Memory is a cruel thing; it preserves people and places in the formaldehyde of timelessness, saving them from the cruel ravages of age and circumstance. Nothing demonstrates this better than the so-called ‘trip down memory lane’, for seldom does such a trip culminate in a happy balance of expectation and reality. A recent trip Shimla proved just how chimeral a thing is memory, especial from one’s childhood.
Invited to present a paper at the Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla (IIAS), I jumped at the chance of revisiting the erstwhile capital of colonial India. Housed in the former Vice Regal Lodge, the IIAS is a place of rare beauty and splendour quite apart from being the country’s premier destination for academics, scholars and writers. While it is always an honour to speak at an international gathering of scholars, for me the occasion was a special one. For, it meant revisiting a place that held many happy memories from my childhood. My grandfather had been a Fellow here in the 1970s, working on the influence of western literature on Urdu. It was here, in this venerable institution, among its walnut wood panelled cubicles and its lofty-ceilinged library that he had organised seminars and written books drawing attention to, among other things, Iqbaliyat, a hitherto neglected area of scholarly study in India. He and my grandmother had lived in one of the quaint properties (called Delville) that dotted the Institute’s vast, rolling acres. And it was here that we, my siblings and I, had gambolled in our summer vacations during his tenure, revelling not merely in the escape from the oppressive heat of the plains but in the secluded grandeur of the Institute and its environs. To be invited to this oasis of calm and beauty as an adult was, thus, not merely an honour but an occasion to revisit the past, needless to say a carefree past.
Young as I was when I had last visited Shimla, I had been enraptured by its pristine beauty, its scenic nooks and crannies and its ever-smiling, ever-cheerful Himachali people. Going back, after nearly thirty years everything – except for the cheerful Himachali people – has changed, changed irrevocably. The drive up from Kalka station is prescient with the ominous changes ahead. A traffic snarl greets us as we are halfway up the first climb at Parwanoo. The hills, once clad in dense green, are pockmarked; the pine, rhododendron and oak that once clothed these hills in such abundance have been felled in large swathes to build box-like high-rise flats. Solan -- once renowned for its breweries, sanatoriums, fruit orchards and Wordsworthian cottages -- is dusty and muggy. Worse still, it sprouts Mcdonalds, Subway, et al. Already, I find myself missing the squeaky clean roadside dhabas that served piping hot rajma-chawal and aloo ke paranthe. The few old-fashioned dhabas that remain now serve ‘chow-main’, ‘Maggi noodal’ and ‘burger-pattis’, many bearing boards in Bengali and Gujrati to woo the big spenders from these two states.
Once called the ‘Queen of the Hills’ for it housed the summer capital of the colonial government, Shimla is a travesty of its former self. Its aura of genteel refinement, its salubrious pine-scented air, its row of sedate eateries and glass-fronted shops are all gone; in its place are the worst specimens of crass consumerism. The venerable shops on the stately Mall are gone, sold out or so completely revamped as to be unrecognisable. Gaindamull, from where we bought handmade fudge and glugged cold coffee in glass bottles, is an anonymous, self-service super store. The small, family-owned shops are all gone; in their place stand swanky, chain stores -- even a Tommy Hilifiger store, which I noted with some satisfaction, is empty save for a bored-looking expensively-dressed salesperson. Tara Hall, the country’s premier boarding school for girls, now takes in only day scholars. Scandal Point on the Ridge, once a haunt of fashionably-dressed who’s-who, is swamped with street hawkers though the Church of Scotland still manages to raise its stately head above the squalor of its surroundings.
Hoping to find some connection with the past, I walk into the India Coffee House, a franchise of the All-India Coffee Growers’ Cooperative. Set up in the 1950s, these lookalike coffeehouses popularised coffee and south Indian food such as idli-dosa-vada and are ubiquitous in most of the older cities. Long before the Baristas and the Café Coffee Days set up shop in Indian cities, it was these coffeehouses -- uniformly furnished in uninspiring browns and employing the most doddering old waiters imaginable -- that managed, at frugal prices, to attune the north Indian palate to the stronger South Indian tastes and smells. Unfortunately, here too, in this last bastion of old-fashioned middle-class India, that elusive connection with the past is missing: the coffee tastes of tepid dishwater and the vadas are stone cold. With some misgivings, I gaze at a moth-eaten poster of Padmini, a film actress of yester-years, assuring me she loves her morning cup of coffee. Disconsolately, I swivel around to gaze out of the casement windows. The view outside, however, is as stunning as the ones kept safe in the storehouse of my memory. The setting sun has clothed the mountain ridges with the most luscious hues of apricot, peach and vermillion. The sonorous sound of temple bells wafts up from the Lower Bazar; God is in His heaven and all seems right with the world. However, a short walk along the Mall soon disabuses me of any good will towards this deflowered Queen of the Hills that the spectacular sunset may has generated. The olde order has changeth; yielding place to a new that is coarse, chaotic and crass.
I return to the Institute hoping something here will rekindle old memories in all their pristine glory. Built from 1884-88 as a home for the then-Viceroy Lord Dufferin, the Vice Regal Lodge is a delightful mix of Elizabethan and Scottish architectural styles and motifs. Its statuesque proportions, its turrets and towers, chandelier-lit passages, solid oakwood furniture, majestic staircases, as well as the stunning view commanded by its location on the Observatory Hill combine to make it one of the finest surviving relics of the raj. After independence, it became the Presidential retreat but upon the philosopher-academic-president Dr Radhakrishnan’s suggestion, it was turned into an institution of higher learning and the President’s retreat was shifted to Chharabra, on the outskirts of Shimla. Inaugurated in October 1965, it was envisaged as a haven of intellectual freedom, an experiment in intellectual autonomy.
However, a paucity of funds has prompted the Institute to permit – for a ticket of Rs 50 each -- busloads of tourists to tramp through its historic premises. Home to several meetings and conferences of national and international significance -- notable among these being: the Shimla Accord of 1914 to negotiate the status of Tibet; and the Shimla Conference of 1945 between the Viceroy Archibald Wavell and political leaders such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Nehru, Jinnah, Azad, Tiwana and Tara Singh – there is history at every footstep. Guided tours take gawping visitors across its carved grey Himalayan stone exteriors, through its wood-panelled stairways and corridors, past gilded mirrors and ornate fireplaces; their flashing cameras, high-pitched chatter and ringing cellphones jarring in the stillness of this scholarly retreat. Worse still are the monkeys that are vicious, aggressive and everywhere! Once to be found largely in the vicinity of Jakhoo Hill which had an ancient temple devoted to Lord Hanuman and where, to please the deity, visitors fed the monkeys that had occupied this hilltop for generations, this simian menace has swamped the entire mountain range.
One can walk among the many winding pug-dandies that spill out from the Institute – some going down to the tiny bazar of Boileuganj (pronounced Balooganj by coolie and scholar alike), others towards the cottages that dot the 100-acres of densely-wooded mountain slopes – only with a stout stick or a sturdy fellow scholar. For, the monkeys are known to get up close and personal, especially with lady visitors whom, they have rightly guessed, are more easily intimidated. I visit my old home, Dellville, and find it overgrown with weeds, rundown and a far cry from the romantic cottage that nestled in my memory. Evidently, the resource crunch is everywhere.
I come down the mountain to my home in the plains, reciting this fragment that my grandfather was fond of reciting:
Tuk dekh liya, dil shad kiya, khush waqt huye aur chal nikle.
(The occasion was to read a paper entitled ‘Songs for all Seasons: The Oral Tradition in Urdu Literature’, 10-12 October 2011, International Seminar on Orality: Word, Text and Beyond, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.)