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On the slow train to Shimla

The hill-station’s cool air and memory-drenched valleys made for a sentimental homecoming. Aasheesh Sharma recollects the trip with his family.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2008 21:53 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

Kalka is a somnolent foothill town where holidayers to Shimla spend their nights before boarding the slow train. Although the place is in Haryana’s Panchkula district and a gateway to Himachal Pradesh, knowledge of Punjabi helps break the ice with the man on the street.

It is at this Railway terminus that the Howrah Kalka Mail connects with the toy-train and the VIPs from the Shatabdi can be seen throwing their weight around. The clout that a CBI officer enjoys has helped him get his toehold and holdall into the executive class lounge. The rest of us are left jostling with the feisty stationmaster and corrupt clerk for some place for the kids to spend the night.

<b1>Dormitories, retiring room, benches, anything will do. “Between us,” the station master tells me, “It’s better to spend the night in the stationary passenger train that leaves at four in the morning. Why spend 20 times more in the deluxe train. That is what regular travellers do,” he tells us.

After managing to put mother, wife and kids into a retiring room paying thrice the amount, I battle my insomnia on a hard, wooden bench. The cool breeze from Shimla brings with it memories of my late father, the Midnight Child in the family.

My grandma boarded the train from Pakistan carrying him. Born in 1947, he succumbed to an aggressive cancer on January 26 earlier this year.

A nomadic soul who swore by the Railways and all things urban, Papa’s teaching assignments took him to London, Riyadh, Addis Ababa, Jerusalem and Toronto. But Shimla is where he felt most at home. It was at the city’s Advanced Studies Institute that he was planning a sabbatical before his death.

I am taking the kids back to my roots, to the times when grandpa got a barfi for reciting the Gita before school, and the timing of the next meal depended on when the two brothers and three sisters managed to pick up the firewood.

On the Shivalik Express, the children yell every time we pass a tunnel (there are 103 of them). A co-passenger proudly tells us he caught a glimpse of Amitabh Bachchan during the shooting of Bhootnath, and that the 103rd tunnel we just passed is haunted.

We are headed towards the neighbourhood of Tooti Kandi (where the descent breaks your back), papa’s birthplace. “It is mentioned in Krishna Sobti’s Ae Ladki,” I show off my knowledge of Hindi literature. The remark is lost on the kids and my wife. We wait patiently for Singh saheb to return from his walk. He, the halwai tells us, has been staying here for over 70 years.

“Oh the postman! Panditji was a hardworking man. He never failed to deliver a letter even in knee-deep snow. I am glad you came here beta,” he tells me with a warm hug. As I cry in his arms, I am looking for the strength of my father’s shoulder, on which I slept as a kid and heard innumerable stories. My visit to Shimla has been fruitful.

Hangin’ out on Orchard Road

A visit to a hill station is incomplete without trawling the mall with the masses, hands in your pockets. But we skip that for a trip to Koti, to the orchard my friend Anupam owns. Even to my brats growing up on a staple diet of Japanese toons, the idea of plucking apple off the tree sounds tempting. The SUV takes a sharp bend down the Observatory and my three-year-old starts bawling. I allay my wife’s fears and take the lead in walking down to the orchard. Mingu, the caretaker’s son, is striding downhill at a speed I find tough to keep pace with. But the trek is worth the effort. A month before harvest season, the apples are sour and green. The apricots, well, they are just ripe for a mouthful of Shimlavi flavour. My city-bred kids are living a scene out of Discovery.

Then, it is back to the usual touristy drill.

Touristy wisdom

Booking a hotel through the Himachal tourism site helps you get decent lodging. The government hotels are never short on water, rare in the city in peak season.

A trip to the royal palace and cricket grounds in Chail is a disappointment, though. At a cover charge of Rs 100, they don’t offer a sight worth savouring to tourists. Instead, take a guided tour of the Viceregal Lodge at half the price. The building, which now houses the advanced studies institute, has rare photographs of the discussions that led to our Independence.