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I sit on the balcony of the Grand View Hotel in Dalhousie and stare down at one of the most beautiful vistas in the world. Unfortunately, I cannot see a thing. It was raining when I arrived and the hotel is still covered in mist. There is a knock on the door.
“You’re bread and butter pudding, Sir! Cook made it especially for you.” In this forgotten hill station in North West India, forgotten, that is, not by Indians but by Europeans, there are compensations.
“And there is a Tombola and Music Evening tonight, Sir, in the third-floor games room from 7.30-10.30. You will be most welcome.” I promise I will try and make it. The Grand View Hotel may not, at the moment, have any grand views but it is certainly trying hard. There are over 40 hotels in this town of a few thousand people high up in the Himalayan hills so competition is fierce, not for tourists from abroad – there aren’t any – but for visitors and honeymooners from the rest of India.
They come for the same reason that hill-towns in India were originally built by the British Raj, as summer retreats from the heat of the plains. The Raj may have long gone but many of the hill-towns in the Himalayas have managed to reinvent themselves as desirable destinations for Western tourists. Dharmsala has the Dalai Lama; Manali its ski slopes; Simla its own Toy Train. Dalhousie, though, the friendliest of them all, is stuck out on its own, in the remote Chumba valley near the Pakistan border, its charms virtually unknown in the West. I was the only European in town.
The rain stops but the mist remains. I borrow an umbrella and walk down to Subhash Chowk, one of Dalhousie’s two main squares. It is a typically North Indian concoction of schoolchildren, rickshaws, impossibly crowded buses, white Tata cars, Tibetan refugees and animals vying for space. In this town which sprawls over five hills, the animals which wander around freely are not sacred cows but monkeys, dozens of monkeys. I don’t remember the monkeys. What I do remember is the bread and butter pudding.
It was forty two years ago. Frazzled from a month and a half on the Overland to India trail, I stopped off here on my way to Kashmir for a day’s recuperation. I ended up staying a week. There wasn’t much to do – there still isn’t – but Dalhousie grew on me. For fifty rupees a night (50p) I rented a room in a tenement with a wooden bed, a cold tap and a balcony with a view, a glorious view. Looking down, I could see pine-covered valleys thousands of feet below dotted with small towns, rivers and undulating hills. Looking up, I could make out the peaks of the spectacular Dhauladhar range of mountains better known as the Outer Himalayas. I was 19 years old and it was the best of times to be in Dalhousie, early summer with white temple magnolias and yellow cobra lilies dotted all around town.
This time it is deep autumn and the flowers have long gone. I take one of the pedestrian walkways that connect Subhash Chowk with the other town square, Ghandi Chowk, perched on a separate hill a mile and a half away. The tenement I stayed in has long disappeared but the bench I used to sit on at the end of each day remains complete with its faded inscription: “Here you can admire the sunset”. Well, maybe not this evening.
A couple of hundred yards further, I walk past several grand villas adorned with ornamental gates and name tags. One identifies a top civil servant from the Punjab, another a Delhi judge and another a university professor from the Indian state we are in, Himalchal Pradesh. In the decades since I was here, Dalhousie has clearly become a desirable retirement home for the Northern Indian elite who have taken over the houses and bungalows built for the English who stayed on. In 1973, I met one of those who did, a widow originally from the Home Counties who had spent most of her life here. She invited me in for tea and, over a pot of Earl Grey and two helpings of bread and butter pudding, told me her tales of the Raj. I reminded her, she said, of her grand-nephew in Worcester.
She was in her late 70s then so she must be long dead now. In Ghandi Chowk, I wander around the grounds of St. Francis Church to see if I can find her grave. St. Francis is one of two Anglican churches in Dalhousie and dates from 1875 but is now thoroughly Indianised. The illustrated bible open for everyone to read is not in English but in Hindi. Next to the bible-stand, however, is a notice in English, exhorting people to “write down your prayer and offer it here.” One request asks for “happiness, prosperity, success and wealth for everyone. Thank you in advance.” I add one of my own pleading for the rain to go away.
In the evening, I meet a couple of computer programmers from Gujarat, the only other people in the small hotel bar. Like many middle-class Indians I talk to on this trip, they seem uninterested in Britain. What they want to know is what I think of the New India. Over a couple of glasses of 100 Pipers, a whisky made in Scotland but bottled in India, I string together a few adjectives (“ambitious, materialistic, noisy, exciting”) which seem to please them, and then head for the Tombola & Music Night not knowing what to expect.
There are 50 people here already, children, adults, grandparents, all sitting appreciatively in rows of chairs and listening to a DJ spinning tracks straight out of a Mumbai club. In front of him, is a white-haired woman with ponytail, glasses and a megaphone who is clearly in charge. “Now who’s going to volunteer for the next dance?” she cajoles in perfect English even though everybody apart from me is Indian. Onto the floor marches a precocious eight year old who then performs an acrobatic series of moves that owe something to Bollywood but more to Michael Jackson. “Give him a great cheer”, demands the woman on the megaphone, “he didn’t falter once”. The youngster gives a shy grin and we all clap while his mother dressed in a spectacular red and white sari stands up and cheers for several minutes. “Anyone else got the courage of this young fellow to come up and have a go?” I make my excuses and leave.
Back on the balcony of my room, the mist has cleared and the mountains, hills and valleys have finally revealed themselves. Or at least they would have, if it wasn’t now completely dark. Instead, I pick out a series of lights across the landscape, some a few thousand feet below, others miles in the distance. With a glass of Indian whiskey in my hand I watch for hours before drifting off to sleep. The grand view can wait until tomorrow.