Tusker’s Last Stand

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Mussoorie, India, 1990: Tibetan guest-house canteen meals have had an unfortunate effect on my digestive system and several more weeks of turbulence lie in prospect before I leave. The only food available from the nearby shop is packeted biscuits and salted peanuts, the latter sold in paper cones made of discarded test sheets from the government college opposite. I consider myself fairly practical about food but even I prefer not to contemplate two months of nothing but custard creams. So I take a walk along the wooded track towards the town and call at the Carlton Hotel.

Fortunately, in 1990 I hadn’t yet encountered Paul Scott’s novel Staying On (though it should have been essential preparatory reading for a visit to a hill station). If I had, my delight in discovering the Carlton might have been diluted by unavoidable comparisons and time-wasting attempts to identify its role as a model for Smith’s, the hotel in the novel. Instead, I happily immersed myself in its frayed colonial charm for a few hours each weekend, eating lunch alone at a dining-table large enough to seat twelve and retiring afterwards to a cane chair on the enclosed veranda that ran along one side of the building. There were rarely other guests.

The Carlton, like the fictional Smith’s Hotel, was a relic of British rule in India and of the British taste for life in the Himalayan foothills. The damp mountain climate and limited business had left it a little dilapidated but, in common with Scott’s female protagonist in the novel, Lucy Smalley, it kept up appearances and retained its dignity. Smith’s, by contrast, is seedy, unkempt and owned by a scheming egotist, Mrs Bhoolaboy, who is concerned not with her hotel’s character or even its viability, but with its value as a redevelopment site. Many poignant moments in the novel arise as a result of the cultural chasm that lies between Mrs Bhoolaboy and her tenants, the Smalleys, the British couple who are ‘staying

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About the contributor

Annabel Walker is the author of Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road, a biography of a once famous archaeological explorer.

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