Shimla’s little secret, or: ‘Don’t look at me, I didn’t do it’

January 12th, 201010:26 am @


Shimla's gem of a theatre, the Gaiety

When we first arrived in India my wife asked me what places I’d like to visit on the subcontinent.

“Shimla,” was my first option.

“Ok, done. Where else?”

“Shimla.”

“Yes; and?”

“Shimla.”

And so on and so forth.

I don’t know why the thought of Shimla was enough to induce me to irritate my significant other beyond the realms of decency, but there’s always been something in the name that attracted me.

A hill station in the Himalayas, Shimla (or Simla, as it was known) was the summer capital of the British Raj and – more importantly – the capital of scandal in the Empire when unattached soldiers mixed with the very attached wives of their colleagues (who had been left on the baking plains during interminable summers).

The jewel in the crown – for me at least – had to be the Gaiety Theatre, somewhere I’d longed to visit ever since I’d watched Mr Michael Plain tread the boards during his epic Himalaya series.

Opened in 1887, the Gaiety sits on Shimla’s bustling Mall and from the outside looked a lot less shabby than I remembered it from the television programme, perhaps Mr Plain’s visit had led to increased patronage.

I dearly wanted to have a peek inside and figured the best way to do so was to attend a performance, but the play running during our visit was in Hindi and unless the dialogue consisted of the players giving directions to a rickshaw driver – “ahead; left; stop here; how much?” – I was going to be somewhat stuck.

What I didn’t figure on was my wife, who strolled up to one of the young girls selling tickets in the morning sunshine outside the theatre and asked if it might be possible for a bit of a look inside.

Not only did we get a look, we got a guided tour by one of the performers in the play, a young local named Sonam who was obviously a bit chuffed she was getting to show some tourists around her theatre.

Inside it really is a gem of a theatre. A tiny stage looks out onto a compact well of plush green seats with tiny boxes along the sides.

While I was busy on the stage taking photographs, my wife and Sonam headed down to the orchestra pit, from where I heard the loud exclamation: “torture chamber?!”

When I wandered down to investigate I was roundly turned on by the pair of them. “Apparently,” I was told in a rather accusing tone by my wife, “this door leads to a torture chamber where ‘your lot’ took locals.”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my time, but British is not one of them. I tried to explain that the British part of “my lot” had left the Sceptred Isle a good half century before the Gaiety even existed and therefore could not have taken any locals aside for a bit of “forceful interrogation”.

Alas, my refutations fell on deaf ears and I was sure Sonam looked at me a little suspiciously after that.

Still, despite my ancestors’ alleged dubious past, she happily showed us around the rest of the theatre, including the VIP section – or, in India, the VVIP section – the rehearsal rooms and a whole other theatre above the original.

As we headed back out into the crisp morning sunlight I shook Sonam’s hand and said “break a leg”.

“What?” she asked, looking mortified that I was wishing physical harm on her person.

“Have a nice performance. I hope it all goes well,” were the best I could muster, although I’m sure I left her with the impression that I really was one of “that lot”.

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