Nainital, now and then
It’s white-hot in Delhi and most people I know are leaving town. I’m fleeing to Nainital, the hill station where Jinnah went for his honeymoon.
My Pakistani friends tell me that the hill resort of Murree is no longer what it used to be. They could be talking about Nainital. It’s my birthplace! So friends, this summer, to tell you what our hill stations were like, what went wrong with them and how that vanished world can still be fleetingly glimpsed, I take you to a trip to my Nainital.
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 town 330 km north of Delhi.
Most of Nainital is as scarred as other 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.
Old, pristine Nainital is preserved largely in people’s memories; only the residue of that fabled past is there to see.
For centuries, the Nauini 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 the Himalayas. It was also the summer capital of British India’s United Provinces.
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.
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 the nawab of Rampur were regulars.
For two months, they ate, walked, skated and danced. “Our group would tie four or five kishtis 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.
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 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 car arrived in the 1980s. It’s 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 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.
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 bookstore owner started stocking candles to survive. The lakeside municipal library — open to all — has a duck house below.
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.
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.
The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.