The Grand Old Lady of the Hills

(Quantas The Australian Way November 1999)

by Christopher Kremmer

Don’t tell my wife, but I have a girlfriend.  She’s 92 years old, twice widowed – but still quite the coquette – and runs a small but impeccable guesthouse in the north Indian city of Amritsar.  Tahmi Bhandari’s favorite pastime is to sit on the terrace of her Raj period red brick bungalow, an embroidered Kashmiri shawl over her knees, chatting with her guests, or simply appreciating the bucolic splendor of her rambling garden on a warm and sunny spring day.
Sit a while with her, and you are cast back to another age when an attractive young Parsee woman could take dinner at Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore, go to the cinema, and be back in bed in Amritsar before the witching hour.  Her name, Tahmi, means mercy in Persian, but she showed little enough of that to the long line of suitors who tried without success to lure her on to the dance floors of Lahore.

“My uncle always came and acted as my chaperone,” she recalls, eyes a ‘twinkle with fond memories. ”In those days, you lived in Amritsar and shopped in Lahore.”

So much has changed in her lifetime.  Born in 1906 in Amritsar, she still remembers the sound of shooting from the Jallianwala Gardens in the city in April 1919, when British troops opened fire on unarmed Indians demonstrating peacefully for independence.  Historians point to the killing of 379 people (by the official count) as the beginning of the end for the Raj.

Today, Jalianwala Bagh is a moving memorial to those who sacrificed their lives on that day, a place of quite meditation, or for the space-starved residents of downtown Amritsar, the ideal spot for a morning constitutional.

A short stroll away is another place of pilgrimage, the Golden Temple, built in the 18th century as the  holiest shrine of the turbaned Sikhs.  Entering its curved marble portals, head covered in deference, the visitor is always astonished by the shimmering gold-plated sanctum sanctorum, which seems to float on a vast square pond the Sikhs call The Pool of Nectar.

At hours of day and night you are welcome.  Take a basic but free meal in the langar (kitchen), or be transported by endless waves of bhajans (verses) from the Guru Grath Sahib sung by a chorus accompanied by harmonium and tabla.  Or just join the Sikhs as they circumambulate the pool, contemplating the gurus, the beauty of life and the sheer magnificence of the temple.  A more peaceful place you cannot find in India. It hasn’t always been so.  In the 1980s the Indian army stormed the temple, where Sikh militants were dug in.  The two  Sikh bodyguards of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later turned their guns on her, killing her in revenge for what was seen as the violation of the shrine.

Once wracked by the violent campaign for an independent homeland of Khalistan, the Punjab (“Land of Five Rivers” has now made peace with itself and returned to its former role as India’s Garden of Eden, the richest and most agriculturally productive state in the union.

But the Punjab remains divided, a legacy of Partition, which split the former British Raj into the independent states of India and Pakistan.

The road to Lahore, which dear old Mrs. Bhandari drove as a young woman, is not truncated by an international border. For foreign tourists, that mean a tedious passage through various immigration, Customs and health checkpoints that involves leaving your car on one side, walking hundreds of meters to the other, and getting a different car on the other side.  The Indian porter you engage will have to hand your luggage over to a Pakistani counterpart at the gaudily painted steel gates that divide the subcontinent.

Citizens of the two fractious neighbors have had an even worse time. For decades they were banned from crossing by road, until India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee got on a bus in Amritsar and drove to Lahore in February this year.

Mrs. Bhandari’s memories of Lahore are infused with a sense of longing. She hasn’t been able to make the journey since 1947, and is too old now that things seem to be changing.

For the rest of us, it remains a journey well worth taking, an opportunity to experience living history.  Each afternoon troops from both sides engage in a martial ballet designed to demonstrate their mutual hostility, but somehow achieving a decidedly Pythonesque edge. Visitors are welcome to egg them on. Easily the best base for your expedition is the redoubt provided by Mrs. Bhandari, within the leafy Amritsar Cantonment.  “I like a clean home, and my uncle liked a nice garden, but its hard to get good staff these days”, she says, before being interrupted by the lowing of Lady, the milk-dispensing buffalo tied up at the gate.

For students of architecture and design, Mrs. Bhandari’s guesthouse is a museum celebration original Art Deco, preserved as in aspic in far flung India.  The furnishings – some bought in Calcutta and Lahore, some brought from pre-war Britain – have been lovingly preserved since the sprawling residence was built in the 1930s.

From the Burma teak dumb waiters to the wood stoves and original Italian tiles in the bathrooms, the eye is constantly distracted by articles from a self-conscious past.  In the kitchen, nicknamed Commando Bridge, you can marvel at the original Bakelite and brass light switches, and a sturdy old Frigidaire that seems to have lasted almost as long as Mrs. Bhandari.  The Parsees are fire-worshippers, and the open fireplaces at the guesthouse are pre-stacked with buffalo dung fire-starters courtesy of Lady and two other buffalo.

The house is scrupulously maintained by devoted daughters Ava and Ratan, both of whom live overseas and alternate for several months at a time to look after their mother and the guesthouse.

Alas, Mrs. Bhandari’s Tudor-style private apartments are royally off-limits to visitors. Only a very special guest will be invited in to join Mrs. Bhandari  watching a few bouts of her favorite television show –WWF wrestling.

The far-sighted, however, can get a taste of the nostalgic elegance of the home by booking in advance and asking to stay in The Den.  Able to accommodate four people in single beds, these dignified rooms once functioned as a nursery for the Bhandari children, who took their Hindi lessons there from Master Ji, before moving next door to be tutored by their English governess, Miss Plomer.

The other 11 rooms may be a little cramped for some travelers, but they all boast period features and hot water.  The only concession to modernity are the air-conditioners that function in most rooms in the summer months from April to October.  A lap pool also functions in the hot months.  In winter, praise be, hot-water bottles await you.

My family and friends in Delhi find it odd that I regularly find reasons to travel to Amritsar – but then, they don’t know about Mrs. Bhandari.  To them, the turbulent recent history of the Punjab has obscured what has always been one of the most delightful parts of India.

But living in India’s crowded, heavily polluted capital, I treasure my weekends away there. Amritsar is a city, which, apart from its crowded downtown area, has escaped many of the worst aspects of modern urban life.  It has more colonial architecture than you can poke a stick at, and excellent restaurants such as the Mohan International Hotel’s main eatery (the hotel has a cool and very dark bar).  The slow pace is accentuated if you get around in a horse-drawn Tonga, which can be arranged by the guesthouse.

So tell your friends, but please don’t tell my wife about Mrs. Bhandari.