Why this blog is called "Gallimaufry".

gal-uh-MAW-free\, noun.

Originally meaning "a hash of various kinds of meats," "gallimaufry" comes from French galimafrée; in Old French, from the word galer, "to rejoice, to make merry"; in old English: gala + mafrer: "to eat much," and from Medieval Dutch maffelen: "to open one's mouth wide."

It's also a dish made by hashing up odds and ends of food; a heterogeneous mixture; a hodge-podge; a ragout; a confused jumble; a ridiculous medley; a promiscuous (!) assemblage of persons.

Those of you who know me, will, I’m sure, understand how well some of these phrases (barring the "promiscuous" bit!) fit me.

More importantly, this blog is an ode to my love for Shimla. I hope to show you this little town through my eyes. If you don't see too many people in it, forgive me, because I'm a little chary of turning this into a human zoo.

Stop by for a spell, look at my pictures, ask me questions about Shimla, if you wish. I shall try and answer them as best as I can. Let's be friends for a while....

31 August 2008

An interesting sight:

Last night, I was wondering about the words written on the plaque below. I could only guess that it said something about a building..... Hey, presto, this morning I have the answers ready!

The sign says: "Molem aedifiCii Multi. ConstruX erunt: ratIonem unus eXegit I. Begg."
It means: "This building was constructed by many, under the direction of I. Begg". Another friend suggests that it may mean "Many have built the mass of the building, but one has exacted the thinking (idea? concept? plan?). I. Begg".
The last word, however, rests with our heritage maven, Raaja Bhasin who says the words mean: "Many men erected the stonework of this building. The work was directed by J. Begg."
The "I. Begg" referred to here is John Begg, an architect of Scottish origin who designed several beautiful buildings in India; not the least of them, the fabulous General Post Office in Bombay.
Interestingly, the inscription is a chronogram. The enlarged letters, in Roman numbers, stand for MCMXIX = 1919, possibly the year in which this building was constructed. The word "chronogram" derives from the Greek words "chronos" meaning time and "gramma" meaning "letter". It is a sentence in which specific letters, interpreted as Roman numerals, stand for a particular date when rearranged. A pure chronogram, such as the one seen in the plaque above, shows all the numeral in their correct numerical order.
This plaque is placed on a discreet corner of the building you see below. In fact, right under that ugly vertical board that says "BSNL". Need I add that the building now houses BSNL (a state-owned telecom company)?

And here's a close-up of the really interesting clock that's suspended from the front wall:

Thank you, TT people, for your help.

30 August 2008


Legend has it that the first dahlia came from Mexico to the Botanical Gardens in Madrid towards the end of the eighteenth century. The flower was named by Abbé Cavanille in honour of the Swedish scientist & environmentalist Anders Dahl. None of my favourite books on Shimla’s flowers could tell me when they first came to India, or to Shimla.

This flower is a bushy tuberous perennial plant, native of Central America, according to another source. The colours are stunningly bright, the symmetry fearful, and the sizes diverse. The smallest flowers I have seen are the “Aurora’s Kiss” & the pom-pom dahlias in my friend S’s garden, which are hardly 2 inches in diameter. The largest, seen in Manali in August 2007, can grow up to a foot in diameter and are aptly named “dinner plate blossoms”! A lot of dahlia plants grow up to 8 feet in height here in Shimla. The shortest, seen in P's garden, are less than a foot high.

Interestingly, I have observed only single-coloured dahlias in Shimla, not variegated or bi-coloured ones. You can see in the pictures the dahlias' wide colour range: from the darkest red or purple to all shades of pink, orange, yellow, white.

Kingdom: Plantae

Division: Magnoliophyta

Class: Magnoliospida

Order: Asterales

Family: Asteraceae

Genus: Dahlia

Placed below are some images of dahlias growing in Shimla:

They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia,

Opulent, flaunting,
Round ripe gold
Of maturity
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Fecundity decked in staring yellow
For all the world to see.
They brought a quilled, yellow dahlia,
To me who am barren
Shall I send it to you,
You who have taken
All I once possessed?

