Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sombre Shimla

As a second write up after my long sabbatical from blogging, I have chosen my family vacation in Shimla. Unfortunately, this time round, the experiences were not very gratifying.

We visited Shimla in the month of September, 2016 a few days before my wife’s birthday. It was my third time in Shimla, so more or less I was acquainted with the city and the places to visit. Since we were flying to Chandigarh with a change of flights in Delhi, I decided to halt for a day at Kasauli which is midway between Chandigarh and Shimla. Regrettably it was not a wise decision for which my wife still finds me guilty. It was quite cold at Kasauli in the evening and the hotel (Kasauli Castle Resort) was not very warm and cozy. As a result my daughter June got cold and fever on the very first day which mired the entire trip with unpleasantness. 

Thankfully, the anti-biotics prescribed by my daughter’s paediatrician over phone worked quickly and she started recovering well. The fever continued for around three days and to be true we contemplated coming back to Kolkata or Delhi quite a few times in between. 

On the second day we travelled to Shimla as per plan. My daughter’s fever was in check with paracetamol but it kept coming back every twelve hours. We checked into our hotel (Honeymoon Inn) and stayed indoors for the next couple of days. The hotel was recommended to us by a relative and the room was comfortable. However, the very steep road that leads to the hotel from the Mall Road is very excruciating. The car goes only as far as the Mall Road and one needs to climb this steep pathway to the hotel on foot. For elderly people with health issues the hotel is not at all advisable. Even it was quite challenging for me especially when I had to carry my daughter. Our sympathy went to the poor porters who have to carry so many luggage every day, up and down.  
For the next two days our schedule was measuring my daughter, June’s temperature from time to time and giving her the medicines at the prescribed hours. Also some time went in communicating with the hotel staff over how to prepare June’s food. My wife even visited their kitchen once to talk to the chef. June has a tendency of gastrointestinal disorder and we have to take extra care to see that her food is cooked in mineral water and with absolutely no spice. We usually carry “seddho chaal” (pre-boiled rice) and “masoor daal” with us so that a simple “khichuri” can be easily made that can go with a non-spicy chicken stew. In between, when June’s temperature was down to normal and she was showing sparks of her usual liveliness, we roamed inside the hotel and looked at the mountains from different places. We also visited the club room in the evening where some fellow boarders were trying their hands in karaoke.

Since my daughter had a history of urinary tract infection, her doctor advised to get her urine tested to negate any re-occurrence and to be on the safe side. He is originally from Delhi and insisted that there must be good facility in Shimla, it being a capital city. So, on the very first day during checking in, we sought assistance from the front desk of the hotel (Honeymoon Inn) to help guide us to a good diagnostic laboratory. The reception personnel assured us but did not provide any information even on the second day. Later on we found this person (I do not remember his name but he was somewhat bald) incompetent and exhibited lacklustre behaviour not only on this occasion but on multiple other accounts. Thankfully, a waiter, who is a local, on hearing our helplessness, recommended us to visit Kamla Nehru Hospital which was located at a stone throwing distance from our hotel. 

So, I visited the hospital in the evening of our second day’s stay at Shimla. This is the first time I think I have visited a state run hospital for any kind of treatment and that too in a foreign place but the experience was not bad. I found a lab run by SRL Diagnostics inside the hospital running in a public private partnership model. I collected the container and was told to come the next morning. The next morning it was a challenge to collect the urine of my daughter, who was barely two years old at that time, in the container and as such I was a bit late to reach the hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, I found that the lab has closed and will again reopen in the evening. But the urine will become stale by then and I have to again collect. I was feeling helpless and confused. Luckily a local patient told me why don’t I visit the hospital’s own lab. So again I started searching for the other lab which was in a different wing. Mercifully, I could find the other lab in time and was told that the report would be available in the evening. 

