The Queen is dead, long live the Queen is the traditional proclamation where monarchies reign, signifying the continuity of the kingship. It probably holds true for the Queen of Hills — Simla, which was once the summer capital of India. Today, it is like any other hill station in the country: overpopulated, noisy and decaying and yet lakhs of tourists come here every year, to experience the last vestiges of its charm.
Simla or Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, is 1,742 kilometres from Mumbai and 348 kilometres from Delhi. You can reach there by train, which includes a scenic Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge journey or else drive up the hills. Either way the scenery is breathtakingly romantic, so long as you learn to ignore the diesel fumes and haphazard driving patterns that is now endemic to the entire country.
Unable to cope with the tourist rush from the plains, the hotels are over booked, offer poor facilities and are dingy and damp. The smiling Himachalis, though, make up with their hospitality and inability to take offence at the boorish behaviour of tourists from the plains.
In fact, this ‘hills versus plains’ behaviour is the favourite topic of conversation in most hill stations that one visits, whether Shimla, Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Mahabaleshwar or Ooty. The people of the hills will tell you of the loutish attitudes of the plains people, who are loud, crass and spoil the pristine beauty of their landscape. And yet, they need the visitors to keep their economy afloat. The plains people wear their boorishness like a badge of honour, demanding service for the money they pay, expressing annoyance and anger at the slow pace of life in the hills.
People from Delhi and Punjab have a special connection with Shimla. Most old families went up to Shimla in the summers, either to stay with grandparents or in the small hotels there. It was the northern pensioner’s paradise. Many still had connections dating back to pre-Independence days, when Shimla was the summer capital of the British Raj.
Last year, I took my grandmother, now 90 years old to Shimla. We were on the upper ridge on August 15 watching the march past, when she nostalgically spoke to me about her stay in Shimla in 1939. She had come here as a shy bride from a village in Karnataka, never having experienced a winter season. Her husband worked for the British government and would take her to the Simla club. She could not converse with the few other Indian ladies because she couldn’t speak any language other than Kannada.
“The cold breeze used to cut through my cotton sari and freeze my bones, I hated the chappals I had to wear and longed to walk bare-feet, the monkeys were a menace. At the Simla club, I would look yearningly at the bonfire in the centre of the garden, which would keep the English women warm. We Indians could only stand by the side, watching the British women warm their hands. Every one hour or so when it got too cold, some English woman would take pity and allow us to come near the bonfire for about 5 minutes and then we had to retreat. I hated it but your Ajja (grandfather) wanted me to learn social graces by observing the British women. I used to yearn for the durbar move back to Delhi those days.”
V N Kapoor, a senior government officer met his would be wife in 1953, in Shimla. They were introduced to each other at Scandal Point, which is located on the Mall Road, where everybody has always collected to just walk around and share gossip. He and Usha walked up till Gaiety Theatre and back for about an hour and decided they were made for each other. A love story that lasted 57 years, began in Shimla.
Sanjay Mehra who lost his mother as a pre-teen recalls vacations spent in their summer cottage near the Mall, his mother making marmalade from the local produce. He remembers how she would take him to the ghoda-vala (horse rider) for his evening ride. The ubiquitous ghodavalas are now allowed only on the upper ridge.
To many such people, the decay of Shimla is invisible, they go back hunting for memories, if they don’t find it, then rather than face disappointment they preserve the image of Shimla that they had in their minds.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash