By GANESH SAILI
Somewhere in Africa they say: ‘When elephants clash, it is the grass that trembles.’ Our tug-of-war over the old Himalaya Hotel has ended. The State Bank of India has handed the building back to the owners, the Life Insurance Corporation of India, and have moved on. Wandering is a fabulous pastime, like the other day, I chanced upon the smouldering hulk of the Himalaya Hotel, crammed with memories of a grand past: a damaged white marble bench (probably the ‘spoils of war’ from Delhi or Agra) and gone missing are the cut-glass doorknobs, chandeliers and accoutrements that made this place a grand hotel.
Take for instance its historic wrought iron railings bearing the insignia VI or Victoria Imperatrix, Empress Victoria, which tell you tales of a long Elsewhere the grandeur of times seived by. dead and buried colonial past. Built in time for the Delhi Durbar, instead it ended up housing the Himalaya Bank and the building was repossessed by the Upper Bank of India, which became the Imperial Bank of India. It ran from 1921 to 1955 and then merged to become the State Bank of India. Across the length of the front counter there was a shining brass grill emblazoned with the emblem of the Bank of Upper India.
In the 1970s, a rather ambitious bank manager decided to juice up the proceedings by putting in a few more lights. Unfortunately it was so shoddily done that the wiring leaked, electrifying the railing to leave behind many shocked customers.
On New Year’s eve you would find a solid cast-iron pot-bellied stove crackling away with steam coke in the middle of the room. It chased away the chill of winter and helped kept staff and customers toasty.
In the evenings you would have found us sitting on the bank’s steps watching folks strolling past on the Mall. This lasted till another grumpy manager took umbrage to us chokra-boys hanging around there.
‘Go and pour buckets of water on the steps at closing time!’ he snapped at the chowkidar.
We retaliated with stacks of old newspapers, borrowed from the two bookshops across the road. Sadly, that did not work either. The damp rose right through the newsprint and into our seats.
Of course the damp never made it to the first floor where lies scattered the traces of its former glory: a fire fender with its brass whiplash – the sole survivor of the art nouveau that once defined the place. Robert Hawthorne’s Beacon Guide (pub: 1890) tells us that Andrew Wilson, author of ‘Abode of Snow’ wrote that the Himalaya Hotel was ‘the best hotel he had met in India.’
Walking through I see the remains of a grand piano, left behind simply because it did not fit into someone’s suitcase. That queen of musical instruments, made in Stuttgart, Germany with its stripped ivory and ebonies is a reminder that when words fail, music speaks. If only one could turn back the clock to the time when it was offloaded at Calcutta and put on a steamer; a Dak Ghari brought it to the base, Rajpur, from where it was carried up seven miles to the Himalaya Hotel by porters.
What is so special about it? you may well ask.
This is a survivor from the days when pianos in Europe were torn apart during the First World War and their wood used to shore up trenches for warfare.
Eastwards in Landour, growing up in our first floor tenement (plus an outdoor coal store) opposite the Mansaram Bank (with branches in Saharanpur, Haridwar and Dehradun) and that was as close as our family would ever come to loads of money. Over the railings I peered at those padlocked wooden-chests bringing in currency from Saharanpur. It was par for the course up until the fateful day in 1955, when the bank crashed. To this day, I can hear the resentful murmur of the menacing crowds that gathered in the narrow lane outside the bank’s padlocked doors.
Walking down the old staircase, tales of the grandeur of the Himalaya Hotel flit through the mind. One wishes the owners luck in restoring the property.
(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.)