Shimla was never on my priority list. It could never have been. I don’t enjoy crowded, tourist places where you need to fight for elbow space and pay Rs 50 for a bottle of Aquafina. Our trip to the hills of Himachal would include Pragpur, Taragarh, Dharamsala. But Shimla? No. Certainly not.
“But do you really want to sit in a car for nine hours?” asked my friend whose misfortune it is to plan all my holidays. That’s how long it takes by road to get from Dharamsala to Chandigarh, from where we fly back to Mumbai. “Break the journey at Shimla.”
Nine hours on the road was not an option. Not even half that, in fact. I was with someone who suffers from motion sickness. “Oh well, we’ll stop at Shimla,” I conceded. “But for just a day.” “Spend two days there,” ordered my friend. “You’ll enjoy it.”
The international phone rates — my friend lives in London — resolved the debate. It was two days in Shimla. Motion sickness and high phone bills are never the best reasons for visiting a place. But Shimla bowled me over. By being exactly what I hate — unapologetically, unabashedly touristy.
It’s the people, my husband offered by way of explanation. “People? Wasn’t that the problem? Too many of them,” I snorted.
Several days and much deliberation later, I realised he was right. It is the people. Not the unavoidable, hard-selling locals. It’s the tourists themselves that make Shimla magical. As the sea of tourists determinedly tramps through the meandering Mall — Shimla’s main shopping centre — with the single-minded purpose of enjoying itself, you can’t help but join in. (It helps that there’s really nowhere else to go.) It’s like taking part in a rally where the agenda is to celebrate being alive. An almost — I am embarrassed to admit — mawkish joie de vivre.
The first time I strolled down the Mall, I was in no mood to forgive Shimla its follies: a long drive on bad roads with thick fog and near-zero visibility, a traffic jam that had us waiting at the outskirts of the city for an hour, and a slow, dreary drizzle.
I was ready to write Shimla off before I got there. But as I strolled through the Mall, ready to find fault, the cloud lifted. Literally too. As dusk moved in and the endless row of shops started lighting up, I made my way though the jolly mob of tourists taking in the sounds, sights and smells, and gradually became one of them.
Laughing, eating, bargaining, shopping — there’s not much more you can do on the Mall. But it’s the perfect place to be a voyeur. As you puff your way up the incline, you can catch your breath on the quaint, wrought-iron benches placed thoughtfully at the Mall’s steepest points. And watch the merry mela.
After all those days in the hills and the woods, the Mall put me back in touch with myself. Like a true city-slicker, I could only find peace in the great Indian bazaar. Where buying, selling, bargaining, eating, drinking, slurping are just excuses for watching others as they buy, sell, bargain, eat, drink and slurp.
Being on the Mall is to be part of a vast, city-sized mutual admiration society.
And that’s all there is to what the Lonely Planet describes as a “pleasant little hill station with crumbling colonial charm”. Shimla’s really about the people who go there.
There’s little to sightsee here, though you cannot miss the grandeur of the Christ Church at night, towering on the Ridge, the spotlights giving it an air of mystery.
It’s a bonus that there’s no traffic on the Mall — vehicles are not allowed on the street. Though you have to make way for the wailing ambulances with flashing red lights every 10 minutes or so. (Surely, there cannot be so many ill people in Shimla?) The majestic Dauladhars, a heritage village, tea with the Dalai Lama, a Maharaja’s palace, a ninth century stone temple, a fort atop a hill — after all that, it’s the narrow, crowded, noisy street in Himachal’s capital that left the strongest impression.