Shimmying in umbrella land: A weekend in Shimla
Some things have to be seen to be believed. For instance, Shimla’s Lower Bazaar, which, at present, is swarming not with humans, but umbrellas — of all shapes and sizes and colours and closures. Even the Ram statue that our hotel window overlooks has one — a chhatra (a convex crown) with makeshift spears ready to punish any errant monkeys looking to desecrate the almighty.
We’re making our way through the busy street, unsure if the rain will subside. The humans under the umbrellas are a difficult lot to move through in a marketplace as it is festooned with sundry attractions. Mufflers and hippy hats, traditional Kullu borders with delightful geometrical patterns, the fragrance of cardamom and ginger from tea stalls filling the street, and old-world boot houses make walking past them hard.
Rains in the hills can get pretty messy pretty quickly. That is why I am always a little circumspect checking the weather and if I find a thunderstorm forecast, I lose all hope in the world. Suffice to say that the yellow alert that has been announced for the days we’re here doesn’t allay my fears either. So, we decide to look for a spare umbrella ourselves — if it shields God, who are we to fear?
Too lofty, you think? Well, the bravado is rewarded immediately in the form of the wool shop that we have just stepped into. It is snug inside, and large rolls of thick wool at the counter cordon off the rainy umbrella world from the knowing domesticity of the owner and the helper. My partner, an unabashed hoarder of haberdashery, is suddenly like a kid in a candy store. However, carrying wool when it’s pouring outside can be tricky business, and just as we almost make up our mind to thrust the roll we’ve purchased into our poor little backpack not quite cut out for the job, the helper rushes out with a thick plastic bag (we carried it back home and will be reusing it). He even makes a knot so that the rain does not get inside.
Outside, moving through the chaos, as we trudge up a steep ascent to reach one end of the Mall, the afternoon quietly tiptoes into evening. People in rain ponchos and coats in bright pop shades make for a quaint picture. The bustle of brightly-lit showrooms and cafeterias with this rare weather-induced reverie of the Mall makes for an endearing contrast. It seems true that the devil called development has devoured most of Mall Road, and brands have hogged what was space for home-grown businesses to grow. But of what’s left, it’s the little establishments, with their timeless quality and business-as-usual manner of operation, that have our heart. We step into National Bakers, which has a beat-up popcorn machine and a ‘softy’ vending machine. Coffee can be had pretty cheap here (₹20), and the chocolate pyramid that we choose over pastries and rolls and the usual savouries, just crumbles in the mouth. But we are forced to hasten up a bit and leave after two schoolgirls hog the little breathing space around us. Didn’t you know that unless a joy isn’t short-lived, it isn’t joy enough?
But while in Shimla, such treats are never too far away. Joke about Sher-e-Punjab, which is almost a Michelin star-style title here — forming the second name of every second dhaba. Or marvel at circular cloth patches embroidered and fashioned to fold up into loose change purses. Or deride youngsters shimmying down the road as music plays out loud on their speakers. Or just watch a garment seller proudly claiming that her umbrellas sell better than her garments do, and better still — a toy seller turned storyteller for the sake of business.
Further up, a band of striking Nishan (the Sikh Khalsa emblem) flags flutter with revolutionary fervour. We jog up the slope, where, by a view point — obviously called View Point — is an amphitheatre of sorts for open-air performances. The stage, at the moment, belongs to the Her Highness The Wispy Mist, softly dancing itself to awakening. The rickety state transport buses negotiating a white-knuckled bend far away, a dizzying stacking of hotels big and small, and a red sliver in the sky made radiant by the setting sun, form the perfect background for the billowing god.
Bun sticks (or chopsticks, it depends on you), pencil boxes, wind chimes, crocheted handbags and myriad trinkets in shops abound on Mall Road and the Lakkar Bazar. As buys, they might be hackneyed now, but nevertheless lend the scene the sense of a fond past. This school trip, that family vacation, the ‘blessed to have a teacher like you’ key chain you got from a kid you used to tutor — anything could bring back memories in a torrent.
Nostalgia has indeed permeated the body and soul of Shimla: The Maria Brothers is an antiquarian bookshop as old as our independence, dealing in historical accounts and other annals that you don’t buy just like that (they are expensive, duh). Sadly, it is closed today. The Old Gaiety Theatre, the stunning lights on which can be seen from the Ridge, has an adaptation of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! playing. Right next, the Town Hall, with its magnificent stone cladding and bright wooden panels, hosts an exhibition on Sikh history. The Scandal Point has its own history of elopement — it is said to be where the Maharaja of Patiala ran away with a... let’s settle for gori mem?
