First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 13 July 1886
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, pp. 22-3
(From a Correspondent)
There are milestones on the Simla road. This at first sight appears an unnecessary statement, but it is not so. The man entrusted with the erection of those milestones knew nothing whatever about distance or truth. Simla really is between seventy and one hundred and fifty miles from Kulka; the brazen fiction about 58 miles being invented and perpetuated for the benefit of ladies and invalids. This can be proved by going to Simla in the rains as a country-cousin has just done. But, to begin at the beginning — on a platform of the North-Western Railway high up Peshawur way. The rain had fallen, and there were enormous breaks on the line. It is astonishing what a fatherly solicitude one takes in the continuity of a State line when off on a month’s leave. At last some one said that the break was on the other side of Umballa — after which interest slackened perceptibly. It would be annoying no doubt to the poor wretches coming north for coolness sake. Did any one know anything about the Gugga? That was the all important question. An affable guard said he had heard it was very high. Another fancied that it was not so bad; while a third said he hadn’t heard anything about it at all — and didn’t much care. All he wanted to know was how on earth was this (qualified) train to be got through to Delhi.
Between Umritsar and Umballa the country was swamped, and at about three in the morning the train was threshing her way through water, and it was raining heavily. Dawn showed Umballa under water, inches under water, and the rain still falling steadily and sulkily. Every one was asking about the Gugga. A stranger, unacquainted with the land, might well have mistaken the knot of men under the station porch, for a band of pioneers setting forth into the wilderness, instead of a few travellers to the summer capital of India. A gentleman in a mackintosh, wet from head to heel, added to the depression of the little party by the cheery statement that ‘he had, the previous evening, crossed on an elephant, and it was about as much as the elephant could do to get over’. Presently, for the dak babu (the mail clerk) was wet and sleepy, lumbered up the ticca gharris (carriages for hire) — with sodden cushions, reeking, steaming horses and dripping drivers. ‘With the help of God’ quoth the country cousin’s coachman, ‘the sahib will be able to reach Simla this evening. But it is not to be forgotten’ added he consolingly, ‘that even if the sahib is able to cross the Gugga, the Simla road may be broken — not once but many times. However I will beat my horses very much, and the sahib will assuredly give bakshish.’
Lying on those sodden cushions, hearing the ceaseless patter of the rain outside and rolling about uneasily with each motion of the cumbrous and all but springless carriage, the country cousin discovered that the dak gharri (mail cart) , rightly understood, is one of the many triumphs of Eastern Stupidity over Western Intelligence. The strong wheels, the powerful springs of the old English stage coach and of the American wagon might never have been invented. Far back in the twilight of Anglo-Indian history, a palki (mail box) was put on a bullock cart, and it has remained there ever since, with such alleviations as Postmasters, who know nothing of the art of posting, have been able to devise. The smiths of some benignted karkhana (workshop) at Aligarh weld its iron work with the barbaric belief, peculiar to Indian smiths, that weight is strength. An ordinarily skilful English wheelwright would reduce the weight by a third, and yet turn out the whole machine of equal strength and greater capacity, while, given fifty miles of such road as that ought to be between Amballa and Simla, a good American wagon builder would give you an easy running, strong and comfortable conveyance. Some reader who has been rocked and tumbled in an American stage, may be inclined to question this; and even in India there are to be found men whose recollection of stifling days, packed with their fellows as tightly as sardines in a Western stage, ploughing through alkali plains or rolling perilously down mountain roads, would lead them to prefer the dak gharri. But while in the West there are no roads to speak of, here they are better than the highways of American cities, and while there are to be found companies savagely intent on mere profit, here we have a Government and public cheerfully paying large sums for the best that is to be had. Do they get the best? Are the dak gharri and the tonga the best possible contrivances for the transit between Umballa and Simla? If it is pronounced that they are, then may we fear that civilisation is in truth a failure, and the Caucasian is played out.
