One day a couple of decades ago, my brother rang my parents to ask where they were born, for an Army application form he was filling out. My mother responded “Dad was born in Edinburgh, and I was born in Simla”.
“Edinburgh too then?” was my brother’s response. I never quite worked out if he was joking.
Simla is, in fact, one of the former imperial hill stations in India, used by sweating Raj types to escape the heat of Delhi and it’s surrounds. As my maternal grandfather was one of those types in 1935 (being briefly with the Indian Army), my mother ended up being born there.
So, despite the fact that the Raj is (quite rightly) slipping quietly into irrelevance for an Indian nation with 60 years of far more interesting history since Independence in 1947, it felt like an obvious destination for me. My grandparents died well before I was born, and I have always been curious about their life.
Actually getting to Simla, however, was something of a trial. The only direct option through the hills from Dharamsala was a “semi-deluxe” (Government-run) overnight bus, leaving at 9.30pm and arriving at 5am the following morning. In a country where they have invented the term VVIP (Very VERY Important Person) to trump the VIPs, I had a feeling (duly confirmed) that the journey would be more “semi” than deluxe.
Nevertheless, I got there in one piece. Arriving in near-freezing temperatures at 5am, it became clear why this town must have felt a bit like a home-from-home, particularly for Scots. The ensuing stiff 200m climb in altitude to get to my hotel – where I was then given a single bar heater to head off the bitter draught coming through the paper-thin door – confirmed the initial impression. If it hadn’t been for the monkeys in the pine trees, it could have been the Highlands.
After a kip, I set out (more in hope than expectation) to see if I could find any evidence of my mother’s short-lived stay.
I quickly met a couple of dead-ends (in the state Library and the Church) before walking up the well-worn stone stairs to the Town Hall. I entered a small wood-paneled late 19th century room in a state of some disrepair. Ten official-looking Indians studiously shuffled papers. Tentatively, I declared my intention – ahem, did anyone know if they would have records for births in 1935?
It quickly became clear that the records did indeed exist, though finding them might be another matter. A kind-looking man and a bustling woman led me upstairs. I was warned that it might take “some time”. Given the horror stories about Indian bureaucracy, I prepared for a long wait.
But only minutes later they returned excitedly with a register. We found the year 1935, and turned to find May 8th (the birthday in question). April… late May… but no May 8th. My two co-investigators looked almost as disappointed as I was – until I noticed the words “Death register” at the top of the page. Oops. Back to square one.
The woman bustled away, returning a quarter of an hour even more excitedly. This time we definitely had the dusty Birth Register and eagerly turned the pages. January… February… April… And there it was:
Name: Robina Jane
Father: LGFRH Bell MC, RA [in a sign of the times, no column for mother]
Residence of father: RA Mess, Sabathur
Born: Patmore Nursing Home, Shimla
(The intense pleasure of the discovery was greatly magnified when I found that that the Date of Birth in the Register was plainly recorded as 8 April, not 8 May. The truth? No-one’s sure, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter).
My new-found genealogist friends hurried off to prepare a duplicate Birth Certificate – my mother will now have a rather natty “Government of Himachal Pradesh” one.
I sat and stared out of the astragal windows at the buildings of this strange hangover town from the Raj. It felt like I had found something I was meant to find. I have to admit that tears ran down my face as my own waters broke – it was a more emotional moment than I expected. I have heard about Simla all my life and always wondered what it was like.
The rest of my time in Shimla was equally filled with incident. I had lunch with a Tibetan Lama (Chanting Master at the local monastery who I had met on the bus, and who gave me a silk scarf for safe passage through Tibet); and had a bizarre 10km walk with a wonderful 65-year-old Indian Singer and Writer, Jaswant Hans, followed by dinner with him and his wife in their house. I felt strangely at home.
I am now in Delhi, and heading for Calcutta tomorrow. More anon.