Don’t believe those who say Shimla is a tourist’s nightmare. Yes, the Mall has come to a crawl and hotels are out to make a fast buck. But the first gust of fresh air that hits you as you step off the Volvo bus is enough to bust all cynicism about the Queen of Hills. Unless you are demophobic, the Mall is where the action is.
Spice seller Pema Namgyal has been a familiar face on the Upper Mall since the 1980s. The flavour in the Tibetan migrant’s bagful of garam masala is legendary, as are her storytelling skills. But look beyond her lined forehead and throaty laughter and you’d see the loneliness of a 75-year-old making ends meet. “The usual hill story. My sons drank themselves to death and the grandchildren don’t bother to look us up. As the old man can’t see, I have to earn our bread and tea,” she says, sitting outside a bakery that has long stopped functioning after a fire.Bang in the middle of the Mall madness is an island of quiet. Locals describe the Embassy restaurant as one of the most romantic, albeit expensive joints in the city. The restaurant has a staff of two, with the Malhotras acting as managers, chefs, cleaners and raconteurs all rolled into one. The decor is minimalist —hand-written teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the renowned philosopher and writer, line the walls. The food is fresh and the cakes divine.
A hundred yards away from Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal’s residence, at a guesthouse looking into his driveway, the perils of the tourist influx hit you. The view is lovely, the wooden-floored rooms cosy and the fireplace picture-postcard. But there’s no water to wash the face.
The proximity to the Mall is the biggest perk here. It is easy to indulge in the favourite Shimlavi pastime — a walk on the mountains. The kids, not used to walking up steep slopes, catch their breath at a rain-shelter near the Clarke’s hotel.
“You must be from Bombay?” is the first remark from homemaker Sheela Mahajan, 38, waiting for a shared cab to Chhota Shimla. She goes on to give us the touristy treatment. “Tourists have ruined Shimla. The streams have dried up. Too few water tankers can’t help a city bursting at its seams. The hotels promise you non-stop water but arrange for tankers from outside city limits and the quality is dubious,” she goes on.
After what seems an eternity, Mahajan’s cab arrives and the guilt trip begins. “Didn’t I say Kasuali was a better choice?” the wife admonishes me.
Would it have been any different?