Summer is synonymous with vacation. Isn’t it? I have been visiting the Shimla hills ever since I can remember. Come June and we would drive uphill to visit my maternal grandparents’ at their summer abode for two months of breathing in lungful of fresh, crisp Himalayan air. For many years now, our trips to Shimla have been limited to just long weekends. But this summer, we decided to stay put for longer; and thank God we did.
One afternoon, we set out on a walk along the Mall Road, main iconic street that defines the city. My mother who grew up in ‘Simla’, like always, bumps into old friends, acquaintances and forgotten associates. But this time around, we found an outlandish, bespectacled old man walking with a stick approach us. I asked mother if she knew him and she shrugged her shoulders. He stopped us and bombarded us with a long set of questions. Initially, we didn’t know how to react. His aura was mendacious and he came across as an egoistic, loquacious bugaboo. He boasted of his boisterous antics. He bragged of his connections with the high and mighty of Raisina Hill. He claimed to be a man of all seasons, an accomplished columnist, a colourful raconteur, a ghazal maestro, and to top it all, an economist extraordinaire.
He claimed to have predicted the global meltdown of 2008 and the resurgence of the Keynesian school of thought long before these events happened actually, but never bothered running for the Nobel Prize. His broken English was heavy with a Punjabi accent; yet he claimed to be a fine writer and commentator who never bothered about his critics. He said he lived in the most posh locality Shimla had to offer, that too, after a former Prime Minister had to put in a word for him to the builders.
We played along for some time before his gibberish became too hard to digest. So, when Rudyard Kipling categorised ‘Simla’ as a potential breeding ground for “frivolity, gossip and intrigue”, he had imagined of this wannabe whimsical, eccentric man aeons ago. We bumped into this character again and again in the following days, at different places along the Mall Road. One day, we heaved a sigh of relief when we reached Hotel Cecil without bumping into this out of the ordinary man. Alas! His Highness stood as large as life before us, unleashing his maleficent smile. That day, he went on and on about his escapades as a globetrotter and lamented how Shimla had lost its charm, giving way to riff-raff. Irony died a lonely death, we told ourselves.
That evening, we revived ourselves with finely brewed Darjeeling tea and sandwiches at the revamped but still colonial Amateur Dramatics Club inside Gaiety Theatre. The wife of a former lieutenant general, dressed immaculately, was overhead speaking in a fine educated subcontinental accent: “Oh goodness! That man… he’s a crackpot!” We knew right then who she was talking about.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Chandigarh)