India Diary – Part Four

The narrow gauge toy train staggered slowly up the steep slopes, up and up – almost 8000 feet up, towards the old summer capital of the British in India – Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas – the final leg of my journey through India.

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The Viceroys of India lived here; the Lords Amherst, Auckland, Curzon, Dalhousie, Mountbatten. Curzon built his famous golf course on a hilltop and named his daughter after it – Naldehra. The Freedom Treaty was signed here. M.M. Kaye who wrote The Far Pavilions was born here. The Afghan President studied here. And the Dalai Lama was visiting when we arrived from Delhi.

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The University of Himachal Pradesh hosted this stage of my research journey. The campus on Summerhill is approached through thick forest and winding roads. Monkeys swing from pine and deodar trees and rhododendrons spill down the hillside. Students and lecturers walk busily up and down the steep slopes and everyone smiles – it would be hard to be immune to the remote beauty of this place. On a tour of the gothic Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (formerly the Viceregal Lodge) it was easy to imagine liveried servants carrying tea and cucumber sandwiches up the curve of carpeted staircase to men wearing monocles and medals.
The colonial burden is felt here deeply – it is evident in the formality of University business, where the Dalai Lama is invited to bless graduating students; in the Tudor buildings that rise from its hilltops; in the naming of those buildings – Gorton Castle, Wildflower Cottage, the Town Hall on The Mall. Yet there is a fresh patriotism here, dissent and challenge in the voices that murmur in the hallways, subversion of the colonial stereotype in the choice of literature and research, of what it means to be Indian.

The academics at the University are clearly in this for the passion of their calling. They teach 20-30 classes six days a week and manage a cohort of 10-20 postgraduate students each. Somehow they found time for me. Nothing was too much trouble. I presented on a topic of my choice (Re-inventing Home) and ran a workshop on Creative Writing. Dr Pankaj Singh, Chair of the Centre for Australian and New Zealand Studies is now on my list of the top ten inspirational women of all time. She and her team are the most dedicated and nurturing teachers I have met in a long time.

And on a personal note, this is where my research made sense. For the past 4 years, I’ve been writing and re-writing my novel endlessly, with no idea how it was going to finish. On a cold sleety morning in Shimla, with snow on the Himalayas just visible over the ridge, I knew.

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24 responses to “India Diary – Part Four

  1. Lakshmi Khubchandani

    Beautifully expressed Rashida, Feel so priveleged to be your friend. Am so glad you have found your inspiration to the final chapters of your novel. Can’t wait to read it and boast again about my very talented friend. Hope to meet you soon. Lots of love Lucky

    Date: Mon, 26 May 2014 05:36:54 +0000 To: lkhubchandani@hotmail.com

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  2. Loved this entry Rashida, especially the way you have ended it – makes you eager for the next instalment. You have such an expressive way of bringing things to life and, having travelled around India more than once, I find your blog very authentic. Much love, Louise

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  3. Thanks Lucky, the feeling is mutual 🙂 the writing though is still a struggle. Knowing and doing are two different things!

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  4. glen phillips

    Hi Rashida,

    Fabulous stuff!

    Glen

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  5. I love shimla, it’s such a magical place. I write a post recently about the Cecil Oberoi. I really want to go back there and write 🙂

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  6. Endings can’t be wrestled into being. Yours had to find you. I am looking forward to reading it. Beautiful post, Rashida. 🙂

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  7. Wow, to be in the same room as the Dalai Lama! What a presence he has! I’m ashamed to admit that although I’ve read a few fiction books about the British in India, I don’t know a lot about its colonial history. I imagine it’s much like the colonial history in every other country the British wanted—they just colonised with little thought to those already there. You’ve made me want to read more about it … I’m so glad you’ve found an ending to your story—it’s amazing how it just comes to you, and then you wonder why you didn’t think of it before because, of course, it has to end that way.

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    • Yes, Louise, it was amazing to breathe the same air! He is wonderful and gentle. Shimla is quite unique in British Indian history and has retained that colonial character in a way that other towns didn’t. And yes, the end – ah- just need to write all the bits before!

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  8. This is a beautiful episode Rashida. I really enjoy your writing – delicate economy, just the right balance of restraint and precision.

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  9. Yes, beautiful Rashida…you write with such poise …and I agree Amanda, it is always difficult to allow the end.

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    • Thank you Kim. Even though I did trust the process, it was hard to know if trust was enough, and at least I have a sense of an ending now, to borrow the title of the excellent book by Julian Barnes!

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  10. You have the (sense of an) ending! Little dance of jubilant glee on your behalf going on here! How wonderful, and worth the waiting – and the going. Your description of the high country and the ‘high’ born is wonderful (as always), clearly imparting the depth of history and the freshness of belonging/not belonging – at various levels and regarding various peoples. I’ve not been to India, but your photos make me want to go, immediately 🙂

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  11. Thanks Karen for everything, including dance of joy! Shimla was beautiful and I’m only just beginning to realise how special. We can go together!

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  12. a writing retreat! why don’t we plot ‘n plan some such thing!

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  13. You took me with you – again, Rashida. Thank you for sharing your gentle touch… can’t wait to read the whole.

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  14. Thank you Sue. Hoping the essay that supports the novel will be deeper now for the experience of visiting and knowing. xx

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