Published: August 4th 2009July 20th 2008
Shimla comes and goes...
The state capital, composed of various vertical and rectangular buildings, is on the brink of sliding right into the valley below. I determined to bypass the taxi stand and walk the mile or so to town while dodging the exhaust pipes of buses and other motorized hazards.
“Oh, and good news for you, sir! No Indians at this hotel.” Huh? The comment made no sense to me as I followed the Punjabi concierge up to my overpriced room. With a view of the entire city, a room here is often part of a packaged weekend for people from Chandigarh, Amritsar, Jaipur, or Delhi. In the lull of the off-season, it is possible to wheel and deal a little bit. I did. But Shimla is primarily for Indian tourists. “So, you can meet some nice Australians and an American. Very nice. It will be quiet here.”
“All I need is a quiet room with a desk and a chair.” The eager concierge went on to tell me that many young Indian men travel to Shimla for a two or three-day getaway from the city. When in Shimla, they are loud, fill up with drink for which they have no experience, and generally
Remnants of a bygone era...
misbehave. I was to learn more about that the subculture of affluent Indians later.
Shimla is where Yorkshire collides with India. It is the Aspen of the country without the ski slopes amongst a pale yellow Anglican church and stone municipal buildings right out of a Brontë novel. India’s Beautiful People come here to be seen in sweaters and put their spoiled children on the backs of horses to a quick gallop up and down the Mall. William Dalrymple’s work, The Age of Kali, dedicates a chapter to Shimla wherein he interviews two women, now of advanced age, who reminisce about Shimla in the time of the Empire. They remark about its order, cleanliness, and the flowers. It was a beautiful place, they say. Nowadays, a touch of order lingers. While mass piles of waste do not scar the landscape, municipal officials have seen to it that major unsightliness has been shoved into the corners and hillsides. The homeless do not live in the pedestrian Mall nor do they lay on the benches of Scandal Point. They are warehoused in a dark underpass. I tripped over a few on my way from the station. There are fewer touts and even
In the Clear
Shimla when the clouds uncover it....
the stray dogs are kept well groomed, as the Beautiful People would not have it any other way.
Punjabis, Sikhs primarily, man the shops. Stern-looking women walk side by side with their daughters while both hold separate conversations on their flip phones. Mom is in a smashing bright sari and the teen could fit in perfectly among classmates in the stands of any high school basketball game in Virginia. One carries a shopping bag from Wills Lifestyle, the other just walked away with something from Benetton. Twenty yards ahead, a couple is carrying a Domino’s pizza back to their hotel room. The men of the family loiter on park benches with an ice cream near an old-fashioned English mailbox. Public announcements have been pasted to the side of the Town Hall built of grey stone and timber colombage on the gables. The text is all in Hindi and I crack a smile at the contrast.
Overall, Shimla does nothing for me. I have already searched for somewhere else in Himachal to pique my wonder. Dramatic views of the hill station can be seen from all sides. Often they are hidden in clouds, but eventually open up in strikingly.
“Often, in late December, it is the only time they come so they can see snow. Most of them have never seen it. That is why they come to Shimla.” Turun Kapul is the managing Director of the Himachal Pradesh Power Company, and native of Shimla. He sent his driver to collect me from my hotel lobby and bring me to his modest office among tall pines on a steep incline. An armed guard showed me the way to his office, where the well-educated executive talked more about his hometown. “In fact, there is no chance to book a hotel room yourself for New Years. And Christmas is impossible, too.” I quietly contained my pleasure that Hindus and Sikhs come to Shimla for Christmas, of all holidays. “If you do not book a package, a hotel will not give you a room. Calling to make a reservation will not work. Many folks sleep in their cars, just to say that have spent their holiday here.”
Over the years, he has seen changes in Shimla, but of course does not allude to the city’s former colonial master. “It used to be cold all the time, it snowed more. Days in the summer were never warm like they are now.” Yes, perfect for the British. No wonder they were so taken with Shimla. Why would they ever go back to Delhi? “It is rainier now, and it hardly ever snows as much.
“When I was a child, we used to walk everywhere. But now, people have no time for this. They go by scooter and take the bus wherever they want to go.” Tarun never referred to visitors, but to those who live here. I changed topics and asked about electrical power in Himachal Pradesh. I opened a map of the state and laid it flat on his desk. Tarun removed some paperwork on financial projections to make more room. “We have projects here…and here….and here. There are five in total.” The one currently under construction near Rampur is a 1,500 megawatt facility. Of course, I have no idea what that means. “Put it this way, Richard, all of Himachal requirements add up to one thousand megawatts. Delhi needs two thousand five hundred for its needs.” The scale and concept of electrical power still eluded me. I pulled out the biggest and most grandiose example I could think of so get a better feel for what he does.
“Have you ever been to the Three Gorges Dam?” It is now operational and transforming the entire upper stretches of the Yangtze River.
“So, how much will be its output?”
“18,000 megawatts.” Wow. “But Richard, China has an advantage. The government can ask their own people to move from their homes to build such a project.” When all is said and done, one million people will have been relocated.
“No, Tarun. The Chinese government does not ask. They order and the people must comply.”
“We cannot do that in India.” And that is a good thing.
He used his middle finger to point to a few spots in the Satluj Valley and another to the southeast. Clearly, his firm harnesses the river’s power for the production of electricity. “I would send you to one of them for you to see. But I have none of my men going in that direction.” Nonetheless, he advised me to visit a village in Kinnaur, to the east of Shimla. Measuring the distance on the map, I took it for a four-hour bus trip. There I would stay for a few days and meet up with Madhukar and Kiran. They’ll be in central Himachal soon after.
“No, no”, implored Tarun, that will be seven hours by car. And-”
“But I will go by bus.”
“Then it will be about nine hours.” I added up the small red numbers between towns along the way and totaled the sum for the distance in kilometers between my target and Shimla: two hundred forty-seven kilometers or about one hundred fifty miles. “Be sure you leave by ten thirty in the morning. I will book you a room at a good spot. If you have any trouble, here is my mobile number and that of my P.A. I have to go to a function tonight.”
“Oh. What’s all the excitement about?”
“I have to meet the new Governor.” Interesting, but an unwritten requirement of his job.
“What will you say?”
“Nothing, of course. Most of us have to stand there and be quiet.” Tarun already knows how to play the game. I liked his candor. It was the type of honesty I have seen throughout India. Many flat out explain the unpleasantries up front without dancing around the painfully obvious.