~ Amy Lowell ~

28 August 2008

More roofs.

And lastly, a Sylvia Plath poem, because I feel like it & because, I discover to my utter horror, that this blog does not contain a single poem by her!

~ Landowners ~

From my rented attic with no earth
To call my own except the air-motes,
I malign the leaden perspective
Of identical gray brick houses,
Orange roof-tiles, orange chimney pots,
And see that first house, as if between
Mirrors, engendering a spectral
Corridor of inane replicas,
Flimsily peopled.
But landowners
Own thier cabbage roots, a space of stars,
Indigenous peace. Such substance makes
My eyeful of reflections a ghost's
Eyeful, which, envious,would define
Death as striking root on one land-tract;
Life, its own vaporous wayfarings.

27 August 2008

They Came Only To Speak Of You

The morning paper brought unhappy news. “Famous poet Ahmed Faraz passes away”, it said.

What is it that attracts so many people to Faraz’s poetry? His poems are loved for their sheer lyrical beauty. A perplexed romanticism which cries out for empathy in hard times.

Faraz was a deep romantic who wrote “ranjish hi sahi, dil hi dukhane ke liye aa” (let there be antipathy between us, but come, come (back) to break my heart). Sentimental, without being maudlin, it was his poesy as much as his brooding good looks that would draw dozens, nay hundreds of fans to his doorstep. His success as a poet can be measured by the fact that his female fans in particular would accord him the adulation normally reserved on the Sub-continent for cricketers and film actors!

At the same time, his poems bear a kind of stoic optimism as seen in his nazmKhwaab Marte Nahin”:

ख्वाब मरते नहीं

ख्वाब दिल हैं न आँखें हैं ना साँसें के जो

रेजा-रेजा हुए तो बिखर जायेंगे

जिस्म की मौत से ये भी मर जायेंगे

ख्वाब मरते नहीं

ख्वाब तो रौशनी हैं, नवा हैं, हवा हैं

जो काले पहाडों से रुकते नहीं

ज़ुल्म के दोज़खों से भी फूकते नहीं

रौशनी और नवा और हवा के आलम

मक़्तलोन में पहुँच कर भी झुकते नहीं

ख्वाब तो हर्फ़ हैं

ख्वाब तो नूर हैं

ख्वाब तो सुकरात हैं

ख्वाब तो मंसूर हैं

Khvaab marate nahin
Khvaab dil hain na aankhen na saansen ke jo
rezaa-rezaa hue to bikhar jaayenge
jism kii maut se ye bhi mar jaayenge
Khwaab marate nahiin
Khvaab to raushani hain, navaa hain, havaa hain
jo kaale pahaadon se rukate nahin 
zulm ke dozakhok.n se bhi phukate nahin
raushani aur navaa aur havaa ke aalam 
maqtalon men pahunch kar bhii jhukate nahin
Khvaab to harf hain
Khvaab to noor hain
Khvaab to Suqraat hain
Khvaab Mansoor hain

Dreams do not die.

Dreams are not hearts, nor eyes nor breath
Which once shattered, will scatter (or)
Die with the death of the body.

Dreams do not die.
Dreams are light, life, wind,
Which cannot be stopped by mountains black,
Which do not burn in the hells of cruelty,
Like light and life and wind, they
Do not bow down even in graveyards.

Dreams are letters,
Dreams are illumination,
Dreams are Socrates!

Dreams are Mansoor!

This poem comes from a man who, upholding the best traditions of Faiz, consistently spoke out against the tyranny of military dictatorship in his country. Like Faiz, he too was to pay a heavy price for his outspoken opposition to prevailing ideas. He was sent to jail, and even exiled from his beloved homeland. Forever a proponent of freedom and equality, his poem “Mahasra” (The Siege) is a scathing indictment of Pakistan’s military rule. Faraz has travelled beyond petty concerns of minor poets of whether his words would get published. His far greater concern was to ensure that the voice he had raised against repression not be stilled.

In the words of Siegfried Sassoon, in the days to come, his name shall be as music that ascends.

Requiescat in pacem, Ahmed Faraz.

