Savoy beckons in summer and in monsoons (Letter from Mussoorie)

I had never been advised to visit a hill station in this fashion.

The e-mail from an itinerant friend read: “The Savoy in Mussoorie, which was once better than the Savoy on the Strand in London, is promising to recapture its old form when it re opens. Earlier we visited Mussoorie. Now we must visit the Savoy, because Mussoorie is too crowded. Earlier, Savoy was the most elegant hotel in an exquisite hill station. Now Savoy is being conceived as a magnificent resort – complete in every sense of the term – a destination in itself, at a distance from a crowded hill station. What is more, it will provide respite from the sizzling heat in summer and an experience of the monsoons – Saawan and Bhadon of our folk songs.”

The hyperbole was self-evident. But having been denied a summer break from the plains because of mother’s health, we decided to buy the hard-sell, now that my mother was recovering.

We found ourselves among the first guests, signing in June 1, the date of Savoy’s inauguration. The grand garden party (on lawns which were once the hotel’s tennis courts) had, among its many guests, that wonderful chronicler of our times, one whose name is synonymous with Mussoorie – Ruskin Bond.

Yes, the idea of Savoy, as spelt out in my friend’s e-mail, is being realized in stages. The first phase consists in the restoration of 50 rooms – restored like they were when the hotel opened in 1902, the peak of the Raj, just as the railways first reached Dehradun, Edwardian furniture and forests worth of Oak carted up on bullock carts to create the iconic, imperial haunt. When automobiles became available after the First World War, Savoy became the universal rendezvous, not for Tom, Dick and Harry, but a category of aspirants a notch above them.

Jawaharlal Nehru, just the recreated Englishman Thomas Babington Macaulay prescribed for the colonies, became a patron, along with other members of the family, including daughter Indira Gandhi. Once, in 1938 to be precise, the British had to request him to vacate the premises because King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan was also in residence. Since Britain’s relations with the King were at a delicate stage, the presence of Nehru at the Savoy was, in imperial perception, loaded with possibilities of intrigue.

Well, I do not wish to list the Emperors, Kings, Viceroys, Princes and sundry sidekicks who stayed here. Nor will I pretend to have fond memories of the place in days of yore. The closest I came to the place was when my father had rented a bungalow on Gun Hill next to Dr. M. Mujeeb, the great author of Indian Muslims.

Yes, we did visit the Savoy as a gang of four schoolboys – Vinod Mehta (the hot shot editor), Ashok Kwatra (trying to retire with a French wife in Cheltenham), Azad Ahmad Khan, the richest amongst us and the most generous. We pooled in our pocket money, borrowed some from Azad, and took up residence in an inexpensive hotel to be able to visit the Savoy, peep into the grandest dining hall in the Empire and of course the Writer’s Bar, once boasting of such clientele as Pearl S. Buck and Rudyard Kipling.

We must have looked very silly, teenagers pretending to be much older, in our suits, badly cut by our Lucknow tailors… Indeed Yeats’ poem on Keats comes to mind: “I see a schoolboy when I think of him, With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window”.

Here there were four such noses pressed hard against the window. It therefore feels nice, now that the Savoy has been resurrected, and my wife and I can legitimately reserve a table in the grand dining room.

We can now afford it in the summer and, believe it or not, in the monsoons, because there are enough cunning passages and covered verandahs in the Savoy to keep you in fine fettle, walking indoors. And when the clouds open up, that clear snowline has a divine glow and the lights of Dehradun are like a starlit sky, upside down.

(19.06.2013 – Saeed Naqvi can be reached on [email protected])

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