An Octogenarian’s Tales of Shimla’s Past

26 August, 2009


Early in the morning when I walked past Snowdon hospital alongwith my brother and my daughter, my brother looked up and said, “there is my school.” I looked up and saw clouds having hidden the Kendriya Vidyalaya Jakhu’s building which was thus could not be seen but he could see it as it came alive to him–in his memory.

 I saw the Poodiwala sitting near the tree on the Ridge where the road from Lakkar Bazaar meets the Ridge and could not help thinking that the tree did not look as big to me as it looked during my childhood. What had happened? Perhaps now I was watching it from the critical eyes of a seasoned mature person and not a small girl who seemed to be in awe of such a big tree on the Ridge!

Near the Golcha Restaurant where the steep stairs lead to the Lower Bazaar, we looked down at the market which was yet to open and decided to visit our old neighbourhood. Who would be there to remember you? Protested my daughter, scared at the thought of descending into a hub of small structures, seem to be grown on the sliding side of a hillock, and that through such steep stairs!

“We used to run countless times up and down these stairs!” said I in a reproaching tone. The small girl in me wanted to run the way I used to almost a decade ago! My knees and legs felt sturdy and I wanted to gallop down the stairs to the labyrinth of lanes where my childhood memories lay still fresh!

Down we went. My brother and I full of exciting chatter and my daughter grumbling at, what she considered, the precarious stairs! It was early in the morning and ringing the door-bell at such a nearly time was not, by any means, a good manner. But that was my neighbourhood where every time was considered a good time to call upon neighbours. I rang the bell. The door opened instantly and I could see her sitting by the side of a window. I had nearly overlooked the pretty young woman who had opened the door as I was literally dying to meet my childhood role model—Leela Behan Ji!

I was overwhelmed to see her. She was still the same—beautiful, graceful and ever smiling! Though it seems sacrilegious to me to name her by first name but this is how we have been addressing her ever since we became conscious of her existence. I ran to her open arms when she acknowledged me saying, “Kalo”! My childhood name never sounded good to me but it seemed musical to me at that moment as I seemed to find a way in the labyrinths of the maze of my childhood memories.

She was nostalgic for the good old times, for the old friends and for so many other things and the tales that came from her made us all mesmerized for their plain simple truth. Even my grumbling daughter sat quiet and absorbed in all that she heard. Stories and tales of a different time, a different world that was so different from the world she had seen.

I wanted to listen more stories, sitting at her feet, when she would be travelling in a far off past that was unknown even to me.

Stories from the Raj that she had seen from close quarters being a witness to so many of the happenings of those days of the Raj! I would relate all that I hear from her to my readers so that instead of the polluted information we get first-hand information from the perspective of a small girl who would run through the Mall, touching the satiny and silky gowns of the English Mem Sahibs!

7 thoughts on “An Octogenarian’s Tales of Shimla’s Past

  1. aarkay

    Down memory lane, it was a pleasure to go up and down the stairs between the Mall and Lower Bazar, not once or twice but a number of times almost daily and one was never tired. There were/are 14 such alleys from the Mall some leading straight to the Lower Bazar , and some meandering through the Middle Bazar. It was a routine with us to count the stairs very time while going from Kali Bari to Catholic Club ( Fingask) and the number came to 130/131. Yes, unlike these days(when it is felt necessary to make a call before visiting someone- lest it be construed bad manners -, people were the least formal and every time was meeting time .Nowadays you literally rub shoulders while crossing through Lower Bazar. Really one feels like saying-Jaane Kahaan Gaye Woh Din

  2. kavish

    hello mam,its really a pleasure reading elaborate your dream of chewing gum sticking with the teeth.Belated happy birthday.may you livelong and keep on writing.take care.

  3. Ashutosh

    “We used to run countless times up and down these stairs!”

    haha this is what you told me when I went to Shimla with you…. 🙂
    Wish I was there 😦

  4. भीगी बिल्ली

    Good to see you back. I’d really been missing your posts. Last time, I wanted to spend a lot of time with you but couldn’t. I hope I’ll be able to fulfil that desire this time.

  5. भीगी बिल्ली

    I’ve been so fascinated by Rudyard Kipling’s The Plain Tales from Hills. He talks a lot about Shimla. And everytime, I feel myself as some English man transported into the royal past of Shimla, trying to figure out my way in the mist with a hat and an overcoat and hmmmmmm, a smoking pipe as well at my lips.

    And when ever you talk about Shimla in the distant past, I get to know about Shimla of the innocence it had. The Shimla I knew of my childhood had bureaucrats and politicians donnig the Mall, where people from all strata mingled. The Himachal culture was omnipresent. The women in dathus, in reztas, jhudkis, men in their achkans, galbandas… However, pity, what remains today is not even a shadow. There is too much of vulgarisation. From one end to the other, the Mall today has about seven to eight thekas – the liqour shops. Coffee House is a poor shadow of itself, which fanned many intellectuals. People go there for nostalgia, not for the debates it used to have. What has taken over is a neo culture of pseudo intellectualism that can be seen at Coffee Cafe Day, which has pretensions of intellectualism. The attire young women are in speaks of the cropping materialism and show-off. Girls, I felt, in Shimla are the strongest. Their immune system is very strong, I must say. Come summer, monsoon, or winter, they can be seen in just one piece of garment – what they call as ‘Top’. I wonder, if they don’t ever feel cold. I am too eager to know about the badaams or pistas or the secret recipe of Chayavanprash their parents feed them that they remain always warm and don’t feel cold.

    Your musings of the Shimla past, just amalgamates Kipling’s Shimla, your Shimla and my Shimla of my childhood. Even if Shimla has changed for worse, still I cannot desert it. I’ll keep running back to it at every opportunity coming my way.

  6. Varun Kochhar

    My parent’s studied in Shimla and father worked there too. I love hearing stories from them and it was wonderful to spend time in Shimla on my visit to India. I stayed at Alderton a 100 year old place. And while searching for Alderton on internet came across this old book downloadable in various formats. Shimla, past and present by Sir Edward John Buck. I have given the link below to those who might wish to go down memory lane.

    Love and regards,

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