Tipping the last glass of the Sula Seco at the dimly lit bar at Chevron Rosemount Heritage in Ranikhet, my friend, a partner at a leading law firm in Frankfurt, remarked: “This, finally, is bliss.” Well, two days of riding through the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, including the “armpit of India”, and making it intact to Ranikhet was cause enough for calling in the second bottle of sparkling wine.
The way was littered with stench, stray tufts of humanity and an obvious lack of sanitation—symptomatic of the schizophrenia that grips much of India outside the power and economic corridors. While private enclaves, residential or industrial, reflected pride in terms of upkeep, the public sphere en route lay orphan in neglect. As our car wound up the Kumaon Himalayas, I felt the cool breeze brush my ears, giving a much-needed break to the sputtering car’s air conditioning. The pine woods of Ranikhet suddenly burst into view. So orderly and yet so natural. The Mall of Ranikhet, with its ancient British windows, hid the inside story—stories of love and betrayal—remembrances of the days of the Raj.
We jostled out of the car to stretch our limbs, and strolled on to the pebbled side street. Having finally ensured some oxygen-rich blood supply to my brain, my perpetually sugar-craving eyes scanned the drooping foliage, the houses and the narrow lane to find Roberts Sussex Bakery. I drooled at the thought of warm cupcakes, muffins and other such goodies, which sprung into sight as I hastened towards the bedecked trays.
“Barry Roberts (retired colonel) at your service young man,” said a booming voice as my eyes scanned the fare on offer. As is habitual with lonely geriatrics, he gave us a whistle-stop flashback of his heyday in Ranikhet as commanding officer of a division of the Kumaon Regiment, while handing out freshly baked strawberry scones. These were days when every sepoy saluted him as he strutted around the Mall with his wife and two daughters. There was a pause in his narrative after the mention of his wife and daughters and a sudden silence. We did not deem it proper to probe further, handed in the money for more strawberry scones and hastened out.
While Ranikhet might have lost to Shimla in the contest to be crowned the summer capital of the Raj, it is anyone’s guess which one comes out ahead today. The British had indeed built Ranikhet to last a lifetime. Every conceivable luxury one would struggle to find in Britain, had been provisioned for. No wonder many of Roberts’ ilk had lived on in Ranikhet.
The next morning, we went to the Army Golf Course. The sheer spread of the fairway and the pristine greenery—for what seemed like miles ahead—was a treat. Our host, a sternly moustached senior army officer, invited us to the driving range to partake of the real action. Besides uprooting some clefts of grass, we did little else in the process. The club adjoining the golf course was a real delight, where turbaned waiters hung onto our every request and conjured some Kumaoni culinary wonders—kappa, a spicy spinach dish, is one that comes to mind right away.
The day ended with a visit to the highest point in Ranikhet. The clichéd description of mountain views won’t do justice to the view. Suffice it to say that the panorama was emotive enough to pen this column. I could spend an eternity there and not get old! While driving out of Ranikhet, we stopped at the ancient Jhoola Devi shrine—the temple with a thousand bells. No prizes for guessing what I prayed for!
Saionton Basu is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and a solicitor in the Supreme Court of England and Wales. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org