Shimla appeared in the horizon with the deodars, dark green and gigantic, their tips touching 40ft. From the toy train with blue-and-cream coaches and large windows, the view was the perfect introduction to the town for the kids. The holiday had begun and we hadn’t even arrived.
We had chosen Shimla despite ourselves. Mcleodganj, with its Dalai Lama aura, sounded more exotic, and Palampur, with its tea gardens, seemed trendier and more tucked away. But Shimla had a history and not just a colonial one: My mother had grown up in this hill town decades ago, when the Mall glittered with umbrella’d memsahibs and dinner-jacketed gentlemen.
And so it was to Shimla we went, up the same 104-year-old tracks English and Indian ICS families had used for decades to travel to the summer capital, punctuated by the same stone bridges and ancient tunnels and hoary tales. Barog, a quaint station almost halfway to our destination, for instance, is supposed to be named after the railway engineer who killed himself after the two ends of the tunnel he had constructed failed to align. Despite his ghostly presence, the station looks totally picture postcardish, with its planter pot flowers and pointed roofs. There’s a railway rest house here, too, where those seeking more of the halt’s quaint charm may still book a room for Rs100 a night.
But, everyone had warned us: Shimla was an untidy town. It caught up with us soon after the urban sprawl across entire hillsides became visible. Outside the railway station, touts of every shape and size dogged our footsteps with the usual exhaustive list of offers, traffic-jammed Maruti taxis disgorged hordes of tourists at the car park in front of the lift.
Happily, once we had ascended to the Mall—where no cars are allowed—it was easy to slip back into time. At the Peterhof Hotel, in a room with hill views on two sides, the girls drank their glasses of Bournvita and exclaimed at everything: The gorgeous Raj-era furnishings, the monkeys swinging from the deodar tree outside our window and the terraced verandah with its glass tables and wrought iron chairs. Nothing, it seemed, had changed.
We walked. Everywhere. With its strictly enforced pedestrian zones, walking in Shimla is a treat. The occasional military jeep or government car might pass you by but, for the rest of the time, you have the big broad Mall Road to yourselves. Even multiple rounds of the four kilometres from Chaura Maidan to the Town Hall didn’t feel like exertion.
But even more thrilling than this evidence of our apparent physical fitness or the magnificent buildings, with their well-documented political meetings and treaty signings, was our encounter with a very personal bit of history. For years, we had heard stories of Knockdrin, the many-bedroomed house occupied by my grandfather as chief justice, where my mother grew up. Imagine, then, the wonder of walking past the Chaura Maidan road just off the Mall and suddenly espying a black granite board with brass letters spelling Knockdrin.
Immediately, I wanted to be in there, exploring the large bay-windowed drawing rooms where my grandparents had thrown their celebrated parties, checking out all the bedrooms and gazing on the giant deodar at the edge of the lawn (whoever sat there was “the king of the universe”).
But Knockdrin wasn’t a home any longer. Two army guards with long-barrelled guns stood at the gate of what was now the Senior Officers’ Mess. However, once I had explained the connection, the officer on duty welcomed us in. “It’s like a heritage building,” he declared, while we admired the polished wooden stairs, the large glass windows with their wonderful valley views and the bedrooms upstairs with dressing annexes the size of Mumbai drawing rooms, all immaculately maintained.
Sitting down to coffee and cold drinks in the morning room with my husband and children, almost half a century after my mother and her three brothers had run wild here, felt strangely comfortable. Obviously, you can take the family out of the home, not the home out of the family.
Once you uncover this side of Shimla, it crops up again and again behind forbidding facades and impersonal securitymen. Down the road from Knockdrin is another magnificent residence, once occupied by the Lieutenant Commander. Now maintained by the army, like many of the premier buildings in the capital, Command House looks as if it’s always ready to receive its previous master and mistress. Over the next few days, we would encounter many such historical homes, each with a little granite board summing up its past.
Enthused by the buzz of Knockdrin, we made our way to Tara Hall, the convent school run by Irish nuns which was one of only two options for girls. In my mother’s narrations, the nuns sounded straight out of The Sound of Music, with their long habits and raps on the knuckle for girls who hunched. But though the bus stop, full of rosy-cheeked kids in dark blue blazers, said “Tara Hall”, the school didn’t quite add up to memories. A shopkeeper nearby told us it was now simply called Loreto Convent.
Walking back up, up, up, to the Mall (did my mother and uncles really walk all this way every day? Suddenly, our 4km rounds seemed insignificant) for an almond frappe seemed a terribly touristy thing to do. Still, we did just that. Sitting at a table on the Mall, I dialled my mother in New Delhi. “Have you seen Devico’s?” she asked. “It should be on the Mall. That’s where we’d go for all our treats.”
Eerie, really, because 4ft away from me was the board—Devico’s. But where was the restaurant?
In the basement, it turned out. But, back in the glory days, it used to be right here, up in the Mall. Just where we were having our almond frappes.