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Hills, Hotels, Hiccups

Hill stations originated in the colonial desire to establish sanitoria within unfamiliar far-off lands, writes Annie Datta.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2005 18:02 IST

Hill stations originated in the colonial desire to establish sanitoria within unfamiliar far-off lands where Europeans could rest and recuperate from the heat and dust of the plains. These were little 'homes' away from home often made in memory of the mother country.

Simla (now Shimla) was one such dream concretized. Long after Independence the place, though going downhill, retains its archaic charm. Colonial ambience still hangs in the air. Shimla is not without its height or sublimity besides the joy of watching school children marching at dawn in pine-pierced air on wooded roads. It was in hill stations like Shimla that the British constructed their most elite boarding schools. Since Shimla also has an educative aspect, it is not altogether illogical to feel Shimla blues from the hill-top university ambience of Coimbra Hotels somehow evolved around the idea of hill stations beginning sometime in the nineteenth century and as a result places of great natural beauty always have one in the vicinity -- be it an old colonial structure or the once beautiful Kitchener's palace at Wildflower Hall in Shimla or the palace hotel at Chail.

A known chain of hotels evolved in this former British summer capital. We had visited one such place undergoing renovation then but retaining still a great deal of the past grandeur. Rudyard Kipling is reported to have stayed here. Such hotels still maintain a tradition, décor and courtesy. The author J G Farrell in his novel "The Hill Station" describes Simla thus: "this was only a make believe England hanging almost high enough above to escape the reality of India…" While all this was in context and had a raison d'etre, the colonial impulse continues behind today's lofty five stars that have become fortresses of opulence and luxury consumption. These are islands of prosperity or let's say the new 'cantonments' and clubs à la E M Forster ("A Passage to India"). Today the 'burra sahib' culture has fallen upon big businessmen, executives and nouveaus who frequent the high membership-fee clubs and the five stars. The way clubs evolved in the past, five stars multiply today.

The so-called 'security' in charge of a hotel in south Delhi was seen shooing away a drenched courier to a hotel guest during the monsoon season in utter disregard of his human dignity. This was reported to me by a recent visitor to Delhi. It was as if a stray animal had trespassed into the wrong entrance meant for cars and not two-wheelers. He was not supposed to barge into the uninterrupted peace of the 'sahibs' over buffet lunch in large banquet halls. The din, rush and chaos of reality are to be locked out by liveried porters in turbans and cummerbunds. Spas, health clubs and business centres keep the new colonialist narcissus puffed up and pampered. The food served here could be the old 'dhaba' food in a new rehash. A Spanish tourist, surfeited by five-star cuisine, wants to know, where, after all, has the average man's food disappeared? The make-believe world of these 'cities' within cities is where one coughs out money, and in plenty, in exchange for illusory services.

The hotel assures you a view from the window. A detached bird's eye view where treetops and neon lights hide an 'ugly' reality. Echoes of the hill station are recapitulated by exotic plants and sounds of water cascades along marble walls. Those that have come by excessive money are the new 'sahibs,' not far from their rustic backyard, that cannot bear the heat and disease of the outside. They can order their 'chana bhatura' and 'kulfi' in these sanitised and fully air-conditioned havens.

If illness has a social and moral dimension, it should include besides gossip (Farrell), gluttony and pretension - eruptions of the same 'underground plant.'

First Published: Sep 24, 2005 00:00 IST