Then — he was very wet and clammy and jolted and uncomfortable by this time — the country cousin thought of the Gugga, and his little month’s leave, and the chances of delay, and waxed public-spirited and virtuously indignant therefore. He imagined himself a stranger — a continental representative to the Camp of Exercise, a foreign Duke and all manner of other dignities; and pictured vividly the amazement and scorn that would overwhelm him were he to be pulled up shivering, houseless and hungry on his way to the capital of India — let us never forget that we are dealing with the capital of India — by a bridgeless, fordless torrent, or, worse still, were taken across in the rain, clinging to the back of an elephant, his luggage soaked and he himself numb and drenched. The more the country cousin jolted, and the wetter he got, the more did the absurdity — the utter ludicrousness of all the arrangements for that journey — impress itself upon him. He forgot he was a duke and a continental representative pro tem and, only remembering he was one of the crowd to whom two hours’ delay meant a day’s holiday lost, gave himself up to reflections of the bitterest kind on the merits of any one he had ever known or heard of directly or indirectly connected with the Government of India. This kept him warm, and prevented the chill of the sodden cushions striking too deeply.
About half way through this commination service the gharri stopped. ‘It is the Gugga by your honour’s favour,’ said the coachman. The country cousin leaped out, boiling over with indignation at the turbid and bridgeless torrent allowed through the crass short-sightedness etc. to obstruct, year after year, etc. The unfinished oath died on his lips, for there, behind the drowsy elephant, through a drizzle of rain, lay the Gugga, a mean dirty little trickle of two dispirited streams meandering through half a mile of wet sand. However, the principle remained the same if the Gugga didn’t. The country cousin crawled into his carriage as they put the bullocks to, feeling that a burning grievance had been snatched from him at the last moment. The Gugga ought to have been in flood; and the country cousin’s luck did not abolish the fact, that eighteen feet below the sand, through which the tail-twisted bullocks laboured heavily, lay sound blue clay ordained from the beginning for the foundations of a bridge which should carry trains and traffic comfortably. The sand and bullock business was bad enough in itself.
Later on, in this journey, was another river with an Irish bridge through it; and the bridge was composed of large stones levelled atop and sunk in concrete. Here came fresh bullocks, and a jolting to which the Gugga’s performance was child’s play. As the country cousin bounded like a parched pea on a gridiron from side to side of his carriage, he imagined himself an invalid, weak and prostrated with fever; worn out with dysentery; broken down through overwork. Again he imagined himself a lady sent up to Simla for reasons which — but imagination failed him, as his head was thrown against the sliding-door hasp, and his toes rattled on the foot shelf. Revolving these things, he came to Kalka — and the rain stopped with the carriage; and the country cousin took heart about the roads ‘up above’. All that he said about the dak gharri and fifty percent more, might with truth be said about the tonga (two-wheeled carriage). In addition to the vices of the dak gharri, it has the violent sifting motion of the winnower of a threshing machine. Imagine a sick lady being violently shaken for eight hours with two minute breaks at half hour intervals. This is the treatment she must go through ere reaching Simla. We all know it, and we all put up with it, because we are a slack, limp, go-as-you-please, for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-make-a-fuss-about-it people; and it is good for us to be told this again and again.
The sun shone at Kalka; there was dust at Dagshai; and glare and dust at Solon. According to our notions — we are contented with little — the journey had been a very successful one so far; and the country cousin, in the baby jumper back seat of the tonga, congratulated himself on his luck. The driver was a clever man and a bold, with no hesitation about sending his ponies spinning round corners at a hand gallop, and putting them along the level as fast as they could lay foot to the ground. At the twentieth milestone a curious thing happened. The tonga driver spun merrily round a corner into a thick drizzle which ten minutes after turned to driving rain. Ten minutes later the tonga met a stream coming down the road in a hurry. This stream was broader than the tonga, and in depth halfway to the wheel axle. Said the driver: ‘It has been raining much at Simla and Tara Devi. We will make haste.’ From that time the rain began to fall in earnest, and the country cousin discovered the well known fact, that the only way in which you can keep yourself moderately dry in a tonga is by half sitting, half kneeling, half crouching on the back seat with your legs tucked under you, and the cape of vour waterproof thrown over your right or windward cheek. You cannot open an umbrella to ward the rain off if it blows in behind, because you need both hands to hold on with. Hill rain has a trick of blowing all ways in five minutes, and is very, very chilly. A tonga is constructed to admit as much rain as possible.
