Reading at the Viceregal Lodge of the Raj

Summer residence of the Viceroy during the British Raj now serves as the scholars’ abode in its new avatar

By Krishnakumar S

Around the majestic Victorian building of the British Viceroy’s summer residence at Shimla, betwixt deodar trees are interspersed some of the saplings planted long back by the Earl of Landsdowne in the 1880s. With clouds floating around, in the last days of June, Shimla was bracing for the spell of monsoon.

The site at Shimla which hosted the Viceregal residence during the summers now hosts some scholars from all over India. As I browse through some of the documents relating to the partition of the sub-continent in the same building which was witness to those heated debates of partition, I get a quick sense of the importance which this place has had during the noon of British empire.

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The name of British architect Henry Irwin who was commissioned to construct this architectural masterpiece in the hilly terrain of Shimla is etched on the building. It still stands visible having withstood all the swings of weather and climate change over these years. As has the architect’s name, so has the grandeur of the building.

As we walk past the building appreciating its elegance, giving us company are the monkeys and langurs who seem to be living in peace with the people around. The little baby monkeys and their tantrums are a sight of delight. Occasional skirmishes with the animals in an otherwise peaceful place is not unheard of either.

The Viceroy’s office and its paraphernalia over the years have taken a different form. The fire station of the past hosts a cafeteria, the postman’s residence hosts a research professor.

The offices of the old building host researchers during their office hours and the old dining table and dancing hall hosts a great library rich in its collection crisscrossing disciplines.

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These more than century old trees: wild tulips, silver oaks and chinars have been witness to the political rumblings in India, in particular, watching the lone ranger Gandhi caught between his colleagues in the Congress discussing issues of partition with the Muslim League leaders.

The sub-continent which fought the British together making khadi and salt as symbols of struggle parted ways on the way to independence.

These trees were witness to the Viceroy’s summer residence making a brief transition as the summer residence of the President of India. These trees were already eighty years old when the Viceregal Lodge took its current avatar as the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) —strikingly similar in name to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton — thanks to the vision of President S. Radhakrishnan of transforming it into a research centre in 1965.

Through the photographs in the gallery, I saw Rajkumari Amrit Kaur receiving Mahatma Gandhi, discovered that the tall statesman and the effortlessly gregarious Jawaharlal Nehru were far smaller in height to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Also the photos of leaders of the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah with Viceroy Lord Wavell.

Atop the building we find the Viceroy’s bedroom and the tutor’s room where their kids were taught. The views from those windows are as picturesque as ever. You can see all of Shimla from those windows: the valleys, the curve roads up, Himachal University and the churches and temples across Shimla.

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The drawing room of the Viceroy is now a conference hall decorated with the photographs of Vivekananda and Aurobindo, Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu.

The building which used to oversee imperial control over the colony is now witness to resident scholars working on themes as diverse as Bengal Famine, marginalized voices from Gujarati literature, biographies of dalit writers, China’s belt and road Initiative and monotone mappings.

The walk around the IIAS takes you to Summer Hill which has the Himachal Pradesh University. It’s simply beautiful to watch clouds wading.

And, if a big downpour comes, you can see nature at its best from atop the Kamadhenu cafeteria at HPU. And, further to Boileauganj which gives you all the fruits, sweets, momos, walking sticks, cakes and snacks of Himachal.

And, further back exhausted, we end up at the Verma Cafe which gives us paranthas and buns laced with or without butter, and tea or coffee as an accompaniment, at affordable rates, highly symbolic of the hospitality of the Himachalis.

Went to mend my chappals at a cobbler’s place at Powerhouse and trapped by his marketing skills ended up buying a pair of shoes. He got an elderly man in his eighties to vouch for his shoes.

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Sure that he has not read Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logos,’ but he literally ended up saying a lot on those lines. Read a writeup in The Tribune about the beauty of the long waiting for letters in the long lost years, and ended up writing letters to people back in Trivandrum (yes with pen and paper, it works).

Wrote and scanned a pdf of one of the same to my cousin in Singapore greeting him on his 50th birthday. Little did I know that I was doing all this when India Post had completed over 150 years of its service.

Yes, beat the sweltering heat of Delhi and had a cool time cocooned in the IIAS, reading from Hemingway to Keynes and on the monetary battles at the Fed Reserve and the Reserve Bank of India.

Loved listening to the presentations on Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the dalit uprising on Gujarat, writings on Ananda Coomaraswamy and biographies of the challenged. Had to miss out on the rich sessions at the Shimla Literary Fest.

Woke up on some of those days far too early in the morning to be witness to the old customary practice of the hoisting of the national flag.

Over these years, though it is done single handedly by one person without the paraphernalia of the past. Time has been witness to the Union Jack giving way to the tricolour.

As I take leave from the place, I can hear the commentary about the building and its history by two highly enthusiastic persons who have been in this task for the last two decades.

Read: Shimla,the Raj & Bharat: Raising the Indian tricolour at the Viceregal Lodge made me realise the true meaning of Bharat Parv (August 21, 2019)

The apple juice centre boasts of accepting only cashless payments. The gardener extends an invitation to me to come again to see the magnolias, fuchsias, tulips and primrose bloom.

Even as the beeline of crowds to the building continues far into the wee hours, the lone elderly photographer with his camera finds far too low demand for his clicks.

As travellers from all over bask in their world of selfies, those trees are also witness to the cameraman and his share of agony which he hides behind his sweet smile.

(Krishnakumar S teaches economics at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. He was recently at IIAS on a fellowship)

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