26 August 2008

Posh neighbours

This is our neighborhood, Chaura Maidan's, sole claim to fame: that it is home to Hotel Cecil of the Oberoi Group. As neighbours go, you couldn't get better ones, neighbours who raise the tone, who are genteel rich and yet, very very discreet, neighbours who add a je ne sais quoi to the surrounds!
If only the old walls could speak. I would dearly love to hear from them the hotel's journey through history which began in 1844 and goes on, proudly, until today. The Cecil, christened Tendril Cottage, started off as a tiny, single-storey maisonette. Interestingly, it changed hands over and over again. The Colyears were its first owners, but as is the wont of covetous property owners, fell out with each other. After much legal wrangling David Colyear was able to secure owndership, until he sold it H. R. Cooke, a minor bureaucrat in the Viceroy's establishment.
As has been the fate of several buildings in Shimla, in 1877, the original structure was pulled down and made way for a new one for a bigger one that could house several tenants.
This edifice was to see yet another owner in 1902 when Hotz, a local celebrity photographer bought it from Cooke. It is to Hotz that the credit goes for enlarging and re-christening the building as Cecil.
This hotel was to truly come into its own as a society hot spot when acquired by J. Faletti, who was until then known to the snobbish Shimla only as a rather clever chef of the Viceroy. Legend has it that Faletti spent lakhs of rupees on doing the place up.
More urban legend: Cecil has housed several great personages from India's nationalist struggle. Some people state that Kipling stayed here for a while, but Charles Allen (author of the excellent tome Kipling Sahib: Indian and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, Little Brown, 2007) says that Kipling actually stayed at Kelvin Grove, which is actually located across town, down the Mall.
Be that as it may, the present owners, the Oberois, seem to have spent considerable money and effort on redecorating the hotel.
It has an understated elegance. It seems to shrug with a genteel air when, sometimes, loud, hirsute, groin-scratching guests from lower regions crowd in. It seems to shrug philosophically, as if saying "These are the people whose money allows the dilettantes like you to be snobbish"!
In its current avtaar, the Cecil has several rooms and suites, three restaurants, a spa and a heated pool. The best part of the hotel, for me, is the gorgeous atrium and the splendid furnishings in it. Being part of the hol polloi, one may not be able to stay there, or even dine there, but one has walked in, admired the fine linen and the exquisite pictures and strolled out without much ado.
Hurray for posh neighbours!

24 August 2008

Rooftops - 1

In the coming days I shall be posting a series of pictures about funny-shaped rooftops I've noticed in Shimla. They're pretty and unique and I have a thing about them. So, here goes:

Roof-tops, roof-tops, what do you cover?
Sad folk, bad folk, and many a glowing lover;
Wise people, simple people, children of despair—
Roof-tops, roof-tops, hiding pain and care.

Roof-tops, roof-tops, O what sin you’re knowing,
While above you in the sky the white clouds are blowing;
While beneath you, agony and dolor and grim strife
Fight the olden battle, the olden war of Life.

Roof-tops, roof-tops, cover up their shame—
Wretched souls, prisoned souls too piteous to name;
Man himself hath built you all to hide away the stars—
Roof-tops, roof-tops, you hide ten million scars.

Roof-tops, roof-tops, well I know you cover
Many solemn tragedies and many a lonely lover;
But ah, you hide the good that lives in the throbbing city
Patient wives, and tenderness, forgiveness, faith, and pity.

Roof-tops, roof-tops, this is what I wonder:
You are thick as poisonous plants, thick the people under;
Yet roofless, and homeless, and shelterless they roam,
The driftwood of the town who have no roof-top and no home!

