When we were growing up in a small hill town in what is now Uttarakhand, the world to us was divided in two: us, local hill folk, and them—outsiders from the plains. Most of us local kids, who spent the summer vacations stalking the glamorous and leisurely outsiders, were being raised in large traditional families with strong clannish loyalties.
Our parents were indulgent about our saucer-eyed wonder but remained largely indifferent to this floating population they saw as seasonal and peripheral to their own way of life.
Locally, class differences were marked by mobility of families. How many times a year did one visit the plains, where one’s family spent the harsh winters, here or out there in the second home in the plains? If the kids’ winter uniforms (serge) made a huge dent in family budgets or not? And last but not the least, if the children of the family were sent to a private school run by Jesuits and/or missionaries, or a government-run vernacular vidyalaya (school).
It was a simple predictable life that ran along predictable parameters. Salaried fathers in middle-class homes, those who had not migrated to the plains with their families, would mostly be working in local government jobs or hotels. And even though they knocked down a few drinks with the outsiders at the local club now and then, they largely remained home bodies who rose out of and retired to their beds early. Their wives were homemakers and maintained somewhat chaotic homes and large unkempt gardens with some help from a group of old and largely unskilled (‘but they are honest’) retainers. When they met other wives, our mothers complained to each other about cheeky servants, increasingly tight budgets and rowdy children, who outgrew their school uniforms and shoes no sooner than they had been bought.
Most women had little time or inclination to go down to the “Flats” in the evening to listen to the army band play for the smartly turned out crowd of tourists. Their acquaintance with the women among the visiting tourists was mostly as short-time neighbours, good natured, but aloof. And they would return to their usual lives with some relief after the summer months when the children’s schools reopened and the monsoons “broke”.
All that has changed now. Compared with the kind of tourists who throng the hill stations over weekends, the earlier ones can be best described as accidental tourists. Come to think of it, many of them would come only because they had inherited huge ramshackle bungalows and a large arthritic staff from their forefathers, many of whom were princelings from little known states. Our mothers said, not unkindly, that if some of them seemed snooty and stand-offish, it was largely because the poor dears were actually rather hard up and reluctant to let the debilitating effects of the loss of the privy purses and their alcoholism show in public.
The bulk of middle-class tourists in those days were government servants. Those days the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government (like the Jammu and Kashmir government today) would move up from Lucknow to the hills for the summer months—a practice begun by the British sahibs and happily continued by the brown sahibs, who inherited the mantle from them. The Sahib Bahadurs and their families came with their cooks and ayahs, and moved in to a clutch of elegant little bungalows that a locally based staff cared for (and also used liberally after they were gone) round the year. Their kids looked pale, listless and nerdy but picked up somewhat by and by. We’d leap over the hedges that separated our houses and befriended them largely for the new Enid Blytons and comics they brought along. We swapped these constantly and became if not exactly their best friends then certainly their chatty philosophers and guides for the rest of our summer vacations.
Today the state of UP is divided and the hills are no longer a part of it. The Maharajas have mostly sold off their picturesque bungalows to property developers and hoteliers and the rest are fast being bought up by the hordes of neo- millionaires that the last few years of “India Shining” have spawned.
Most properties in places such as Binsar, Mukteshwar and Kausani have changed hands, and the new owners are rich global tourists—restless and remarkably work-obsessed. They have bought expensive properties in the hills but opt for short, tense stints conducted strictly within the range of mobile phone connectivity. Holidays that meant long uncharted and rambling walks in the forests, leisurely fishing expeditions or just lying on a blanket and watching the sunrise and sunset ringed by the silence of the hills, are not for them. Listening to them, you are struck by how much they worry. Even at night they lie sleeplessly under their goose- feather futons wondering what if the bloke down the corridor were to use this absence to cosy up to the boss? What if the stock exchanges were to crash somewhere in the world while their server was down? Or if the food they’ve brought along ran out and they are forced to make do with the terrible local bread?
The locals cling on to a quiet resentment against the new outsiders from the plains though their stories are almost always long on the outrage scale and short on facts. Complain as the locals may, for the young from the suddenly cash-rich local families who ride expensive bikes looking like clones of Dhoni, business or life has never been better.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor ofHindustan.
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