Pretty much every major hill station in modern-day India still has some remnant of its colonial past that it clings on to, for sentimental, aesthetic or in most cases, economic reasons. Himachal Pradesh, for instance, is a state that depends heavily on tourism revenue. And because of this, there are several buildings and other British-era artefacts that are still carefully preserved and rigorously maintained there. Their histories roll easily off the tongues of local guides, some syllables sacrificed in the race for concision and speed, of course. I always find these rapid-fire histories of the British fascinating, because not only do they seek to tell us what happened, they seek to capture the grandiloquence and the sense of the exotic that the British themselves would inevitably infuse their stories of the Raj with.
From colonialism to subaltern theory to this, whatever this is: quite a few circles have we traversed, and how.
Which is why I found The Himalaya Club, a collection of vignettes by John Lang, so refreshing: here was an Australian journalist and barrister who spent most of his adult life in India, writing about natives and Englishmen alike with such wit and vigour. Lang, as is now well known, was the first ever native-born Australian novelist. In his articles and novels, there is a constant strain of anti-British humour. He did, after all, fight the East India Company in court, representing the Rani of Jhansi. Recently, there has been a revival of interest in Lang’s life and work. In November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted a collage of photographs and a letter written by Lang to Australian PM Tony Abbott, during the bilateral talks held at Canberra. The Himalaya Club, recently re-published by Speaking Tiger, is another step in this process and a well-timed one at that.
The book’s strength is its motley cast of characters: hothead soldiers, languorous colonels who while away their time playing billiards and gambling (sometimes both at once), “grass widows” whose husbands are toiling away in the hot plains and finally, Lang himself, an observer who takes pains to stay one step ahead of the action. He is funny but never mean or unfair and he never calls a spade a mechanical agriculture tool. The peculiar etiquette and idiosyncratic routines of dinners at the club are, in particular, described with a lot of glee. Here, for instance, Lang tells us all about the “second supper” tradition.
The book’s strength is its motley cast of characters: hothead soldiers, languorous colonels who while away their time playing billiards and gambling (sometimes both at once), “grass widows” whose husbands are toiling away in the hot plains and finally, Lang himself, an observer who takes pains to stay one step ahead of the action.
“The second supper – the ladies being gone – will then commence, and a very noisy party it will be. Unrestrained by the presence of the fair sex, the majority of those who remain will drink and smoke in earnest, and the chances are there will be several rows. Ensign Jenks, when the brandy and water inflames him, will ask young Blackstone, of the Civil Service, what he meant by coming up and talking to his partner during the last set of quadrilles. Blackstone will say, the lady beckoned to him. Jenks will say, ‘It is a lie!’ Blackstone will rise to assault Jenks. Two men will hold Blackstone down on his chair. The general will hear of this, for Captain Lovelass (who is himself almost inarticulate) has said to Jenks, ‘Cossider self unarrest!’ Jenks will have to join his regiment at Meerut, after receiving from the general a very severe reprimand.”
Lang’s writing has a strong cinematic edge to it, which feels like an odd thing to say for a 19th century writer. But modern-day readers will experience this again and again: in the way he describes the proceedings of a tedious court-martial held in the scorching heat (the court-martial soon descends to farcical chaos), in the minute details he offers from the case of a drunk valet who dares to occupy Lord Jamleigh’s bed, or in the blow-by-blow account of a long, very drunken night spent in the Kumaon region. An enterprising director of period dramas somewhere is, no doubt, licking his chops while immersed in Lang’s misadventures.
A longish, very entertaining introduction to the book has been written by Ruskin Bond, Mussoorie’s bard-in-residence for many decades now. Bond tells us about his long search for Lang’s grave at Landour, which he finally found in serendipitous fashion. He also mentions how Lang’s India writings were pioneering works. “The best of his books on India are The Wetherbys (1853) and The Ex-Wife (1859). These take a lightly satirical look at English social life in India, and are precursors of Kipling’s stories of Simla society.”
I’m inclined to agree with Mr Bond on this one. Lang’s writing cuts through the barrier of intervening years and delivers a picture postcard from the past. In some ways, his is a more realist and no-nonsense version than a lot of Kipling’s stories, which could be florid and over-written. Read The Himalaya Club to grab your own little slice of life in the hills.