I don’t know why I went back to Shimla again. There’s such an LCD Factor — lowest common denominator factor as opposed to the X-Factor — about the Himachali capital. Each time you say “hill station” in Delhi, someone invariably pipes up “Shimla”. It’s that lame.
The first time I went to Shimla, I — along with a couple of female colleagues, armed with six McDonald’s burgers — caught a decrepit bus from ISBT after closing the edition on Friday night. The bus rattled all the way as we slept in fits and starts.
By the time I woke up and was gaping at the mountains, we were already in Shimla. It was love at first sight. Over the next 36 hours, I grew to love, in no particular order, the church in the mall, the coffee house that served sweet French toast (I’ve grown up on the salty variant), the store round the corner that sold old books, the cobble-stone buildings, the trek up to this temple where the monkeys wreak havoc…
A couple of years after that, I watched Black, which was Shimla redux in soft focus. Then, a few months ago, I caught the rushes of Black on cable, gave short shrift to Bachchan’s overdone make-up and Rani’s over-the-top histrionics, and dreamily gazed at Shimla — this time on flatscreen television.
I just had to get back there again. So when the idea of a motor-able weekend getaway was mooted, I said, on reflex, “Shimla”. “What?” the others howled in protest. It was peak tourist season, we had no bookings; besides, everyone and their chowkidars go to Shimla. Why not someplace off the beaten track — like Naldehra or Narkhanda or even Chail?
No, I said stubbornly, it has to be Shimla.
In love again
Outside Shimla, we stopped at a roadside dhaba, where one man served an army of hungry eaters. Lunch thaalis were being dished out on wooden tables — staccato-style —and everyone was eating in silence. Once in a while someone would raise his/her hand, like in a classroom, and want more: “daal” or “roti” or “sabzi”. The one waiter did his rounds wordlessly and with effortless ease. We gave him a 40 per cent tip on the bill — and I was desperately hoping he’d smile, but he didn’t.
Inside Shimla, we had to get a place to stay. There was one hotel placard planted in the midst of a bunch of pine trees; the name was woody and lovely, so we decided to locate it. It was past the Governor’s living quarters, a charming montage of wood and stones with lush creepers nestling all over its slanted rooftop — but it was full up, no rooms to rent out.
Come on in and see the insides, the gracious manager was hospitality par excellence. I gravitated towards the bar, where there were huge black-and-white photographs of Robert Taylor and Hedy Lamarr. “Er, they were friends of the owner’s grandmother,” said the hospitable manager. “She was Garhwali, but looked European and hobnobbed with the who’s who of Hollywood in the 30s and the 40s.”
He then referred us to one other charming hotel, where there was one room available. “But only for a day,” smiled the ruddy-cheeked man at the reception counter.
We checked out at 12 noon the next day, parked the car at the city parking lot, walked down the teeming mall as the chief minister’s convoy kept whizzing past us, and identified our next resting place: a grey colonial-style building and pots bursting with red flowers placed strategically all over the façade. Here too, we got ‘lodging’ for just 24 hours.
I hit the mall, and revisited the church. There was a cultural event being staged right outside it, and some chap was singing songs from Mujhse Shaadi Karogi; I couldn’t locate the old book store; the French toast didn’t taste half as good as it had the first time; and my friends wouldn’t hear of going anywhere close to the monkeys.
But how I loved it — even the milling crowds and our fly-by-night hotel hopping.
The Psycho in Kasauli
On the way back, we stopped by at Himachal’s last hillside outpost (or first, if you are wending your way up from the plains), Kasauli, and checked into a hideous, sprawling yellow structure set amid landscaped gardens. We were the only guests. The place was new, the manager explained gravely.
There was a swimming pool, but it was being cleaned that day. There were also ‘facilities’ for Kerala ayurvedic massage — but not for ladies. I looked crestfallen. “Madam, for you ladies, there’s a gym,” the manager pitched sonorously.
So, on the last evening of my three-day break to the hills, I put on my sensible shoes and headed out to the gym that was bathed in blue colour emanating out of many, many zero-watt blue bulbs. The gym instructor, it turned out, was also the masseur. He insisted on following me around the gym, and sulked when one of my male friends turned down his offer of a massage.
Later at night, I felt distinctly eerie, as the slightest touch of chill enveloped me. I don’t know why, but the gym instructor-cum-masseur reminded me of Norman Bates.