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The return of the native

March 31, 2003 17:09 IST

Twenty years is a long time. It's a lifetime. Things can change beyond recognition in 20 years.

Really?

I arrived at the Shimla bus station on a February morning, after a bone-crunching ride on a Haryana Roadways bus from Delhi. It was dark, it was raining, and it was very, very cold. I was home.

The cabbie charged Rs 50 for a three-minute ride to my hotel. Two decades ago, I would have cursed tourists for pushing up prices in this essentially middle-class town. Two decades ago, I would have walked a good 40 to 50 minutes all the way up to our house in Lakkar Bazaar, as my sister, two brothers, mom, dad and I have on several occasions returning from our winter holidays in western Maharashtra only to realise we had failed to escape the last leg of Shimla's punishing winter.

The hotel room brought no respite from the misery outside. I asked the sleepy receptionist to send a heater up to Room 101. The bed-sheets and the quilt were icy cold.

"Can I get a hot-water bottle?" I asked the reception.

"No sir, we don't have any."

The only option now was to stay as still as possible in the bed and wait for body heat to warm the linen around and then stay in that position till it was time to get up. Even a slight movement would bring the body in contact with a part of the quilt or the bed-sheet still cold and damp.

I remembered mom's threats when I was a kid to throw me out of the bed if I did not stop fidgeting. Mom never refused me a hot-water bottle, though.

It was around eight when I woke up and slipped the window curtain aside. Cast in the gloomy early-morning light of a heavily overcast sky, a large part of Shimla presented itself to me -- a hill full of houses standing cheek by jowl as if seeking sustenance in each other's warmth, rusting tin roofs, just a couple of chimneys bellowing smoke, and winding paths looking lost in this maze of human habitation. It was the Shimla I had grown up in.

I could see the Cart Road [now Circular Road], the Lower Bazaar, the Middle Bazaar, a part of the Mall and just a fleck of the Ridge. I could see the conical roof of Ashiana restaurant on the Ridge. It used to be a bandstand before somebody got greedy. I could see the Ritz cinema hall -- that's where I first saw Qurbani and spoke and spoke so eloquently the next day in school about Zeenat Aman.

On the ground floor of Ritz Cinema's imposing building was (still is, I found two days later) tailor Mohammed Islam's shop. That's where I got my first jeans stitched. My instruction to Mohammedbhai for a skin-tight fit, I remember, had earned me a sharp whack on the head and a retort from my mom's Punjabi friend: "Skin tight? Aur pehnega kaise -- skin ke upar ya skin ke neeche? [And how will you wear it – under the skin or over it?]"

A part the Ladies Park, where I had spent innumerable afternoons with my mom and her friends, was visible too. For company, most of time, on these outings I used to have for company mom's Punjabi friend's son -- Sanju or Sanjeev Marwah.

Nice chap, only he used to do too well in his class for my comfort. We used to play in the sun as they knitted sweaters. We would be summoned every now to check the sweaters' size against our dangly arms and bony chests (some things don't change, you know). Even if mom was knitting one for my sister or brother, it gave her some idea. Lakkar Bazaar, where we lived, did not get much sun in the winters. A 30-minute walk to the park after lunch and a couple of hours in the sun helped kill time and lift spirits. Sweaters were a bonus.

From my hotel window, I could see the brick-red structure of YMCA. That's where I learnt to play table tennis. They do not give memberships now, its Goan manager would tell me two days later. Only guests get to use the sports facilities.

A bath when the temperature outside is hovering around two is not an easy proposition. It was a tough job then, and I quickly realized the years spent in the warmer climes of Maharashtra had not changed my views about the futility of the exercise. You don't sweat in such temperatures and even if you do the four of five layers of clothes you wear is unlikely to let the secret out.

Though the thought of what mom would think of her grownup boy did push me into the bathroom, I am sure she would not have approved of the 80-second job.

From the Cart Road, where my hotel -- rather ambitiously named Crystal Palace -- was located, I took the lift up to the Mall. The ticket, which cost me Rs 5, contained a warning from the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Corporation -- ride the lift at your own risk.

The Mall is where people from all over the town come to unwind, shop and meet friends. It's an integral part of Shimla's social landscape. Since vehicular traffic is not allowed into the town except, of course, VIP and emergency services, a stroll on the Mall symbolises the unhurried life of this hill town. This is where the best restaurants, fashionable clothes stores and Chinese shoemakers are located.

Of course, mom never bought us anything here. She believed anything that was available on the Mall was available in Lower Bazaar for half the price.

She was right. But somehow things she bought us from those grimy, little stores in Lower Bazaar never looked as good as the merchandise adorning those glitzy shop windows on the Mall.

Expensive restaurants - Baljees, Fascination, Alfa -- were out of bounds too. Dad's favourite was Coffee House, tucked away in a far corner of the Mall. I would hate to think of it as tradeoff, but after vada-sambar and jelly-with-cream at the humble Coffee House, I got to ride a horse home every Sunday.

Several new restaurants have come up on the Mall now. There's even a Barista outlet, where college kids drum guitars and try hard to get noticed by girls outside. It suddenly makes me see my dad's taste in coffee in an all-new light.

Since we are talking food here, here are a few quick recommendations: Baljees -- for steaming hot gulab jamuns. Fascination -- for some truly delicious paneer pakoras. Sita Ram in Lakkar Bazaar -- for chhola bhaturas. Padu Ram in Lower Bazaar -- for samosas and tikkis. Trishul Bakers, the Mall -- for the world's best pineapple pastry.

This part of Shimla has not changed much -- the Mall, the Ridge, Scandal Point. That is largely because of some tough heritage regulations. Not much has changed on the road that takes you west from the Mall to the AG office and further down to the University; the road that takes you southeast from the Mall to the chief minister's residence and further up to Chhota Shimla; the road that takes you east from the Ridge to Lakkar Bazaar and thence to Sanjauli.

But the changes are visible when you peep down the hilly slopes from these roads. The gray of cement and concrete is fast gobbling up the green of the hills. Shimla is bursting at its seams. There is a satellite township already in place, quite predictably called New Shimla.

All this construction activity and population growth has had its environmental impact -- snowfalls have become fewer and smaller. While 20 years ago mid-December was when Shimla would have its first snowfall, now it comes as late as February. There have been times when only the upper reaches of Shimla -- Jakhu, the Ridge, the Mall -- get snow, and the Circular Road and areas further down just rain.

Most of the new construction is taking place on hills below the Circular Road. Somebody is going to miss the romance of walking 40 to 50 minutes to one's house on a chilly winter morning with brothers, sisters, mom and dad.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Pankaj Upadhyaya