All these happened on the third day of our stay in Shimla. June’s fever had receded from the last night and she was cheering up. We thought of walking down the Mall Road for a while and visiting the famous Shimla Kalibari to pray for June’s speedy recovery. The temple, built in 1845, is dedicated to Goddess Kali who is also known as Shyamala. It is believed that the city of Shimla derived its name from the name of Goddess Shyamala. There is an obvious Bengali influence in this temple. The priests I believe are mostly Bengali and even the local traders selling flowers and other worship items can speak in Bengali. The priest talked with us of all things like where are we coming from, which locality in Kolkata blah, blah, blah but forgot to caution us about something important. 

Little did we know that our suffering in Shimla was not coming to an end but a new chapter was about to begin. While we were coming out from the temple, I was carrying June and my wife, Piu, was carrying the “Prasad” (sweets). Out of nowhere a monkey came darting down towards Piu at snatched the bag of sweets from her, hurting her in the process. Had the priest warned us of the monkey menace she could have put the sweets inside the bag she was carrying with her. 

Now although Piu was wearing a full sleeve pullover, her sleeves were rolled up and she was worried whether the monkey made any contact on her skin on the arm with its nails. Some locals advised to get the anti-rabies vaccine and also warned that the vaccine is accompanied with very high fever.  When we reached the market area on our way back we were still pondering on whether to take the vaccine, and if yes then from where, and whether she actually had any cut mark. A shop which was just opening invited us to have a look inside. The shopkeeper seemed to be a very decent man and we shared with him what had just happened to us. Hearing our story he recommended us to visit a doctor nearby, just a few metres away from his shop. But there was something in store even in the doctor’s chamber.

Dr. Sharma is a senior person with an MD degree in General Medicine and has some previous working experience in Saudi Arabia or some other middle east country, I do no not exactly recall. There is a diagnostic set up as well in his chamber in association with Dr. Lal Path Labs. I think it is a common practice in many other places as well in Shimla. Anyway, the doctor seemed to a busy one with many patients in queue and had some children as well among them. We thought it would be a good idea to get the doctor see my daughter June as well. So we registered both Piu and June’s names and kept waiting. The wait was long and June was becoming restless. It might be that her fever was coming back or simply she was feeling hungry. We requested the nurse who was also doubling up as the receptionist if she could kindly call us ahead of our schedule. Some of the fellow patients seem to be okay with it. She was reluctant but did not outright reject. After some more time we requested her again if she could do us this favour. We also told, it would be difficult for us to wait further as June has now become more restless. So if we have to wait for our turn, it would be better for us that we leave. Now the nurse told us that she could not take such a decision and would ask the doctor himself. After a little more time she said we can go next to meet the doctor. 

Inside the chamber, the doctor was not interested in the patients or their wellbeing. His first question was where we are coming from. We told him we are tourists and have come from Kolkata. Then we tried to impress upon him the fact that how helpless we were feeling in a city far from our home and how we were contemplating going back midway from our vacation. But he was not interested in all that. He kept us asking whether it is a common practice in Kolkata to jump queue in a doctor’s chamber. We hesitated at this turn of discussion but tried to reason that it is not unusual to let the elderly or the children see the doctor ahead of their turn. In fact just a couple of weeks earlier to that event I remember my wife had gone to see a cardiologist in Kolkata and we happily switched turns with an elderly lady who seemed to be in distress and the doctor did not even bother to get into the details. But Dr. Sharma was not impressed. Then he asked me what I do for a living. I said I am in service. He kept asking what my profession is. I said well, I am an engineer. He grinned and asked again, so, do you not follow rules in your profession, in your service, in your city, in Kolkata. We were clueless why was he grilling us when he could have denied us any preference and we could have gone back to the hotel. We asked the same. Why have you called us inside your chamber and insulting us and also our city?  Are you going to treat us or not? You could have easily rejected our request. And why are you bringing Kolkata into all of this? At this point he waved his hand and said “Oh! Don’t you teach me how Kolkata is or for that matter all of West Bengal”. My wife hit back with a prompt and apt reply, “How bad it may be, it is better than your place”. Dr. Sharma was probably not ready for retaliation and got angry that he could not relish insulting us further. His fair face became red and he told us to leave. We tried to remind him that it is not ethical for a doctor to deny treatment but he was not in mood to listen and kept on ringing the bell on his table which is a signal to send the next patient. The nurse looked puzzled and did not know what to do and the patients waiting outside were also shocked. I murmured to my wife that perhaps it was better for us to leave after all. I was not sure how good a doctor he is but I definitely knew by then how he is as a person. Perhaps he is not fit to be a doctor in the first place. My wife ranted something unprintable under her teeth and we left. Probably Dr. Sharma had not been said on his face such things for a long time and definitely he will remember this for a long time to go. My wife later regretted that she should have recorded the proceedings in her mobile camera. Later on when the tempers came down we even good-humouredly discussed that we should bring our predicaments to the notice of our Chief Minister highlighting how the Bengali pride was hurt without any reason and without any provocation and she should do something on that on a government level. Perhaps people like these and events like these demonstrate the fissures we still have between regions and communities in our country. 