Anyway, a lot gets associated with hills — they are used to it. Chai and hills, instant noodles and hills, hairy dogs and hills. I believe it’s time to start a new obsession — that of bookstores and hills. Just as we begin to get a little antsy about finding our way back to the hotel, we encounter an interruption in the long line of cafes and showrooms. It’s a bookstore, called Minerva. The bright white-and-aqua facade reveals the latest titles stacked on its shelves and poring over Murakami, a studious young boy. The store helper is a reticent local woman who comes up with just the kind of Himachal Pradesh map that I have been after. As we leave the premises, I see a father annoyed that his son wouldn’t buy something sooner.
Don’t blame the boy — I almost mouth to the father — no matter how late you’re getting. For our own selves, two days is turning out to be too little to discover Shimla, especially if you take a minute look at everything and take breaks to indulge your palate. But thanks to the rather delightful rapport between the Mall Road, the Ridge and the Lower Bazaar, nothing is ever too far away. Short-cuts in the form of several steep flights of steps interlink the three, as we are to find out the next day. One flight will whisk you right into the heart of the Mall Road from the bustle of the Lower Bazaar (through a centrally running extension called Middle Bazaar). Another, that is much smaller, takes you smack at the entrance of the famous Trishool Bakery.
So, climb right up to be greeted by the bright jade facade and charming Parisian entrance of the pretty little café and cakery. The much-advertised Colombian Brew sure is invigorating in this drizzle, but the pastries are the best bit. Outside, the chirpy Mall lies sprawled from one end to another. Just turn to the right, and another, smaller flight of steps leads upward to the Ridge, which is what the image search on the internet often reduces Shimla to.
Or you could stay on Mall Road and continue to saunter forward, one with colourful madness. Check out handmade leather shoes at Ta-Tung, the Chinese shoemaker. Or wake and warm yourself up better with a nice cup of good old coffee at the Indian Coffee House, which epitomises the traditional Indian café. Eventually, one reaches Sardar Patel’s statue brought to Shimla from Lahore, and it is here that the Mall and the Ridge unite. All the same, a little further, the Mall drops out of the deal and through a delightful downward slope, takes you back to the Lower Bazaar. But keep walking uphill on the Ridge and you’ll reach the famous Kali Bari temple. And all of this splitting and uniting takes place at the Scandal Point, marked by a mustachioed sentry standing guard under an umbrella — what else? — made, this time, of stone. Further up, the Ridge can be summed up thus: visiting humans, resident monkeys, photographers and horses for hire, and the Christ Church.
If not from a generic image search for Shimla on the internet, the throng at the Church — a neo-Gothic structure in lime yellow — is enough to tell you that it is the most visited place here. A light mist hangs over its serene figure and a steady drizzle falls over the umbrella-islands floating around it in touristy frenzy. Instead, walk over to the eastern side and take in the sweeping rhododendron and deodar-swathed hills and the phantoms hanging behind them of mountains farther away. Continue on the buzzing street tucked furtively behind for Lakkar Bazar, the wooden crafts market.Yes, the name gets the better of us, too.
Back on the Ridge, past the Scandal Point, we are headed to the Kali Bari, which houses the goddess Shyamala, who apparently has given her name to Shimla. The drizzle is gone and just as I relax a little with the cookie packages we are carrying, a monkey, made even more impudent than their usual nature due to the fact that this is a religious site, leaps at me and makes off with our possessions. My shock and embarrassment are broken by the heartbreaking sound the package makes as it drops out of the little troublemaker’s hands into the bushes below. As I ruminate over the ways I could have avoided this daylight robbery, I spot a Hanuman statue that the deep green foliage of the deodars can’t shroud. The choppy internet now instantly coughs up the information: the 108ft high statue is situated at a height of 8000 feet above sea level.
Turning down roadside vendors’ hollers accosting us to buy prasad baskets and walking without fear of further monkey attacks, we come upon the gates of Kali Bari. Somehow the air hangs heavy here, almost with a monastic sublimity. Beside the vibrant Kali temple, as we peep through the iron bars of the gate, the premises also house a Shiva temple, a curious white structure that looks, at first, like a spaceship, then a bullet... and finally, like an umbrella?