Call me naïve; I already did. Here I am, neck craning here and there, to catch the first glimpses of Shimla as chauffeur Bhim Singh whizzes past the neighbouring town of Solan. He slows down. “Now, sit back. We will take a while. The traffic will be at its peak at this hour.”
But it is only past noon, I protest. “Usse kya hota hai, ji (What does that have to do with anything)? This is Shimla,” Bhim Singh says, not looking back. And there, my mist-filled, cedar-perfumed vision crumbles.
We drive through hillsides as chaotic as they are high. Music and chatter inside international coffee chains’ look-alikes is oblivious to the dour traffic outside. Metal rods jutting out at construction sites with depressing regularity seem to bother none.
Escaping Indian summers
Shimla may no longer be the dreamy, almost surreal hideout as it once was, when weary officers of the British Raj came here to escape the furnace called the Indian summer. But then, I think, one is allowed to harbour at least some romantic notions, isn’t one? I get my reply in the yelp of the horn
I try to find traces of the hill station which serenaded many with its quiet charm and giddy sights of the mountains. The first dak bungalows were built in Shimla in the 1820s, much before it was declared summer capital by Viceroy John Lawrence in 1864.
I am thinking of Rudyard Kipling, who pressed the hill station between the pages of Plain Tales From The Hills, when I shake hands with Raaja Bhasin, author and Shimla’s noted historian.
Uncannily, Bhasin takes on from just where the small voice in my head had stopped, and chats about how, among heritage and nature walks, he also conducts the Kipling Walk, which involves reading passages from his books right where the writer is believed to have written them.
That tuckered being in my head pricks up its ears and sniffs air. “However, I am afraid we do not have enough time together. Why don’t we go around Shimla for a bit — it will be very interesting,” smiles Bhasin.
Bhasin is the sort of man whom you trust to never run out of stories. We are headed to what most tourists believe is Shimla’s raison d’être — Mall Road. On the way, Bhasin tells me about this small town, where numerous large-scale political decisions were taken — discussions which led to the Partition, the Simla Manifesto, declaring the first war with Afghanistan was signed here, as was the historic 1972 Shimla Agreement and the 1914 conference which resulted in the drawing of the McMahon Line.
“It was from Shimla that the British government ran the country for eight months in a year. Can you imagine, a little village — neither Calcutta, nor Delhi — controlled one-fifth of the world at that time?” says Bhasin.
Till date, this robust town is the last surviving urban forest apart from Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Pheasants can be found just a mile from where I am, Bhasin tells me, and winter hyenas would love an invitation anytime.
Scandal in Shimla
Bhasin stops me and points out to the base of an old street lamp made of cast iron. It once held the coat of arms of King George’s V, who was king when Shimla first got electricity in 1913. Now, it lays bare because the emblem was unscrewed after Independence.
We reach Scandal Point, and I think aloud the legend which involves the Maharaja of Patiala who carried off the daughter of a British commander-in-chief, which gave the place the name and reputation it carries today. Bhasin, however, is smiling. “Just so you know, nothing of that sort happened. People have always loved gathering at the Mall to gossip about who ran off with whom.
And love affairs were quite scandalous” smiles Bhasin. Take, for instance, the stories of the ‘grass-widows’, a label given to young, married women who spent time in Shimla when their husbands were away in the rest of the country. Then, there were the ‘fishing fleet’, young unmarried women who sailed out every year from Britain to find husbands.
Amused, I realise that we’ve reached the Mall. This one km-long stretch is lined with Chinese shoemakers (one claims that yesteryear actors, such as Kamini Kaushal, Moushumi Chatterjee and Hema Malini, were regulars), Café Coffee Days and other retail chains. But that’s not why Bhasin brings me here. We are here to see why Gothic, Elizabethian, Tudor, Scottish and Swiss Bavarian architecture don’t make strange bedfellows.
Throw a jharokha in an otherwise neo-Gothic structure, and that’s all right, too. The former Civil Secretariat, also known as Gorton’s Castle, is living proof. “The architect lived in Jaipur all his life and incorporated the influence seamlessly into this building,” beams Bhasin.
More than the Mall
We walk ahead, and I look at a single-storey structure which now houses Himachal Khadi Ashram store and a restaurant, but is a classic example of Swiss Bavarian architecture. Here, Bhasin suddenly stops and points to a Weeping Willow.
“Did you know that every Weeping Willow in Shimla comes from a single cutting?” I shake my head, knowing, by his smile, that there’s more. “And that cutting came from the tree on Napoleon’s tomb in Helena,” Bhasin finishes with effect.
