Humbled by India


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Category: International 20 Jan 08


After eight hours of rattling along on the cramped Viceroys Toy Train, built more than 100 years ago to carry the British from the base camp in Kalka to their summer capital, Shimla, up nearly 100 km of winding precipitous valleys and pine forests, I want to hurl myself into the mountains.

We went through 103 tunnels, 24 bridges and stopped at more than a dozen stations. Its snail’s pace almost took the poetry out of the snow-capped Himalayas, the valleys of maize terraces and orchards.

We arrive at night in sub-zero weather, taking gulping breaths to adjust to Shimla’s altitude of 2,159m.

From the taxi stand we climb what feels like thousands of stairs to our hotel that, like the rest of this tiny hill station, is a colonial relic, with fireplaces, billiards room and no central heating in spacious drawing rooms.

Snowfall is expected. But the morning dawns cold and bright, sun streaming in through the pine trees, which perfume the air. My son dubs it an “Indian Switzerland.”

Surrounded by pine forests and jagged snow-capped Himalayan ranges, watching the hardy hill people in their embroidered caps, bright shalwar khameez, flushed cheeks and cashmere shawls walk around us, I remember the Shimla of my childhood.

Shimla is built in layers on five hills like a wedding cake.

On the top layer a large flat piazza (The ridge) with a panoramic view of rippling great Himalayan ranges, has the perpetual air of an English fair: a brass band plays near the Victorian Gothic church, as hundreds of people mill about, pony rides are offered, and the skating rink is a frenzy of the shouts of children and the clash of steel with ice.

Hugging the slope of the hill we tumble down the next layer to “The Mall.” With its British half-timbered buildings, and upscale shops, this street was once out of bounds to all “natives” except royalty and rickshaw wallahs.

Even now you can pop into the colonial Gaiety Theatre or to the Gentleman’s Club to talk business and cricket.

The deeper you descend in the layers, as we do, walking down twisting narrow lanes, and down steep stone steps, the closer you get to the authentic pahari (mountain) people in the bazaars, populated by cobblers, jewellers, grocers, tailors and vendors frying sweets and pakoras in enormous frying pans, wrapping hot food in paper for eager cold hands.

I point out to my children my old school across the hills—“the Jesus and Mary convent” to which I was transported daily in an army truck.

My father takes us to his old officers’ mess, and the “green room,” the officers club. We walk past our old home, army quarters now another crumbling colonial building converted into a youth hostel.

The monkeys are still in the garden, on pine trees and along promenades, where they leap around in groups, grabbing the peanuts tossed to them by passers-by.

My daughter is terrified for a few seconds when she is surrounded by them, and pierces the sharp mountain air with a scream.

Army men in green are visible everywhere today, as local election results are announced (the BJP trounces Congress. A jeweller says the people of Himachal Pradesh like to switch it around every five years).

We visit the Viceregal Lodge where Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah and Lord Wavell sat down and changed the destiny of millions by agreeing on a partition between India and Pakistan.

I glimpse the valley beneath the stall of a proud cobbler who refuses an 80-cent tip, saying he takes only what he’s worth (half that), and standing small amidst the Himalayan range beyond, I am humbled by India.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur