Friday, 8 January 2010

A Defence of Shimla

It is not cool to like Shimla. If you tell them that you are planning a vacation in Shimla, seasoned travellers tend to look slightly disdainful, as a gourmet might look if you suggest dinner at McDonald’s. “Why don’t you go to [insert obscure hill-station here] instead?” they’ll ask. “It’s virtually undiscovered.” Shimla is too crowded. Shimla is too noisy. Everyone goes to Shimla.

And that, principally, is why I like Shimla.

But there are other reasons too. Shimla has very pretty buildings. Neo-Tudor architecture looks especially fetching in a hill-town, and Upper Shimla’s public buildings, such as the State Library, the candy-coloured Post Office and the newly restored Gaiety Theatre, are all in this style. The private houses are an eccentric mishmash of architectural styles; Rajasthani cupolas frame bay windows looking out on Mall Road. And on a hilltop in the distance, its gables and turrets peering through the pine trees that surround it, Gothic Gorton Castle broods darkly over the town.

The food is good. The Combermere’s cafĂ© has some of the best continental food I have tasted; my eyes mist over when I think of their charbroiled chicken in orange sauce. Indian Coffee House – that peerless institution – squats on the western end of Mall Road. Here, distinguished old gentlemen in tweed suits exchange greetings with friends, just as they have been doing for decades.

But to see why I like Shimla, to truly enter into the spirit of things, you must go there in the tourist season, and seek out the centre of the town – the pedestrian-only Mall Road and, above it, the flat open area known as the Ridge. Half Shimla has had the same idea, but let that not deter you.

Teenyboppers in fur-lined jackets and multicoloured mufflers promenade up and down Mall Road, eyes shining with excitement. Toddlers run between the legs of grownups. The policemen have little to do; they stand around looking resplendent in their blue and gold livery. In the evenings, in front of the Town Hall, the police band plays popular Hindi tunes of yesteryear.

Most of the people here are on vacation, so everyone is in a holiday mood; everyone is feeling simply splendid. And the Himachali locals are among the friendliest I have met; bus drivers shout out salutations to each other as they pass, and at the Clarkes, waiters recognized me after nearly three years.

If you are looking for peace and quiet, a remote hilltop hamlet where the silence is broken only by birdsong and the bleating of distant sheep, Shimla is not the place. It has Adidas showrooms. But if you are prepared to accept that not all hill-stations need to be an approximation of Shangri-La, if you enjoy people and colour and festive spirit, you might like Shimla very much indeed.


Anushka said...

This is exactly the way I feel about Darjeeling.

Rahul said...

I haven't been to Shimla or Darjeeling and nor am I seasoned traveller but I went to Gangtok and Thimpu and I must say I hate small towns infested with people (look closely they aren't really happy - mostly the wife is complaining about something and the husband is feeling nagged- children are happy anywhere they don't count) trying to be big towns infested with more people. I must confess, I would hate Shimla.

Rohit said...

If you see more closely, you will find real happiness, which comes by not having to leave your birthplace in search for material comforts for some polluted and overcrowded city. It comes just by being content with what you have and leading a simple life rather than making it complicated and hectic.

Some people with big city-urban backgrounds may have difficulty understanding this notion, which needs a heart, not a prejudiced mind.

Anushka said...

My god, how did this comment page get so debate-marka? :P

Rahul Saha said...

@Rohit - I completely agree. I would love to live in a tiny village in the mountains and that would truly make me happy. However, Shimla is anything but a village and my city upbringing means that the skills that I have would be of no use in a tiny village (for example, I don't know how to cut wood, make good tea or be a tourist guide) and I would starve. Ironic as it is, it is therefore necessary for some of us to live in big polluted cities to actually make enough money to be able to live in a tiny village without working. Of course, none of this changes the fact that I would still hate Shimla not for what it is but for what it represents.

Shrabasti Banerjee said...


Priyanka said...

It's no point saying I dislike hillside watering-holes, the truth is that I've been conditioned to not have a very strong opinion of them at all. Mussoorie, Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Shimla, they all had the same effect on me, which was a slight gag at all the congestion, then a cheerful resolve to walk around as much as possible before we made our way to the tiny hamlets. I've never stayed beyond two days at any of these places. And if I spent a week in them I'd still treat them as town holidays, not hill holidays.

The saving graces in every case, I think, are the bakeries and restaurants. The food's always good, as are the train rides that take you to it =)

Pratiti said...

But there's a very distinct difference between the Gangtok sort and the Shimla sort. Shimla and Darjeeling are a class in themselves, with only Mussoorie coming close. Gangtok and Thimpu are upstarts.

Rohit said...

Very true Rahul. I was just making a point about the happiness of local people in Shimla and Himachal in general. Low crime rates reflect this fact.
Gangtok, Thimpu may be entirely different.

Vikrant said...

Pratiti is absolutely right.

Debosmita said...

I agree with you, Sroyon. I loved Shimla and also Darjeeling. But I also loved other quaint, quiet places I visited in Kinnaur.

I linked your post in mine