Shimla is not only for weary souls, mostly from Chandigarh and Delhi, who hire prams for their toddlers at the Mall and put their feet up. Shimla’s wonders are far more astonishing than being confined to shopping at the Mall. How else, for instance, would one know why exactly the Telegraph Office (now occupied by BSNL) is half-stone-half-red brick?
This whimsical building in Shimla had Asia’s first automatic telephone exchange and a capacity for 2,000 lines. It is an earthquake-proof, majestic structure, made of Ashlar-worked stone. You could see that the stone is finely cut, to a size that was pre-decided. However, in 1922, money was scarce and that is what forced the architect, John Begg, to continue building the top half structure in red brick.
That, however, did not stop him from playing around a bit when he was asked to build what is now St Andrew’s church besides the Telegraph Office. The lower part is built in red brick and the roof is tiled, all in an effort to establish synergy with the Telegraph Office.
It gets quirkier. The building opposite this structure, Bhasin shows me, resembles a steam locomotive and curves along the street. “And that’s because it was the railway booking office until recently,” he says.
Next, I stop at the Gaiety Theatre, and R Gautam, my suited and booted, guide, takes me through the restored Victorian Gothic building built by Henry Irwin in 1887. The acoustics ensured that microphones were not missed, and the walls are covered with golden papier mâché. The first English play to be staged here in 1887, Time Will Tell, starred Kipling.
Flavours of Himachal
Heady with historical details, I stroll back into my hotel, The Oberoi Cecil at Chaura Maidan, with barely-suppressed eagerness to rush to my room and jot things down. But I stop outside the hotel and remember — in an old photograph of Shimla, one taken during the British Raj, the hotel was in equally an impressive condition, complete with the servant quarters across the narrow street.
I forget my diary, ask around, and find that the structure was built in 1883. Then called the Tendril Cottage, it was a single-storey structure and was frequented by Kipling. Today, the hotel has retained its vintage charm and offers an array of modern services and experiences, too — walking tours in Shimla (Bhasin is on board, too), masterclasses for children and picnics at quiet, leafy spots.
At dinner, I sample some irresistible Himachali cuisine, including Kheru, babroo and other vegetables. You’d be taken aback at how all things spicy, sweet and sour come together and offer something so unique to the palate.
To turn back time, I visit The Indian Institute of Advanced Study, also known as the Viceregal Lodge. It sits atop the Observatory Hill and houses an eclectic library and a café. Its driveway is lined with rhododendron and oak trees. Two white ambassadors snooze in parking lots.
I walk in, just in time for the last guided tour of the building. Our guide, Somprakash Thakur, begins his story in an eager, singsong voice. The building was designed by Henry Irwin between 1884 and 1888, and used Burma teak.
Thakur looks at 20 gaping faces and theatrically adds that the teak has not been polished in 125 years. He takes us to a room with an intricate ceiling made of walnut wood and Kashmiri design. He points to a table, which has a line dividing it in half, and says, “Many people will tell you that this table was divided after the Partition and brought back together. That is a myth.” We all burst into laughter.
After our group leaves the building, Thakur and I get talking. I discover that his singsong tone disappears in person. He speaks so fondly about the building that you cannot help but see it differently. I convince (read plead) him to take me to the first and second floors of the building which has the erstwhile Viceroy and Vicereine chambers.
Thakur generously agrees, and takes me to the musty, haunting yet grand rooms of the Viceroy and the Vicereine. I wouldn’t bet on the number of times you’d need to visit the Lodge to shake off its sorcery.
Bookmarked in Shimla
That evening, after a humble, delicious snack of paneer pakodas and cold coffee at the legendary India Coffee House, I step into Maria Brothers Antiquarian Bookshop. The owner Rajiv Sud, sits back while I gasp and shake my head at the wonders on the dusty bookshelves. Among their many wonders are 16 volumes of the first edition (1880) of Arabian Nights (Burton Club, London). It costs, um, Rs 1 lakh.
The bookshop also has the first edition (1858) of Complete Works of Shakespeare, illustrated by John Gilbert. This copy has been engraved by Brothers Dalziel, who also cut the illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
And then it comes to me. Today, Shimla is every bit the cacophonous web of higgledy-piggledy lanes, where the new elbows the old in the ribs. But it keeps its secrets. Those who scour tranquility and timelessness in Shimla’s heights and depths will certainly find it.
The writer was hosted by The Oberoi Cecil