However, every cloud has a silver lining and we must not judge every doctor in Shimla by the conduct of one Dr. Sharma. I visited the state run hospital in the evening to collect the urine report and thankfully there were no anomalies and the pus cell count was very low near to zero. I told the doctor there about the monkey incident and asked for advice. She was kind enough to listen to what happened throughout the day. She said that the hospital generally caters to the maternity patients and children and recommended us to visit the private chamber of another doctor, again in the Mall road. 

Dr. Puri is also a senior doctor who used to be associated with a government hospital and now has set up his own private practice after retirement. His behaviour was very cordial when he checked my wife Piu. After examining her arms he found a small cut mark which could have been due to contact with the monkey’s nails. He advised us not to take any risk and get vaccinated with anti-rabies. He administered the first of the anti-rabies vaccines then and also gave her a tetvac injection. He also assured us that the modern anti-rabies vaccines are usually without any side effects such as fever and detailed out the schedule of the next anti-rabies vaccines to be taken later.  

The following day June had completely recovered and we decided that we could visit some tourist attractions after all. We booked a cab from the hotel and visited the Sankat Mochan Temple first which is dedicated to Lord Hanuman. There are some other temples in the complex as well dedicated to Lord Rama, Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesha (in a distinctive South Indian style of architecture). In the late 1950’s Baba Neeb Karori Ji Maharaj spent a few days at this place and found it very suitable for meditation. In the 60’s his disciples who included the then governor of Himachal Pradesh turned this place into a small temple which has grown over the years. The temple has a backdrop of tall Himalayan ranges which makes it an exquisite view point. Someone was inviting us to try the food in the “Langar” but we had to skip.

The next stop was the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge which has been now converted into Indian Institute of Advanced Study. The majestic heritage building was constructed in 1888 as the residence of Lord Dufferin, the then British Viceroy to India and had been a witness to many historical events and decisions that changed the geography and fate of the sub-continent. Located on the Observatory Hill, this sprawling Scottish baronial building was designed by an architect of the then public works department, Henry Irwin.

When we reached the place and bought tickets for a guided tour inside, we came to know that the tour will begin only after almost an hour or so and we spent some time in the lush green lawn and beautiful garden that surrounds the building. It was very windy day and we felt the chill in the air. Hence after some time we decided not to take the guided tour anymore and return back to the hotel. However, to our surprise we could not connect to the driver of our hired cab as his mobile phone was switched off. We were waiting at the café cum souvenir shop which worked as the fire station in the bygone era and approached some office staff and police personnel there to help us out. Luckily we remembered the vehicle number and they asked the guards to look for the car in the parking space. After some time we were conveyed that the car could be spotted but the driver was missing and he might have gone for lunch as what they came to know from some fellow drivers. They advised us to take the guided tour which had then started and for which we had already booked our tickets in advance and assured us that as soon as the driver could be spotted they would let us know inside. So we joined the group for the guided tour in the middle. The guide was enlightening the tourists about the history and the importance of the room where the leaders used to discuss and negotiate the terms of the transfer of power from the erstwhile British rulers and the following partition of India. Despite the historical significance of the place, perhaps it is not quite enjoyable for a little toddler like June and even my wife Piu, who is a student of history by the way, does feel such historical places without any royal pomp and splendor, boring and uninteresting. Since I had already seen the place and blogged about it too, I was trying to be their private guide but after some time had to give in and decided to wait in the reception hall instead of continuing with the tour. Thankfully we were informed in a little time by one of the staffs that the driver has come back and waiting for us and we left the tour in between while the guide was still showing others around the exquisite teak paneling and woodwork of the gallery enclosing the reception hall.

