The mountains are no more an unspoilt ‘walden’esque’ dream. The old glacial adjectives of wilderness, solitude or self-reflection are being fast replaced with trite expressions of the yellow-paged brochures, promising oodles of banal weekend indulgences. A perfect window seat experience bereft of any epiphanies or harsh frozen climbs. Blame it on the unrelenting summers or the rising aspirations of a bulging middle class; the Himalayas have never been this accessible, particularly its quaint old towns, which are painfully unraveling under the stresses of time and consumption.
For as long as I can remember, I had detested this vain commodification, but perhaps my reasons always carried a personal bias- I had grown up in one of these towns. On one of my recent visits, I decided to ditch the road and instead booked myself a berth on the Kalka-Shimla railway, the century-old narrow gauge link, which traces a hundred kilometers of the meandering route through the foothills of Northern Himalayas. I boarded an overnight train from the Delhi’s old railway station, which dropped me to the neon-lit Railway Station at Kalka early dawn. From Kalka I switched to the old toy train which began its steep, labyrinthine ascent into the mountains and after a three hour journey, it had climbed to a magisterial altitude, leaving behind all the traces of an impending summer.
The air had turned mild and pleasant when, all of a sudden, it went dark inside the cabin, and the creaking noise of the wheels tore through the train’s windows- the train had entered the Barog tunnel, the longest among the hundred and three operational tunnels on this route. Incidentally, the legend went that a British engineer, after whom the tunnel was named, disheartened by his failure the find the path for the tunnel, had ended his life by riding a horse into the debris of his failed project. I grew up in the shadow of such local legends; every old house in the town, every road, every chowk, every dark recess, every forest trail hid some ghoulish mystery. As a boy, I imagined Simla as a ghost town where I could always find an enchanted mystery at an arm’s length. I had grown up in awe of writers like Rudyard Kipling, who had lived and written about my hometown. In all those years of my childhood, the visit to the local bookshops meant a strange encounter, an incomparable thrill, a revelation of my surroundings through words and parables.
As the train chugged along, picking up the occasional steam, I could see the pines receding into the valley and a coniferous grove which began to cast a dark green shadow. On reaching the last station, which still carried an old stolid expression from its past, I found myself surrounded by a troupe of tourists. My past with the town had filled me with a kind of resentment towards both its residents as well as the tourists who flocked in every weekend, forgetful and irreverential towards its past. Although Simla had acquired all the necessary dimensions of a city, it still slept late into its mornings, unable to shed its old habits. I stood for a while, next to group of old haggardly porters, squatting comfortably in the morning sun, absently staring past my familiar face.
The next day, as hordes of people climbed to the regular haunts, I decided to sit down with a hardbound copy of Sir Edward J. Buck’s Simla: Past and Present which I had picked up at the local bookshop on a previous visit. Although many good works have been published in recent years, like Raaja Bhasin’s brilliant work, Simla: The summer capital of British India, I was intrigued by the sheer antiquity of this tome. The book was a detailed sketch of life and times of Simla in the late nineteenth century, written with an acute eye for the local detail and a healthy ear for gossip. It was replete with rich descriptions of ‘Simla society,’ which, by the late nineteenth century, had acquired an infamous reputation for its ‘sinful’ frivolities and voluptuous displays of gaiety- the balls, the gymkhana club, the football tournaments, the theater and the croquet and badminton parties. The author described the town as a ‘Circean retreat’, ‘Capua of India’ and ‘The Revels upon Olympus.’ He mentioned Kipling, an old resident of the city, and blamed his genius for ‘the spread of the idea that Simla is the center of frivolity, jealousy, and intrigue.”
Wonderfully clever as those stories were, they have, I fear, led many to regard Simla as a town populated by ‘Mrs. Hawkbees,’ by frivolous grass widows, idle hill captains and the genus known as bow-wows’
Throughout the book, which read like a fantasy tale about a feast upon a hill, I wondered how much the author failed to capture, deliberately or otherwise. He sparsely referred to the local history of Shimla, and whatever that did make it to its pages, took a form of the usual literary tropes- the fakirs with their magic tricks, the wandering Buddhist lamas, the coolies, the Tonga wallahs, the Churail baolis, the devil masks, the ghosts of slain soldiers, the menacing monkeys, and the odd animalism of the natives. The long shadow of its many British summers still haunt the city, and, sadly, this is most reflected on its bookshelves. It’s not surprising, therefore, we still continue to imagine and write about the hills with a similar dissociative drawl. This memoir was a make-believe universe of people once temporarily stationed in these parts, who longed for nothing more than a glimpse of their own home, and so they built this city, yet another grandiose outpost of the British Raj.
After a brief afternoon with the book, I decided to wander about the old town. It had been, for many years now, a topic of fierce debate and heartache — the withering away of the old town and its horrific transmutation into a city without a blueprint. One look at the modern city, and I could tell that it was sinking under the burden of its reputation. The century-old fears about it turning into a ‘rabbit-warren’ had surely come true. Amidst its many ruins, I could feel a personal loss, the death of its mystery. The modern times have only managed to cough up an unwieldy web of urban aspirations upon the city, which is now fast shedding its old appearances, something Kipling forebode, a hundred years ago — “Simla, where all things begin and many come to an evil end.”
