At a height of 1,938m, giddy tourists gratify themselves by boating on the lake, riding the ropeway trolley and shopping on Mall Road. That’s Nainital, the hill station in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region, 330km north of Delhi. The sensitive traveller goes back with memories of smog and crowd, trash and traffic, tipplers and honeymooners.
Most of Nainital is as scarred as other north Indian hill stations, like Shimla or Mussoorie. Mall Road, the principal promenade, is littered with plastic packets. The hill slopes are pockmarked with hotels. The mossy rocks are painted with ads. The tree branches are entwined with electric cables. Throughout the day, the hills echo with the sound of honking cars.
Old, pristine Nainital is preserved largely in people’s memories; only the residue of that fabled past is there to see. “When I was growing up in Nainital in the 1960s,” says Delhi-based author Namita Gokhale, “it was a place of innocence and privilege.”
For centuries, the lake was held sacred by the hill people, but it was the British, homesick for England’s cool climes, who built the first bungalows. As schools and shops came up in the colonial era, Nainital became the commercial and Anglicized heart of Kumaon, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was also the summer capital of British India’s United Provinces. Muhammad Ali Jinnah went to Nainital for his honeymoon.
After independence, the town came to be known more for its boarding schools. Students came from as far as Myanmar, Thailand and Africa. In the 1950s, three future Bollywood stars were studying in Nainital: Danny Denzongpa at Birla Vidyamandir, Naseeruddin Shah at St Joseph’s College and Amitabh Bachchan at Sherwood College. Film director Karan Johar’s mother was a hosteller at St Mary’s Convent. Two Anglo-Indian women known as the Murch sisters became famous for adopting underprivileged children and enrolling them in the town’s various colleges. One of the children, Marcus Murch, became an actor in Geoffrey Kendal’s theatre company, Shakespeareana.
Education ran Nainital’s economy. Coolies took the luggage of students up and down the hills. Barbers gave them haircuts. Tailors stitched the uniforms. Shops catered to them.
Landmarks: (clockwise from top right) The Grand Hotel; Capitol Cinema; and Nainital lake, with clouds shrouding the surrounding hills. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
Tourism increased through the 1960s when the hill station became the summer retreat of the rich. In May and June, the social life of Delhi and Lucknow would shift to Nainital. The rajahs of Kashipur and Pilibhit, and the nawab of Rampur, were regulars; so was the Taraporewala family of Mumbai. The old-money clans bought cottages, or had their favourite hotels, sometimes even favourite rooms.
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For two months, they ate, walked, skated and danced. “Our group would tie four or five kishtis (boats) with a rope and together we’d sail on the lake for 2 hours,” says Zeenat Kausar of Delhi (her family owned the now-defunct Shama, an Urdu film and literary magazine), who always stayed at The Grand Hotel. “A gramophone played K.L. Saigal songs.”
Of course, the upper crust were members of the Boat House Club, an establishment that had once denied membership to hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett for not being blue-blooded enough, but now admitted brown sahibs. The club had a bar, multi-speciality restaurant and billiards rooms. It was famous for its live band, ballroom evenings and yacht races, which simmered with politics. Children were barred from the club after 7pm.
In the summers of the 1960s, Captain Ram Singh of the Indian National Army, who was close to freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, conducted a band playing martial music on a bandstand every day after 4pm. The bandstand was built in a part of Nainital known as The Flats—the offspring of a landslide. In 1880, this landslide had killed 150 and destroyed buildings, including the Naina Devi temple. The debris from the hill covered a part of the lake, forming this gravelled ground.
The hawkers on The Flats sold chana jor garam and fruits like apricots, peaches, strawberries, pears and apples. In September and October, chestnuts came from Ranikhet. The popular dessert was the bakse waali pasty, or pastries stacked in steel trunks. Tourists and locals whiled away the afternoons watching hockey or football matches on The Flats.
Then, as now, the most important touristy ritual was the boat ride on the lake. In the 1950s, it cost 2 annas. Today, it’s Rs160. And the town’s standards are slipping. The lovely rowing kishtis are giving way to swan-shaped plastic paddleboats. The souvenirs sold on the street are no longer hand-painted scenes of the lake town, but nude one-armed Venus candles. There is unplanned development. The hotels are shabbier.
In the 1980s, the rich abandoned Nainital for Kashmir, though then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi would often visit with his family. By the 1990s, then Union finance minister Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms made it easier for wealthy Indians to carry cash to foreign locales. The Greek islands became the new Nainital. The original saw a demographic change.
“The Maruti 800 arrived in the 1980s,” says Gokhale, referring to the affordable car that increased the mobility of middle-class India. “People started coming to Nainital from cities like Bareilly and Moradabad, while more and more middle-income Delhiites adopted the hill stations as a weekend getaway. The nature of what they looked for in a holiday was different.”
While walking on Mall Road, these visitors look at the shops, not the lake. The locals call them NRIs, “newly rich Indians”.
In summer these days, Mall Road is jammed with people. The Hindi swear words of weekend revellers can be heard from one end to the other. There are hundreds of identical paunchy men in tight T-shirts, women dressed up like Christmas trees, heads covered with “look-I’m-on-holiday” straw hats, and constant jostling for a picturesque spot. And there are the children, running pell-mell, screaming for goodies.
In the 1960s, Mall Road was more rarefied. Young people in bell-bottoms skated and the glamorous gentry strolled. Women were dressed in chiffon saris and jamawar shawls; men in ironed suits and polished shoes. The shops had character.
Started by a Swiss woman, The Sakley’s was loved for its pastries, éclairs and doughnuts. Huntley & Palmer, run by the Arora brothers, had delicious English biscuits. Narain’s bookstore, with a view of the lake, specialized in literary fiction. It was also the only place in Nainital to sell 78 rpm records of singers like Begum Akhtar. Ramlal & Sons were drapers and outfitters for students and bureaucrats. The best shoes were found in the shop of Mr Listen, a Chinese settler. Everyone who got married had photos taken in the Bakshi Brothers’ studio. In Bara Bazaar, up Mall Road, there was the garment store of the Rais brothers, two extremely polite men who greeted customers with “farmayen” (yes, please say).
Dana Mian, a second-hand book dealer, walked the hills with a coolie who carried a book-filled steel trunk on his head. Until the 1962 war with China, Buddhist lamas freely crossed the border to sell precious herbs from Tibet. Chinese traders came with silk.
Occasionally, the “season” was rocked by scandals. “My father’s younger brother fell in love with an Anglo-Indian crooner who performed at a restaurant in Mall Road. They fled to Rampur and got married,” says lawyer and educationist Nilanjana Dalmia, who spent her childhood in Gurney House, once the residence of Corbett and now owned by her family. Although a private property, it admits visitors. The cottage has a gabled roof and period furniture. The rooms have been preserved as they were when Corbett sold the property in 1947. The shelves have books by Charles Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse. The rug in the living room is the skin of a tiger.
In the old days, nobody drove. People walked or rode on dandis (palanquins) or horses. Today, hyper-energetic day trippers leave before sunset.
But old Nainital is not completely lost. Most of the landmarks are still there. The Sakley’s bakery products rival those of any big city patisserie. Narain’s collection of books, both in English and Hindi, is extensive, though a decade ago the owner started stocking candles to survive. The lakeside municipal library—open to all—has a duck house below.
Like the town itself, the Boat Club too has lost its exclusivity. Tourists are let in upon payment of Rs415 “per couple”. Talking on mobile phones is allowed in the bar lounge, which has hanging lamps and heavy sofas. The windows look out on the lake. The walls have black and white photos of the 1880 landslide. A clock chimes every hour. The piano is locked.
Nainital had three cinemas. Capitol Cinema and Roxy screened English films. Ashoka Talkies, near Town Hall, showed Hindi potboilers. All three have shut down. The Capitol, which screened films like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and The Picture of Dorian Gray, was originally built on The Flats as an assembly hall to host grand parties for the British. Today, the portion where the balcony used to be is a factory store for designer candles. The part that faces the lake is a video-games parlour. The glass panes on the doors are broken.
Situated just above Narain’s, The Grand Hotel has been standing since 1872. Every room has a clear view of the lake. Nehru liked dining here. The king of Nepal would check in with his own carpets and cutlery. When he stayed at the hotel for the filming of Madhumati, actor Dilip Kumar instructed the staff to serve tea to any fan coming to visit him. Today, The Grand’s corridors offer the same view, but the furniture has changed—cane chairs instead of the old planter’s chairs.
One thing is intact. The matches still happen on The Flats, the shouts of players wafting up and reaching the ears of lone men walking the deserted slopes of faraway hillsides. The bakse waali pasty vendors can still be sighted.
To get away from tourists, walk on Thandi Sadak, the cobbled pathway across the lake. It’s the anti-Mall Road: no shops, no touts. One side faces the hill, the other looks to the lake. Or walk on the town’s hillsides, which are as deserted as the Mall Road was in the 1950s. To climb into another world, climb a bit higher. Kilbury forest, 13km away, is a different country—utter silence amid a dense cover of oak, pine and rhododendron trees. The slow-moving clouds are close enough to touch. You rarely see anyone except collared grosbeaks, brown wood-owls and laughing thrushes. The forest has more than 500 bird species. Sometimes, the pathway runs over a stream. The enveloping clouds make the world as white as snow. Built in 1890, the Kilbury forest lodge is a perfect retreat.
The British-era Raj Bhawan, or the Governor’s House, on a hill looks magical at sunset. Even with an entry pass of Rs30, it can be viewed only from the grounds. Made from grey stone, this gothic marvel has 113 rooms. From the rear, it resembles an English country house. On rainy days, the mist gets so thick that the building is reduced to a mere outline; its turrets look finer than any brushstroke by an artist.
The golf course, spread over 45 acres, is within the Raj Bhawan grounds. If the sky is overcast, the golfers frequently disappear into the approaching mist. Tourists can play by paying Rs 250 for 18 holes.
Despite being a Nainital cliché, boating on the lake is heavenly. Each kishti is like an island. The rhythmic splash of the oar on the water lulls you into sweet drowsiness as puffs of cloud drift down the hills, and float over the lake. The view, so fragile that it is more like a state of mind, explains why some people nurture a passion bordering on mania for this town.
At The Book Shop in Delhi’s Jor Bagh Market, the owner, K.D. Singh, who studied at the hill station in the 1950s, has recreated his own Nainital. Only friends with a “Nainital connection” know the secret geography. The new releases are displayed behind the glass display in “Tallital”, your entry point to Nainital. Older books are exiled to “Mallital”, the region beyond Mall Road. Classics are stacked up on “Snow View”, the ropeway ride’s destination. Singh himself sits in the “Boat Club”. The desktop image on his computer is of the lake. Nainital, 0km.