Shimla – Fading Beauty, Abiding Charms

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As a long time resident of Shimla I tend to regard her as an aristocratic primadonna whose beauty is now of the past, but some of the charms remain, still attracting the old faithfuls who once haunted her fashionable boudoir. These have not lapsed with the passage of time and still have the power to take us back to an age when life moved at the pace of the hand rickshaw, and the quality of life was measured in simple pleasures, not the mixed blessings of the Internet Of Things. I’d like to share a few of these with you, dear reader.

For me the main attraction on Mall road is still TRISHOOL, that cute little bakery next to the Gaiety theatre. In the metros the stand-alone bakery is now a thing of the past; what you have are chains and their stuff tastes the same whether you buy it in Connought Place, Khan Market or Greater Kailash. You can no longer easily get an honest, simple pastry, you’ll instead be hawked a meringue, or a gateau, or a truffle at five times the price. The cream roll is passe and extinct except in the slums. The simple, delicious patty is unrecognizable, stuffed with every kind of strange meats and paneer (in deference, I suppose, to those Punjabis who came in after the Partition). The bun has now metamorphosed into the croissant and tastes like a dog’s breakfast. And for all of this you pay humongous amounts through your e-nose. And that’s precisely why I keep going back to Trishool: the same chocolate pastries, fruit buns, cream rolls and patties that eased the white man of his burden on a cool Shimla evening a hundred years ago. Their taste has not changed a whit in the forty years that I have been having them, and I can have the whole lot for the price of one meringue in Khan Market.

And then there’s Dewan Chand Atma Ram ( DCAR, to the cognoscenti) just across the road. It has clothed me, my two sons, one wife, and many generations of Cottonians – even the then Headmaster, Mr. Kabir Mustafi, could be seen there of an evening, trying to get inside a waistcoat and never making it. I’m told the shop designs its own range of apparel (at least the pullovers and shawls): you may spend your life ordering from Flipkart, Amazon and Walmart, but you’ll never find anything to match the styles in DC. And the prices are so reasonable you wonder why either Deepak or Dinesh (the burghers who preside over the garments) bother asking you for the moneys at all!

Moving from the man-made to the natural charms of this fading beauty, there’s Forest Hill Road, a two kilometer stretch of sylvania which has somehow escaped the degradation and traffic chaos which have befallen all of the town’s roads. Its all mostly forest (the famous green belt) and has very few buildings on it. A walk along it of an evening can almost make you want to get married again – well, okay, that may be pushing it a bit – but you get the drift. Since nobody walks in Shimla these days, the road is quiet and contemplative. If you’re lucky you might meet Ms. Harinder Hira at the St. Bede’s end, if you’re unlucky you will probably bump into Yogesh Khanna, yelling blue murder because his partner messed up that Grand Slam at the club (incidentally, it’s always the partner, never Yogesh himself). Yogesh once recounted to me an interesting incident he was witness to on this same road. One bitter evening he was walking down the road in the middle of a tempestuous storm, the rain coming down in buckets and the wind fit to blow all the deodars to their knees. It was dark as night and completely deserted. Suddenly he saw a procession of nuns coming towards him, brightly lit candles in their hands, chanting hymns, looking straight ahead and quite oblivious of the raging storm. Yogesh stood aside, let the procession pass and continued on his way, wondering why the nuns were out on this candle-lit march in this awful weather. Suddenly (he told me later), he froze as a thought came to him: how on earth were all the candles burning bright and steadily in the middle of this storm, the howling wind and torrential rain? He looked back – the road was empty for as far as he could see! The nuns had disappeared. Yogesh hurried home, not looking back even once, like the Ancient Mariner who “turns no more his head, for he doth know that close behind a fearful fiend doth tread…”
And then there’s Annadale, that divinely picturesque glen cradled in the lap of majestic deodars. It is here that the Indian army trains day and night to clobber the Chinese – at golf. This golf course is one of the army’s treasured possessions and they would sooner vacate Siachen than Annadale. I’ve played golf here for a few years, though “played” is an euphemism: I spent most of my time looking for the ball in the forests, because, for some strange reason all my drives invariably went in the direction of Kasauli. I took to wearing a compass instead of a watch but even that didn’t help. After seven years on the course I’ve never hit an eagle or birdie, though I have hit a cow (twice, may the BJP forgive me) and Yatish Sud (once). Annadale is a wonderful place, worlds away from the mess that is Shimla, and I hope the army never hands it over to the civilian administration, for then it will become another Sanjauli.

One wouldn’t normally add the HP govt. secretariat to Shimla’s list of charming memories, not even if Sunny Leone became Chief Secretary and gyrated her sinuous way up that historic staircase every day, with the entire Cabinet standing below shouting “Jai (Be) Hind !” But I do retain fond memories of one small corner of the Secretariat, the broken down, dingy, refrigerated building behind Armsdale. We christened it Guru Nanak Niwas, because it was a kind of refuge-cum-exile for those not in favour with the rulers of the day. At one point in time in the mid-eighties both Ashok Thakur (he retired last year as Secretary to the Union Govt.) and I were sentenced to serve time in GNN, he as JS (Forests) and I as JS (Animal Husbandry). I do not recollect what Ashok’s transgression was, but I was exiled because of a rumour that I had named my dog after the then Chief Secretary, ostensibly so that I could kick him around vicariously! The rumour was, of course, a canard: my dog was named Brutus, but I was banished to GNN nonetheless.

Quite unknown to the mandarins of the Secretariat Administration Deptt. who thought that that the place was a gulag for the heretics like Ashok and me, it was actually a jolly fine place. No Minister or senior officer ever visited GNN so we could do just about what we wished to. We usually strolled in at about 11.00 AM, to find loud singing emanating from the bathrooms where all the Section officers were having a bath in order to save water at their residences. We worked from 11.00 to 12.00 noon and then made our way up the hill behind the building to Raj Bhavan where my late batch mate J.P.Negi was the Secretary to Governor. The afternoons were spent in playing billiards and partaking of the fine food churned out by the Raj Bhavan kitchen. At 5.00 PM we would return to our offices, sign the couple of files that had mistakenly found their way to our tables, pick up our squash kits and repair to the Raj Bhavan squash court. It was like we were almost on an unofficial deputation to the Raj Bhavan. It was a wonderful time but, like all good things in life, didn’t last very long. Ashok finally managed to locate a tribal leader to bail him out. In my case, someone conveyed to the Chief Secretary that my dog was named after a Roman statesman and not a Kinnaura worthy, and so I was shifted to Finance and back to the main mausoleum of Ellerslie. There I learned, among other things, the similarity between a bikini and a budget viz. that what they conceal is much more interesting than what they reveal. Or that a deficit is better than a surplus – ask any ‘ O ‘ size maiden, if you don’t believe me.

What I’m trying to say in my own convoluted way is this: don’t grieve over the beauty that once was Shimla, but use your memories to bring back those charms. It doesn’t matter that Mary’s lamb has now become a mutton burger, remembering her other charms can still bring back the good times. As exemplified in this little, Kipling-esque ditty reproduced from my good friend Raaja Bhasin’s wonderful book on Shimla:

” Mary had a little skirt
And it was slit in half,
Who gives a damn about Mary’s lamb
When you can see her calf ?”

Who indeed?

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.....he has made them his home. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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