Back in the hotel we complained to the reception personnel (the same inept person mentioned earlier) that how come he could provide us with such a useless driver who was unavailable for an hour without informing us and with even his mobile phone switched off and narrated the difficulty we faced due to him. The driver was even unhappy why we were visiting the temple first and then the viceregal lodge and not in the opposite order. But we had booked the car for a definite number of hours without any prior fixed schedule and we could have gone anywhere. The reception person did not seem to be much concerned and gave us some lame excuse that he had only booked the car from some external agency and he had no control over the driver etc. 

In the afternoon, we visited The Ridge which is a large open space located along the Mall road. When one walks through The Ridge one can have a feel of the colonial period with the buildings reminiscent of the bygone era. Even there are many hotels there which date back to almost a century. We took a quick lunch in one of the restaurants in one such hotel which operated as a café in the British period. June who had her simple lunch back in the hotel earlier enjoyed a chocolate pastry to keep us company.

We roamed around the Mall and walked as far as the Christ church but did not go inside. We had hired a pram on an hourly basis for June so carrying her was not troublesome and in fact she dozed off in the pram itself after a while. The simple but elegant yellow structure of the Christ Church is made of stone and brick in lime mortar can be seen from miles away and is a popular tourist destination in Shimla. It is reputed to be the first church of Shimla and the second oldest church in northern India. It was designed by Colonel J.T. Boileau who worked for PWD. The corner stone was laid in 1844 but it was consecrated only after 1857. The clock was donated by Colonel Dumbleton in 1860 and the porch was added in 1873.

In the end we visited the Lakkar Bazaar which is a marketplace adjoining The Ridge. The shops now offer all kinds of stuff but probably initially it sold only wooden articles and hence the name. Still today it is said to be famous for its wooden toys but honestly you will find nothing spectacular or special that you will not find in any other tourist place or even in a city store selling show pieces. In fact we observed that the woolen items are far better and almost cost as much with some bargaining in the shops along the Mall road. The shopkeepers in the Mall road are also much courteous and well-mannered. For example at one shop which primarily sold wooden toys the shopkeeper was not bothered to tell us the prices let alone show us all the items. In another shop we were looking at some wooden cooking utensils and my wife was looking for a “roti belan” (a rolling pin for rolling kneaded dough of bread) and asked the shop owner which one will be good. I think this is very common to ask. She good-humouredly added that she is a naïve in making “chapatis”. He reluctantly said how come he should know. He does not cook at his home and then asked sarcastically who cooks in our household if she is inexperienced. Is it her husband? This not only displayed his rudeness but also gave a hint of his male chauvinistic mindset that the only place for the women is in the kitchen and it is not the man’s job to be knowledgeable about cooking.  

The next day was our last day in Shimla as we were scheduled to go to Chandigarh from where we would take our flight home the following day. The visit was not a memorable one but may be unforgettable due to exceptional experiences. My wife who was on her maiden trip to Shimla was not very impressed with the place and the people but I sincerely hope she will like it in any subsequent trip that we may make to Shimla. 

P.S. :- The trip actually ended with a bitter experience as well. When we booked a car for our return journey to Chandigarh from the hotel, we specifically requested the reception personnel to provide a responsible and good natured driver. Since the journey takes near to 4 hours, we planned to start around nine in the morning so that we can have our lunch after we reach Chandigarh. But it crossed 10 am before we could start. That the driver was missing (yes again!) when we got ready had a little to contribute to our delay. Then he stopped twice on the way. Once for paying someone whom he owed and in another occasion he purchased some fruits. And then when it was close to 1 pm, he asked us whether we should stop for lunch. We politely denied and said we cannot eat anywhere as we have a child with us and will take lunch only after arriving in Chandigarh. Then he started to grumble. We told him that he should reach Chandigarh in an hour but after a little while he parked outside a “Dhaba” and went to have his lunch deserting us beside the highway. When all reasoning (and even threating) did not deter the cab driver to have his way, we called the hotel back in Shimla. But the reception person again was not helpful. First he tried to evade any responsibility. Then he added well it is indeed lunch time. It was only after some harsh words and threats that we would write bad reviews of the hotel that he yielded and assured to do something. Probably after some communication between him and the driver, the driver came back to the car, still irritated. Even the driver lacked any sense of direction and took much time to locate our hotel in Chandigarh. Once he parked outside a hotel which did not match exactly ours and was in a different sector altogether. So it can be advised that if you stay in hotel Honeymoon Inn, look for other options while booking a car.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Bangalore Palace

I have been away from this travel blog for more than 5 years. Not that I have not travelled in the meanwhile, but I did not find the time to pen down my experiences. So, in a way, this is a fresh start. 

In the year 2015, just after my birthday, we travelled to Bangalore (from where we later paid a visit to Mysore). Thankfully, the flight did not pose any problem for my daughter, June. It was for the first time that my little daughter was travelling. She was just seven and half months old at that time. With not much to do in Bangalore apart from meeting an old friend and a relative, we selected the Bangalore Palace as a place to visit one day.

Situated in the Palace Gardens area, the Bangalore Palace belongs to the Wadiyar dynasty of Mysore. In 1884, the then Maharaja of Mysore, Chamarajendra Wadiyar bought the property from Rev. J. Garrett, who was the first Principal of the Central High School in Bangalore, now known as Central College. Currently there is a dispute going on for this property between Srikanta Datta Narsimharaja Wadiyar, the current heir and the Govt. of Karnataka.

Built in the Tudor style of architecture with fortified towers, battlements and turrets, the Bangalore Palace is said to be inspired by the Windsor Castle of Berkshire, England.

The palace offers a very comprehensive audio tour which provides the details of the different sections but I missed most of it as I was carrying my daughter in a baby carrier sling and had to take out the earphone in many occasions. I remember the entry fee and camera charges being a bit on the higher side, particularly if you compare with Mysore palace. I must also add that there is no one to check whether you are taking snaps or not. Although I paid charge for my digital camera, I took many snaps with my phone too. The ambience of the palace is very quiet and peaceful without the hustle-bustle of the tourist crowd. At least it was lonely when I visited.

A wooden lift was stationed in the ground floor but I am not sure if it is still operational or available for the tourists. 

A wooden staircase that is decorated with many paintings and statuettes took us to the first floor.

The first floor features the Durbar Hall which is decorated with stained glass windows, luxurious sofa sets and chandeliers.

Throughout the palace pillars and arches dominate the architecture along with ornate cornices and motifs. The ceilings are also ornamented. The striking yellow colour is used generously for the walls including the Durbar Hall and the Ballroom. 

Also displayed in abundance are trophies of elephant hunting like elephant heads mounted on walls, stools made of elephant feet and vases of elephant trunks.

The other thing you will notice is a huge collection of paintings ranging from European art to those of Raja Ravi Varma.

There is also large collection of photographs chronicling the different generations of Wadiyar dynasty and other old pictures of Bangalore and Mysore. 

Wooden furniture, collectibles including porcelain, metal and wooden figurines and chandeliers adorn the corridors. There are also some curiously interesting things displayed like a weighing chair for jockeys.

A room was stuffed with personal belongings of the royal family and also featured a painting of the last king.

I found two courtyards in the ground floor, one with a fountain in the middle (that no longer works) and another more colourful decorated with seats covered with tiles. 

The Ballroom, also situated in the ground floor, was used to hold private parties of the royals. This is also the last section covered on the audio tour. 

The expansive grounds surrounding the palace are used for public events and cultural programs including music concerts by international artists.

Overall it was a nice experience to visit the Bangalore Palace. It may not be an extravagant affair like some other palaces from the rest of the country but it manifests the old charm of royal dynasties pleasantly tucked into the otherwise modern technological epicentre.