The Hidden Queen
Shimla was still dizzy with the weekend hangover. What gave the city a slight pace were school kids waiting at the bus stop, walking on the roads, running towards the campus. Shimla has summer schools and winter holidays.
A few days earlier, we were checking our ‘must-watch’ list. Shimla is touristy and lives it. If Goa has a Portuguese feel, Shimla flaunts a Scottish personality. We attended the morning service at the Christ Church at the Ridge, a jewel of the Raj. But history’s detectives never miss the famous ‘heritage walk’. This includes the General Post Office, Town Hall, Gortan Castle, Vidhan Sabha and the likes—built by the British, supposedly in the architecture style favoured in Scotland at the time. There’s also a Scandal Point from where Prince of Patiala eloped with the daughter of the then viceroy.
However, the guided tour of the Institute of Advanced Study, formerly the Viceregal Lodge or Rashtrapati Niwas, on the Observatory Hills is unforgettable. It resonates with the history of pre- and post-Independence India. The museum, now a research haven for history and sociology scholars, is replete with portraits of long-gone major generals, viceroys and ladies dressed in exquisite gowns. Some old photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Sarojini Naidu embellished the walls. We saw the table where ‘papers of our Independence’ were prepared and the exclusive pressroom where the viceroys addressed the media.
When our ‘must-see’ list got exhausted, we decided to go sneak-peeking into the lives of locals. We started on foot along the winding toy train track. This track is known as the Kalka-Shimla Railway, which has been included in the Unesco World Heritage Site. Rows of houses are built “up-by-up” or “down-by-down” instead of the usual side-by-side. In place of approach roads are steps. Another unique-to-Shimla feature is the Walkers’ Pavements that are built a few inches down and parallel to the main roads. While treading on them, on our left were busy, noisy roads with less used pavilions overlooking the serene green valley. To top the local feel were roadside chai stalls, whose owners and customers would offer bits of interesting road stories along with tea, if you were inclined to listen. While sipping filter coffee at the Indian Coffee House and searching for stories, we saw an elderly man sitting near a window. We asked for his permission to sit on the opposite chair. And that’s when he looked up from the newspaper. By the time we finished exchanging a few introductory remarks, we were half-convinced he was ex-military. “Oh no,” he laughed. “I don’t do anything. I have never done anything in my life.” As it turned out, the gentleman—Mr Sharma—owns a vast tract of inherited land which he has let out to apple cultivators. His ancestors did the same.
Even in this century in our country there still are landowners who can afford to ‘not do anything’. We envied him. The next stranger we met was in every way the opposite to Sharma. This time he was a former soldier who was strangely evasive about his name. He ran the Embassy Cake Café, where every single poster, menu, advertisement, quote, and ‘must-try’ board was inscribed with his handwriting. The quotes were excerpts from the owner’s favourite books and speeches by great leaders. So the words of Abraham Lincoln, Aristotle and Paulo Coelho were scrawled all over the walls. We watched him crush coffee beans to ensure that his version of ‘world’s best cold coffee’ came out just the way he wanted. He clearly didn’t use any modern technology—no email ID or a café website or printers; he was not even on Facebook. “I am old school. And I think it makes me real. The men who I read every single day didn’t use any of those things, but they survived the most difficult struggles, didn’t they?” he asks.
We returned from Shimla with a longing for a life such as the one we left behind. We also felt a renewed appreciation for the life we live.
Instead of taking the entire Kalka-Shimla route in the toy train (eight hours), buy tickets up to three local stations from Shimla. The picturesque track is a three-hour walk.
Visit Kasauli, 73 km from Shimla.
Visit Fagu Village. It is full with terraced rice fields, covered with Himalayan Spruce and Cedar.
If you are a cricket fan, visit Chail that houses the world’s highest cricket pitch built by the Maharaja of Patiala during the days of the Raj.