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.
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.
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.