~ Charles Hanson Towne ~

The Book-Seller of Shimla

It is impossible to live in Shimla and not be a regular at Minerva. My love affair with this shop began in 1992 when I first stepped into it. Shimla is by no means a book-lovers' delight. There are precisely three bookshops: Asia, Minerva and Maria Brothers. Of these, Maria Brothers is more of an antiquarian establishment requiring deep pockets. Asia to me is a magazine-cum-gift card shop.
This leaves us with the small but delightful Minerva. The intellectual heart of a commercial district. A bibliophile's oasis in a desert land of synthetic ready-made clothes, branded monstrosities and kitschy souvenirs for tourists.
Funny thing is, in all my years of visiting this establishment and chatting with its delightful owners, I must acknowledge that, to this date, I only know them as "Rahul" and "Rahul's father". This is possible because the conversation rarely strays from the topic of books. At worst, it may go into the history of shimla. Or very reticently, that of Minerva. Some insistent questioning reveals that the present owners acquired Minerva in 1972. Rahul's father belongs to a family of grain merchants, but says "his heart wasn't in it". He seems happy as a cricket occupying his vantage point behind the counter, viewing the passing scenery. He is able to climb into the skin of the people who walk into his shop by studying their expression, their clothes, or shoes. He chats you up, asks you questions and listens to your answers carefully.
In a sense, Rahul and his father are great match-makers, for they are able to - more often than not - find the right book for every reader who walks in through Minerva's door. Rahul's father seems to derive particular pleasure in pairing a book with a reader! You will never find him handing a Harry Potter to a matriarch, or a coffee table tome of architecture of the British Raj to the svelte young lady aglitter in (tasteful) baubles.
A good book-seller is a dying breed. Today, we have far too many of those soul-less establishments where staffers dress alike and try to persuade you to buy a book because "it's selling so well, ma'am". Unlike the owner of Minerva, he does not step into your shoes, strap on your shoe-laces and walk that teetering plank of understanding that there is a section, a very small section, of readership which doesn't like to be told that it should books merely because they're selling well! The Minerva people possess this quality in good measure. If only there were some way to foster and preserve this dying art...

15 August 2008


"You are fond of poetry", someone said to me the other day, almost accusingly.
Yes, I am. I love poetry almost as much as I love beautiful landscapes, pretty flowers or funny cloudshapes. No, I cannot explain how much I love poetry ("shall I count the ways?"). I don't think I love poetry, so much as I need it; needing it the way other people need caffeine or sugar.
And then, this morning, S posted a poem by Pablo Neruda on his page on another site. Reading that poem was like being punched in the solar plexus. Because, when my love affair with poetry began all those years ago, there was Pablo Neruda. Neruda, who strode across my young heart like an angel with flaming wings. His words, melancholic, sensuous, silken, lacerated me, caressed me. I soared with them on a magical flight on a moonlit night. Back then, I hadn't yet fallen in love. Through Neruda, I was to prepare myself for the ecstacy, the pain, the magic and the despair.....

And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

14 August 2008


Walking yields interesting sights and sounds. These sights come in unique shapes and forms and can sometimes trigger an association in the mind that catches you totally by surpirise. Take, for example, the picture below. I was walking in the village near Koti, hoping to sight a few wild flowers I hadn't spotted before. There loomed before me this house, unprespossessing and quite ugly. A terrace jutted out of the first floor. On this terrace sat the sleepiest cow I had ever seen. Two dogs barked themselves hoarse close by. Flies buzzed around her nose. But there she sat, slumberous, somnific, somnolent. Almost as though under the thrall of some deep dream (or maybe drug?).
I shouted a friendly hello. No response. I chucked a tentative rock at her. No reaction. I offered her a fistful of sweet-smelling clover. More rejection. So I walked away, dejected.
This encounter reminded me of a poem by Austin Clarke titled "The Awakening of Dermuid"! Posted below is the part which came to my mind on seeing the sleepy cow of Koti. Do note the magical play of assonance and consonance and not-quite-rhyme in the poem.

She leaned and saw in the pale-grey waters,

By twisted hazel boughs,

Her lips like heavy drooping poppies

In a rich redness drowse,

Then swallow—lightly touched the ripples

Until her wet lips were

Burning as ripened rowan berries

Through the white winter air.

Lazily she lingered

Gazing so,

As the slender osiers

Where the waters flow,

As green twings of sallySwaying to and fro.

Sleepy moths fluttered

In her dark eyes,

And her lips grew quieter

Than lullabies.

Swaying with the reedgrass

Over the stream

Lazily she lingered

Cradling a dream.

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