Kipling is no more, and very few have found a similar inspiration in the city. No more is it the town of the Lurgan sahibs, Mrs. Hawksbees, Dr. McNabs or the phantom rickshaws. It has no Ruskin Bonds to boast of either, nobody who chronicled its post-independence years, and now there are rumors of the renaming of the city, and cleansing it off its British past.
As I walked past the old hospital buildings, I could see the city’s history carved on its stone plaques which somehow still carried the names of its British occupants. A walk through its foggy ramparts, amidst the weeping willows and the Himalayan hollies, an old red-bricked sanatorium still stood amidst the Gothic outline over the Elysium Hill. The old blue-grey stone buildings, sheltered amidst the pines, gave way to a busy market area, where the walls were freshly painted in mangled English and misheard malapropisms.
How should this city outgrow its past, I wondered — could it ever be anything more than the last vestige of the British Raj, or even worse, could it be anything more than an idyllic hill station? Do the residents have a collective memory of their town or are they a mere footnote in its history? Could this city speak for itself? Its identity was shaped and nurtured by its Victorian heritage, so how would it reconcile with its colonial origin? And finally, what would be left once the past is forgotten, the name plaques washed, the monuments raised to the ground and the shrines and cathedrals turned into a banal tourist curiosity?
Whether someone renames it ‘Simla’ or ‘shyeamalay‘ or ‘shyamala’ or ‘shumlah‘, in hopes of recovering some glorious past, what cannot be altered is the context within which the city was conceived. Much like the European resort towns of the nineteenth century, which had gained prominence for hosting the royalty, Simla, too, was built with a singular hope of providing relief to the British in India. It was the summer capital for their viceroys, grass widows, invalids and the sick soldiers — “a factitious England”, as J.G. Farrell writes in The Hill Station, his unfinished last novel set in Simla.
For all these years, I saw Shimla as somewhat akin to one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It shaped my fears and desires; a city of Kipling’s imagination wherein I was constantly embroidering my memories with fiction. To dream about a city, its bygone days, and its imaginary ghosts, a Woody Allenesque trick of returning to the past, the one that you considered the best of times, is what made the works of literature, such as Kipling’s tales, at once alluring and magical to me. They inspired a childlike imagination within me, and when the lived experience held forth none of those qualities, I was left with a haunting reverie. I took solace in V.S. Naipaul’s observation, who wrote on his first visit to city:
My disappointment was the disappointment we momentarily feel when, after reading of the house at Combray, we see the photograph of the house at Illiers. The vision is correct, but it is a child’s myth-creating vision. No city or landscape is truly real unless it has been given the quality of myth by writer, painter or by its association with great events. Simla will never cease to be Kipling’s city: a child’s vision of Home, doubly a fairyland. India distorts and enlarges; with the Raj, it enlarged upon what was already a fantasy. This is what Kipling caught; this is his uniqueness.
The days had become longer, and so, I decided to take a long winding road, back home, through the dense grove of blue pines and the marvellously ageing white oaks. It grew dark all too suddenly, and I was stranded on a narrow trail through the woods. I sat down to retrace the old path in my head, while the smoldering embers of my cigarette extinguished into darkness; all I could focus upon was the jagged road on the other end of the valley — a bright spectacle of lights. Every time a car made the turn from the leeward side of the hill, it threw a sharp beam, filling up the dark, silent crevices of the forest, reminding me of how, with each passing year, these lights were spreading out, like wrinkles, engulfing the entire hillside.
After another brief walk through the forest, I came across a group of men, who had huddled around a small smoky fire. They were from the nearby village, working for the state public works department on a new road that was being carved through these woods, mostly to facilitate a passage for the wildly mutating traffic of the city. These men talked about the unfeasibility of the project, and how it was unlikely to survive another winter, yet, it wasn’t any alarm that I could sense in their tired grunts, but rather a fatalistic acceptance of the times, and a posture of profound obeisance. This road will be built, the old map will be redrawn, and the old trail too shall disappear, just like the rivulet, which once flowed through this wooded ravine. The words of Rebecca Solnit rang true in my head:
The places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and in the end what possesses you.
I left the men behind, and pursued my lonely way back into the streets lit in flashing yellow lights. I had sleepwalked through the city the entire day, past all its ageing wooden bungalows, half burned down Victorian mansions, along its sinewy streets and skyward staircases, covered in winter leaves and soggy emerald ferns, with hopes of rekindling some of my old memories. As I walked, I thought about how much of the city, the Simla whose loss I mourned for, may have been my infantile imagination, born out of the books that I had once devoured. No amount of navel gazing could salvage that city for me now. In that brief moment, I couldn’t help but ask myself- what was it that I had hoped to find in my day-long sojourn through the city? If it’s true, as Pierre Nora emphasized “The quest for memory is the search for one’s history,” then indeed I was lost. I felt I had fallen off the map, and the places that I had walked past had nothing more to offer but a glimpse into an unknown past and, sadly, this was not enough anymore. My day long excursion brought me to a place where I yearned for nothing but an intimate memoir of my city, a more personal testimonial of its life. These buildings that I passed by now were indifferent to my condition; they lied about my past.
I had this sudden urge to burn all those gazettes, guides, travelogues, diaries from the past, the brochures with the pictures of snow-clad mountains, to rid this city of its false representations and the ill-fated catchphrases. What joy it would be, I thought, if the bookshops were purged and those shelves were replaced the living memories and banal conversations of the people who live here.
I had grown out of the books and unlike before, I wished to be rescued.