Our family arrived in Delhi in 1941, a new discovery of India as we journeyed from the sea to the mountains, for our first stop was in Simla where we came via Delhi on the Kalka Mail. We arrived in Simla in May 1941.
Shimla or Simla (as the British called it) was one of the many hill stations that the British built on higher elevations, where they could move during the “hot weather’ to escape the heat in the plains. For a while Murree (now in Pakistan) was the summer capital until Simla was chosen as closer and easier of access from Delhi. Most government offices, and many businesses moved to Simla in May until September each year.
Built on the forested slopes of Shimla, which at that time was inhabited by only a few locals around the ancient Jhaku temple, – it soon boasted many “pucca” homes of British officers built in the Elizabethan style, followed by many “summer palaces” of Maharajas, among them were the homes of the maharajas of Patiala, Kapurthala and Mandi.
The house that my father had rented for us was in Kaithu and with the unlikely British name of Balmoral Cottage. It was the property of Malik Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana, an imposing name for an imposing man with a turban topped with an audacious starched plume, – fashionable, and a sure sign of his status, for the Tiwana Jat family of wealthy landlords, were politically powerful in the Punjab. His father had been honorary aide-de-camp to King George V and King George VI, so the name Balmoral cottage was named after the Royal castle, except that this Balmoral was a ‘cottage’, not a castle, a modest two storied house on the slopes of Kaithu hill. The upper floor had an entrance from a road branching from the main road, and the lower flat could be reached from a driveway down a steep slope; two separate flats with separate roads leading to them. We lived on the upper flat.
My first view of the Himalayas from my bedroom window early one morning as dawn broke on the distant peaks frosted with snow, remains a vivid memory. We had covered the length of the country from the sea to the Himalayas, I thought with awe. Geography became more than an interesting study in maps and books. It was a real experience of the diversity of the country, a journey through landscapes that were no more dry facts in books, but the changing kaleidoscope of sea, plains plateau and mountains, forests and fields of grain, fruit orchards, and wide rivers. The deodar forests were new places to discover on our walks, beautiful pine cones were collected, wild strawberries we found were much tastier than store-bought ones. New friends were made with ponies and their owners and the distant villages were explored on horseback.
Our education was an abiding concern, my father’s transfers were invariably at an inconvenient time. We had arrived in Simla in the middle of the school year. Most of the children of my father’s colleagues in Government attended Loreto convent but considering the short time we would be in Simla before moving to Delhi, it was decided that we would study with a private tutor.
Miss Meakin, our tutor, lived in a small attractive cottage on Circular Road a long distance from where we lived. But my parents were persuaded that she would give us the same personal care and attention that we had received from Miss Delcourt in Madras. We learnt later that she was from the Meakin family of the Dyer-Meakin Brewery in Solan, near Simla. Meakin bought the brewery from Dyer, and manufactured Lion Beer which was very popular with the thirsty British. After Independence the Dyer-Meakin brewery was bought by MM Mohan, and the re-named Mohan Meakin Brewery sold beer with the label Golden Eagle.
Miss Meakin was however a sober middle-aged woman, with whom one would never associate Lion Beer! She had an attractive smile and a quiet but firm manner of making us work at our reading and writing skills. I remember her most for her love of nature and the time she took to introduce us to plants and flowers in her garden, their names, answered questions on why the leaves of the Virginia creeper turned red in the autumn. For a long time I saved pressed flowers and leaves in a special book I had for the purpose. I also saved a book of drawings I had done for a lesson on Red Indians, their headdress of feathers, their wigwam and tomahawk. It was a very colonial education, but it stimulated a child’s curiosity in many people and places of the world.
It was a long walk from Miss Meakin’s cottage to our home in Kaithu, along the Mall, past Loreto Convent School down a steep slope to Kaithu. Sometimes, we had the luxury of a pony ride to school, but the trips to schools were always full of interesting things to see on the way. If we felt thirsty, we had been advised to stop at the chemist Bliss and Cotton, on the Mall, and they would give us distilled water to drink. Bliss and Cotton, like many businesses in New Delhi’s Connaught place, had branches in Simla where they found their Delhi customers during the summer months. The manager, a Tamil, who my parents had got to know in Delhi, always greeted us with a friendly smile. Sometimes as a special treat we would stop for an icecream at Davico’s.
When most of the Government offices moved to Simla for the summer there were many of my parents’ friends, civil servants in government service, and their families, who lived in Simla for the duration of the summer. Some of them stayed in suites of rooms in Cecil Hotel, many of the children attended Loreto Convent. I sometimes envied them because they were going to a “real school” and not a private tutor like me. But when we met and played together in the evenings I often heard from them that they had few friends in school. There was an unspoken barrier between the British and the Indian students. At lunch and recess in Loreto convent the Indian girls sat separately in groups to eat their lunch. There were few lasting friendships from that school, I am told even today by my contemporaries, who were with us in Simla. Our stay in Simla seemed to end all too soon, and we traveled down to Delhi, at the end of the summer of ’41.
The British Government in Delhi did not move to Simla the following year which was marked by unrest. With the failure of the Cripps’ mission in July 1942 the Independence movement picked up momentum. The Quit India movement in August 1942 followed the Congress Working Committee resolution demanding complete independence, and calling for a countrywide nonviolent movement to press this demand.
When we returned to Delhi we stayed in a rented house on Prithviraj Road. It was a quiet road, shaded by neem trees, and very little traffic, except for an occasional tonga or car. There were twin houses, 25A and 25B, mirror images of one another. Our house 25A, was at the corner of two roads, Prithviraj Road and Aurangzeb Lane. There was a small patch of lawn in front but on the side there was a fair-sized patch of lawn where we had room to play and where we learned to ride our bicycles.
One morning as we rode our bicycles around the lawn we saw a man walking down the empty road, followed by a dog. In his arms he carried a new born puppy. We stopped to pat the dog and asked the man what he would do with the puppy. He said he would give it away. We were charmed by the little helpless creature whose eyes were barely open. We ran inside and persuaded mother to let us keep the puppy. After some bargaining we acquired our first pet for the magnificent sum of two rupees.
That was year 1941 when the film Sikander with leading actors Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi was screened and won popular acclaim. We went to see the film and for a long time hummed its tunes. Prithviraj was our hero for many years after that, and as members of his fan club we named our first pet Sikander.
Sikander was our friend and companion for fifteen years, a mixed breed with some unmistakable Dalmatian spots but not much to distinguish him except an excellent temperament, love of runs and chases, and an endearing habit of cocking his head to listen, and when we admonished him, his eyes showed that he understood that he had not been “a good boy”. When asked by our visitors what breed he was, my father, with his quiet humour, said he was a Pie-dog, a pun on our surname Pai.