in the ramshackle constructions of the villages which one can see dotted about the distant deep and wooded valleys.
As one passes these socially distinct individuals or groups, or they overtake you in their determination to keep the tandoori calories in check, we greet each other. It’s always a “hi”, “hello”, “good evening” or even an English exchange about the weather, the wonderful view or the sighting of a langoor, the black and white fluffy monkeys of these parts. Walking though is a serious business it makes impatient and brief encounters, the political niceties are left to the encounter at the dinner party under the stars.
The local taxis, white personnel carrier vans for the most part, driven by brazen horn-blowers and packed with the non-home-owning or non-bungalow-renting type of tourist, twist at high speed around the mountain curves, treat the hair-pinned roads as though they were Ludhiana streets and drive close enough to walkers to drive them off the cliffs.
If the local holiday-makers, the ones you haven’t met at the cocktail pass you on foot, you might smile and say a “namaste”, in recognition of being the only humans at least five minutes from civilisation. The isolation of the hills breeds a bonhomie. You may get a “namaste” in return or, more usually, a stone-faced denial of your existence.
With the people of the hills, the natives of Himachal, sons of the soil of the state, one doesn’t even attempt a “namaste”. They wouldn’t understand. Dalhousie and, I suspect, the other ex-colonial hill towns of India, are divided worlds. At least two.
They originated as such. The houses which today are Indianised still have old colonial names. There is Snowdon, the house now dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore which was once the object of Welsh nostalgia. Then there is the oddly named “Param-Dham Norwood” with its oxymoronic dedication to the Vedas and a south London district.
The vestigial nomenclature of the Raj mixing in with modern India is the least of it. Dalhousie, providing a resort for the upper classes of the plains, some of them citizens of the international sphere and providing subsistence, if that, for those who don’t deign to greet you on your walks, doesn’t strike one as a reproduction of colonial India. It is more accurately the terracing of modern India.
Away from Dalhousie, a long way in economic and political complexion, the disparity has led to militant despair. What is so plain in this Himalayan resort is true on a much greater scale of any town in India. The difference is only that in, say, Mumbai the vast disparities are part of the productive terrain. Dalhousie is a resort to which people come leaving the causes and capitalistic justifications for the disparity behind.

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