The Summer Capital of British India by Raaja Bhasin is an opus, beginning with the defeat of the Gurkha army, the entry of the British initially in the lower hills, leading to the ‘discovery’ of Simla, then a village, and the unfolding of history from there on.
They found Simla’s salubrious climate and environment suited to their bodies and memories and, hence, made this hill station the summer capital of India. As a matter of fact, it was the ‘actual’ capital, as they practically spent eight months — from March to October — in the cool of this new-found administrative centre.
In this revised edition of the book first published in 1992, Bhasin unscrolls the grand narrative of the cavalcade of viceroys and the socio-cultural life that sprang around them. The presentation is both historic and anecdotal. The writing and insight don’t let the reader’s interest flag, which is a great achievement.
The narrative moves through the 200 years of the Raj and culminates in Independence and the beginning of the ensuing epoch with Gandhi and Nehru, who have a compelling and memorable anecdotal presence, at its centre.
A multi-layered, grand chronicling gives variety to the book. It’s rich in subaltern, mimetic record of travellers, codgers, grass-widows and charpoy cobras, and we also read about the ‘bed-breakfast’ variety of British wives who had fun in Simla’s gay life while their husbands toiled in the sweltering heat of the plains.
The book presents full-blown portraits of senior British officials like Curzon, Kitchener and Dalhousie and their consorts. Then there are thumbnailed sketches of the adventurers and tales of legendary travellers, explorers of the hinterland, freedom fighters (with all their oddities), Praja Mandalists, philanthropists and visionaries who contributed in blazing a new trail in areas like health, education and horticulture.
Incidentally, there is an edifying vignette of Samuel Stokes who revolutionised Himachal Pradesh’s economy with his pioneering orchard-ist zeal. But thanks to the politics, while history has almost forgotten him, his tinpot politicians are well remembered.
The book, though a major statement in modern history, reads like a novel. It excels in characterisation, narration and is replete with anecdotal diversity, which does not go haywire.
Simla is chock-full of reflections on the empire’s disconnect with India — rulers trying to run their greatest colony from their Shangrilas and Camelots; the native rajas and ranas aping their ‘masters’ and setting up luxurious abodes with the intention to bedazzle the ‘natives’ and ‘desis’ who led tradition-bound lives.
One can read this book as a story which is rich and many-sided. One can read it for the wealth and variety of characters, both major and minor. It can also be read for its theme, reflectivity, insight and even for its stylistics and resonances.
Though, one must ideally put together its multi-dimensionality to both enjoy it and learn from it, one can even use it to analyse the British Raj from new perspectives.