Again the country cousin imagined himself an invalid and a lady and his imaginings were not pleasant ones. Ladies cannot well sit cross-legged in tongas, and they suffer a good deal from chills nor does rain down the back of the neck improve their health or temper. About the sixteenth milestone the country cousin forgot about playing at imagination; and began to imagine in earnest. The streams down the road side, the little torrents from above that jumped half way out into the road, the chill and damp and discomfort, did not so much matter; the worst of it was that little rocks and handfuls of earth were beginning to trickle gently down from the base of the cliffs. Wherever one looked, a small handful of earth and a few stones were just moving or had just finished rolling. It was disquieting to watch this slither and slide all round — more disquieting in fact than if one big slip had taken place just in front and blocked up the road. At the twelfth milestone, the stones in the road were bigger and harder to get over. A tonga need not turn out of the way for a stone as big as a man’s head; but the jolt and jar is not pleasant. There was another tonga just behind the country cousin’s, and from time to time — four times in all — the leading driver instructed the country cousin to tell the rear tonga to hurry up, as a piece of cliff was going to fall. There are few things more unpleasant then galloping in blinding rain under an overhanging piece of rock or earth of doubtful reputation. So the ride went on — the ponies ploughing mud knee-deep through turbid yellow water, now running in-cliff where there was rock and the imperfectly protected road seemed rotten at the edge; now running outcliff where the hill was shaley and great stones had slid into the middle of the road; now pulling up invisible in clouds of steam to be succeeded by other ponies — wet but willing little brutes who did all that lay in their power; and were alternately abused and endeared by the driver. And the tonga jolted and bumped over submerged stones in the water, creaked and strained where there was mud instead of clear washed road or running stream, while the tonga-bar clinked and jingled merrily through it all and the bugle blared huskily and the stones ‘skipped like rams’. Presently there was a soft crash — not a hard one — a wild lurch and a string of oaths from the driver. Convinced that the end of all things was at hand, the country cousin prepared to step forth into the everlasting hills and die, like a gentleman, of starvation instead of being pitched over-khud (over th brink) like rubbish. But the tonga righted itself, and he was aware that it had, at a particularly sharp and unpleasant turning, run over a dead camel — wet, shiny and puffy in the rain. Luckily only two hind legs lay in the direct route of traffic, or the consequences might have been almost as undignified as the country cousin feared. Then the ponies went on, and the rain fell, and the torrents spouted and once many big stones blocked the road completely, but a kindly hill coolie — who looked like a mountain gnome and made the ponies shy wildly — sprang from nowhere and removed the worst, and the tonga jolted forward and took no harm. Once, too, a string of camels, blundering down in the dusk on the wrong side of the road, gave trouble, and once again the Government Bullock train stopped the way; but the driver, like Thackeray’s sailors, ‘called upon the prophet and thought but little of it’, and the tonga reached the last chowki (toll-house) but one, where a coolie announced that the road was bund (a causeway). Without any exaggeration, it may be set down that the last six miles of road into Simla are, in the rains, nothing better than a stream bed; and the water channels them from six to eighteen inches deep. It seemed that the coolie’s words might be only too true. ‘Without doubt,’ said the driver however, ‘that man is a liar. We will go on and see.’ So the tonga went forward, and the country cousin (a little reassured by the nonchalance of the driver) perceived that the real difficulty of the journey began at this point.
The roads were diabolical and very steep, and there were many stones and heaps of slided earth. The dusk shut down about this time, and a cart stood across the road while the driver slept inside and was picked out at the end of a deftly applied whiplash. ‘The coolie said truth. The road is bund -I do not think — but we will try.’ There lay a strip of stones across the road — a bank about six foot high on the cliff and three foot high on the Khud side (hillside). He put the tonga back a few yards (luckily the ground was comparatively level) and went forward, but the ponies stayed in the middle of the trouble, and the sais ran forward and smote them under their bellies with a wet rope’s end, and they pulled horsefully and the tonga came down on the further side with a soul-shattering bump, and in due course arrived in the thick dark at Simla; everyone except one small dog being drenched to the skin.
Now this is the true story of the Queen’s Highway told by the country cousin, who went up it on the 4th of July 1886. The Simla dak (postal) service is worked at great loss to the Government, and there is much to be said in its favour. More may be said for a hill railway, and much more for the Umballa-Kalka line. In the meantime, one at least of the Members of the Council, two Commanders-in-Chief, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, and the wives of three of the most prominent officials in the land should be driven up and down the Simla-Kalka road daily in the rains in special express tongas at Rs. 40 per head. They might suggest a few improvements.