30 December 2013

Spirit of Place: a grand old hotel rises from the ashes

I visited the refurbished Savoy in Mussoorie for Outlook Traveller magazine.

The hotel at night. Photo: Puneet Paliwal.

I had been to Mussoorie twice before. But this time, instead of coming to an end at Library Chowk, the Mall seemed to lead further up the hill, into the mist. A steep driveway curved into the massive grounds of what could well have been a castle. The taxi driver looked a bit sceptical when Puneet, the photographer, and I said this was indeed our hotel. One couldn’t really blame him. With the Savoy’s fairy-tale turrets as backdrop, we looked even scruffier than we were.

It remained a slight concern throughout the trip, this business of living up to the Savoy. Even freshly bathed (under a superbly luxurious shower), I never quite felt I could match up to what these corridors have been used to. After all, this isn’t just any old hotel. From 1902, when a Lucknow-based barrister called Cecil D. Lincoln decided to pull down the old Mussoorie School and build a massive English Gothic structure in its place, the Savoy has been the hotel of choice for a succession of Indian and international grandees. The Princess of Wales, later Queen Mary, attended a garden party in the Savoy grounds in 1906. Later, the hotel played host to several other royals: Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. The Gaekwads of Baroda and the Wodeyars of Mysore were known to take over entire blocks for the summer (the Gaekwad ladies were ardent tennis players, apparently, and would insist on the block adjoining the courts).

The grande dame of Urdu writing, Qurratulain Hyder, spent a lot of her childhood in Mussoorie, seeing the British hill station through what was probably its biggest historical transition—Indian independence. “Throughout the day English sahibs, memsahibs, and their baba log cross the bridge on mules and horses or riding in rickshaws and dandis. In the evening, the same bridge becomes the site of milling crowds of Indians,” begins Hyder’s story ‘Beyond the Fog’. Of course, the Savoy remained preserved from any milling crowds until much later. Its Indian guests were either maharajas and maharanis, or taluqdars, or Anglophiles of the Nehru-Gandhi variety. Like his father Motilal, Jawaharlal Nehru stayed here, as did Indira Gandhi and, later, Rajiv Gandhi.

And yet, the Savoy isn’t quite the daunting place you think it might be. That might have much to do with Mussoorie itself. Unlike a Shimla, where the official presence of colonial government meant that Appearances had to be Maintained, Mussoorie-Landour was always an unstuffy place. Reputed as a place for romantic assignations, Mussoorie was all about being British without the stiff upper lip. And the Savoy was at the centre of the party. Travel writer Lowell Thomas, in 
India: Land of the Black Pagoda (1930), described the Savoy’s (in)famous Separation Bell: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.” As Hyder’s short story has it: “In the ballroom of the Savoy the Anglo-Indian crooner and his band will soon start ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.’”

Senior journalist Saeed Naqvi recently reminisced about having gone to Mussoorie as a schoolboy, in a gang of four that included Vinod Mehta. The young men from Lucknow saved up money to stay in a cheap hotel so that they could wear their ill-fitting suits and “peep into the grandest dining hall in the Empire.” But the Savoy’s glory days ended at least thirty years ago. Looking at the sheer scale of the property, it is easy to imagine how a place like this could have gone to seed. In fact, one doesn’t need to imagine it. One can see it.

On our second morning, Puneet and I took our post-breakfast coffee out into an open area adjoining the Grand Dining Room (it is now officially called that, while the hotel is officially called ‘Fortune The Savoy’). We’d spent a few minutes pleasurably looking out over the small-town business of Mussoorie far down below when we both realised that to our left was a wall, and behind that wall was a half broken-down building—with a turret exactly like the ones above us. “There’s another wing!” said Puneet. 

After lunch, a member of the invariably friendly Savoy staff took us round to the unrestored wing. Piles of old furniture lie around: a lovely large dresser, a nice little table (missing a leg), several broken chairs, even an old post box. The buildings are in absolute disrepair, seemingly without electricity. It was day, but as we climbed up the creaky wooden stairs, we could barely see where our feet were going. It felt a little like a re-run of R.L. Stevenson’s famous scene in Kidnapped: the next step, I was sure, was going to be into thin air. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Stepping out into a kind of gallery, we found we were above the old ballroom. One of the oldest photographs of the Savoy still in circulation is of an after-party image of this very same room filled with people in masquerade, the women’s ‘fancy dress’ costumes for New Year’s Eve unable to quite disguise their 20s flapper aesthetic. The grand old wooden floor still exists, but apart from that there is little sign of the room’s original avatar. A mammoth Santa Claus sprawls lopsidedly over one wall, from a children’s Christmas party before the property last changed hands. A badminton net is strung across the centre of the room: the staff currently use it to entertain themselves on a free afternoon.

Standing in the overhanging gallery, I first ask about the Savoy ghosts. Like Mussoorie itself, the hotel has long had a reputation for haunters. The most famous of these is Lady Frances Garnett-Orme, a 49-year-old spiritualist who was found dead in her room at the Savoy in 1910. The cause of death was poisoning, but the poisoner was never caught. But the technique—adding bromides to the lady’s own bottle of medicine to cause the strychnine already in it to sink to the bottom, where it was consumed by the victim herself in one single lethal dose—was so convolutedly foolproof that Rudyard Kipling apparently wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, suggesting that he incorporate it in a story. He didn’t, but Agatha Christie did. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie had her English country-house murder of one Lady Inglethorpe achieved by the same method, to be solved by Hercule Poirot in his first-ever fictional appearance.

Lady Garnett-Orme, according to media sources as varied as Aaj Tak and NatGeo Traveller, still wanders the corridors, sometimes offering a blank stare, and sometimes singing softly. The Savoy staffer I asked said he hadn’t seen her. But he had once spied a couple of ghostly children. On the other hand, none of the spooks had made an appearance of late, he said, and anyway the management had forbidden all talk of ghosts. “There are no spirits,” was the hotel’s official policy.

Later, wandering through the premises, abutting the main wing, I found what looked like a little Sufi shrine, complete with a green silk chadar. “Who is buried here? Is it a saint?” I asked a passing kitchen helper. “No, no, it’s for Sai Baba. And he’s not buried here. This is to stave off the spirits.”


Photo: Puneet Paliwal
Much of Mussoorie’s early British spirit is to be found in its graveyards. Landour, where most of these “villages of silence” are, is less than half an hour up from Mussoorie: but the trees feel mossier, the mist thicker. The cemetery on Camel’s Back Road is locked and deserted, and the other cemetery on Landour’s Upper Mall is guarded by a chowkidar and his host of dogs. But the Savoy’s Siddharth Nautiyal, who has driven us there, grew up in Mussoorie and has a friend on literally every street corner. The chowkidar is slowly but surely wooed; he even lets in Puneet and his camera. By the time we return after seeing the graves of the Alters—Tom and Stephen Alter’s father and uncle—Siddharth and the chowkidar have found a village connection. Next up is the Mussoorie Library, where again we only manage entry because of a special request made to Mussoorie chronicler Ganesh Saili. The library is a massive, many-roomed structure that occupies pride of place at the Gandhi Bazaar end of the Mall, off-limits to everyone except its seventy members, and there’s a Mussoorie residence requirement for membership ever since an “Angrez” flew out with some ten precious books. The deep red doors lead into a musty high-ceilinged space, where the old glass-fronted bookshelves reveal carefully arranged collections of history and literature dominated by titles from at least fifty years ago: Nelson’s History of the War (in 25 volumes), The Rise of Rail Power in War and Conquest 1833-1914 by E.A. Pratt. The Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, who once stayed at the Savoy and is listed on a plaque at the hotel’s wood-panelled Writers’ Bar, is represented by her China books, of course—but also by East Wind: West Wind, which appears to be a royal Rajasthani romance.

We returned to the hotel, exhausted. After choosing Col. Skinner’s Fish and Chips (over the Bycullah Club Koftah Curry) in the admirably restored Grand Dining Room, I retired for a nap in my rather stately Suite, all blue and white and gold. When I woke up, it was around a quarter to five, and the Mussoorie mist had come calling. Wispy fingers of cottonwool had wrapped themselves round the green turrets, and were slowly descending to stretch across my balcony, forming themselves into a woolly white canopy. In the paved courtyard below, the fountain began to play. As I watched, the misty twilight dissolved into slate-gray night. Down in the Beer Garden, still slushy from the rain, two ancient mossy deodars stood mute witness to the proceedings, as they have done for the last hundred years or more. The spirit of the Savoy does live on. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Published in Outlook Traveller

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