Thursday, October 18, 2007


(Self-indulgent original version of something that appeared in print today - on Friendly Advice, put up in two posts)

The most vivid memory is of the light. The moon swinging between the hills on its way down to the horizon, while the moonlight hung in the air, glowing, translucent, liquid yet at the same time crystalline, brittle. Driving through a dream in that hour before dawn, as the car swung and swung again, on the road reaching upwards through the dark of the pine-shadows and the patches of hazy moonlight through the mists.

Morning came in primary colours. The shadows of the hills sharp on the opposite slopes, brilliant sun glinting off roofs far far away, lighting shades from the grave darkness of the trees to the playful green of grassy meadows. A distant ridge with its top sliced neatly off, the new airstrip for Shimla. Fly in there and then drive two hours into town? Much better to take the good old Kalka Mail overnight, snug under the sheets with a book in the upper bunk, lifting the flap on the reading light for a delicious hour while the man in the opposite lower snores softly and the train sways and grumbles over points. Then the drive up, revelling in the chill that creeps in as the car climbs, deciding against a smoke in the pre-dawn dark because it would mean rolling down the windows. Waking to find the sun well up, and stopping at a roadside dhaba for sweet milky tea

And bread ­pakoras. Comfort food from the ‘80s, when they’d be a hurried breakfast at Barog while the engine snuffled and snorted to itself, like an impatient uncle exhorting a bunch of teens to get a move on. Sitting on the footboard, legs dangling, flinching as the tiny train bustled through one of the 108 tunnels on the line up.

The story goes that Col. Barog was in charge of this section when the railway was being built back in 1903. He started work on a tunnel from both ends so as to save time. The shafts didn’t meet, Col. Barog was fined one rupee by the Govt. and committed suicide from sheer humiliation. Our present-day technocrats have less extreme reactions. Fortunate. Or maybe not?

The sprawl of buildings comes into view from miles out. Gorton Castle smug and four-square in the centre of the ridge, the turrets of the Army HQ newly painted an arrogant red. The town is older now and the lines of age have begun to show. More crowded, dirtier, more concrete and glass, more scabrous unpainted heaps sprawled on the slopes like ragged deadbeats. The traffic is bad on the main road, worse out in Chhota Shimla and Sanjauli. Parking is a nightmare, it takes ten minutes to back and fill into a parking lot through the crowd of impatient Puppans up from the plains. The Mall is fenced in with rods, something was on last night and now they’re dismantling the barricades, very morning-after.

But the sun is out and eventually, at 10 o’clock or a little after, Shimla is on its way to work. The women in neat bright salwar suits, quick-eyed and bright-cheeked, most of the men in ties, geared against the fickle weather in sleeveless woollen vests, greeting friends without breaking stride as they take the slope in that unhurried gait that still eats up the distance. Lots of bakeries, above them all (in location if not in quality) Baljee’s on the Mall next to the statue of R.S Parmar. Shops selling cameras, film, Kumaoni clothes, ‘vegetable burgers’, silverware.

Out on the northern edge of the Ridge, the breeze comes in under the cedars. a jacket seems like a good idea. Terraced fields and farmhouses sweep into the distance, but the immediate attention is grabbed by the sprawl of Lakkar Bazaar below. This is Shimla’s standard tourist trap, the curios and handicrafts pitch. A little time spent poking among the fretwork screens and faux antique hookahs can turn up a good bargain. A tiny hand-carved hollow ball turns out to be a cunning candle-stand, a walking-stick’s head unscrews to reveal a little gold-specked fob-watch. A much better idea than the supposed ‘local’ woollens that are in any case cheaper in Ludhiana. Where they’re made.

Up from Lakkar Bazaar is Kipling’s Hill of Jakoo, topped by its Hanuman Mandir. It is a moot point whether Hanuman’s physical form was closer to the langur or the common macaque, but there is no question which tribe rules here. Gangs of rhesus monkeys prey on the unwary and intimidate even the careful tourist. Locals tell horror stories of monkeys who will wrest away a camera bag or a dangling key-chain and return it only when bribed with chick-peas or bananas. The climb is steep, a lung-burning, leg-cramping ordeal even for the fit. All in all, only for the very brave or the very devout.

In the other direction lies hedonistic pleasure. Shimla’s Middle Bazaar is ugly when viewed from afar, but a stroll through the winding lanes (winding in three dimensions, stairs and little footpaths connecting different levels) is richly rewarding for visiting foodies. Between two landings lies a tiny place known to generations only as Auntie’s. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a no-nonsense ‘authentic Chinese’ joint where take-away is definitely the better idea. And very satisfying. The other gem here is Sardarji’s sweet shop, where an early morning visit yields ambrosia – fresh jalebis broken up in a huge steel tumbler of hot milk. Bliss well worth the penance of an extra mile on the hill roads.

The noise and fumes fade as the lift glides up. A huge suite, coffee, signs warning guests to keep the doors and windows closed for fear of monkeys. And from the balcony, the expanse of the southern ridge and the town, the valley still cut in half by morning shadow.

The day clouds over as the seminar winds towards lunch. A couple of quick showers come and go. The TV tower on the opposite hill gleams in the sudden dark, the roads and roofs gleam with the run-off. Then after lunch the heavens open and the rain pelts down for hours. Where do the monkeys go in this downpour? Water splashes over shoe-tops during mad rushes across the terrace. A persistent man keeps sopping up the puddles in front of the lift, only to see them grow again in seconds. The roof resounds with the insistent drumming. The valley vanishes behind a curtain of cloud and spray. Rain in the hills is not for the faint-hearted.

Afterwards, soft as a lover tender in the afterglow, the faintest of breezes creeps into the chill of the evening. The stars come out and settle on the hills, sprinkled on the slopes all the way down to the valley and up into the sky.

West of the Mall, past the Gothic fantasy of the Army HQ, where a 50 foot wide road is christened Chaura Maidan or ‘wide field’, the Oberoi Cecil is a lighted fantasy. A lane leads off Chaura Maidan, through moss-hung oaks and deodars, to Yarrows. Originally designed (or re-built?) by Herbert Baker for a friend, the Staff College of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service is possibly the most picturesque training facility in India. It even has a most incredibly wondersome phenomenon, modern additions by the CPWD that blend in with the traditional! Old teak staircases, mahogany furniture and a lovely low-roofed billiards room. All this around a central lounge that looks out over a stone-flagged patio leading onto a lawn from where (on the mandatory clear day) one can see all the way to the white hairs of the Dhauladhars.

But we were at the Cecil. Mohan Singh Oberoi’s second acquisition, this imposing pile has been recently restored to its old glory. A five-storied wood-panelled atrium glows above the lounge, the restaurant looks out over the valley where the lights shimmer all night. Pankaj serves smoked chicken and Kullu trout from the ice-water streams. But the restaurant is empty by half ten. At eleven, the lights are dimmed in the atrium and not a soul stirs except the desk manager and the turbaned doorman. Shimla goes early to bed.


mystic rose said...

Lovely!!! So loved this write up.
Old-world charm.

Sumit Vashisht said...

Superbly written piece. I like it. I am a Heritage guide from Shimla and have recently come out with the first Coffee Table Pictorial of Shimla. Find it here