Shimla – 22nd April 2013
There couldn’t really be much more of a cultural contrast than Kabul to Shimla. I suppose the weather’s similar, and there are mountains in the distance, but that’s about it. This place is painfully, achingly cute. Well, fine. I need that. It’s like Totnes-on-Himalaya: crusty old gents in tweed jackets and enormous moustaches walk creakily along the Mall; groups of giggling teenage girls go by with hair scandalously uncovered. You get the odd Kashmiri tout who looks a bit shifty, but even they are so damn wholesome that all they want to do is take you trekking, not sell you drugs. Feeling a bit jaded, really. But it’s OK – I’m coming back to earth slowly. Weird flashes of anger about things: the normality, the unfairness. The cuteness. The locals here are an odd mix that incorporate pretty much all of India’s many ethnicities. The real indigenous types are short and rather bandy-legged, very hardy. The women laugh openly and wear traditional colourful shawls. The fashion for skinny jeans together with flat shoes has proved disastrous for the girls of India’s hill people, as they are not gifted with the longest of legs. Cute but stumpy.
I’ve found what I think is the warmest place in Shimla so far – the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Dreamland. It’s the usual calamity – motheaten sofas, foodstains on the table, a room that stinks of paint and windows that don’t shut properly – but it’s quite nice really. Charmingly incompetent. The restaurant advertised on the booklet doesn’t exist, the terrace looks like it was last cleaned in 1970, but I don’t care; I just need somewhere to stop and recuperate, and it will do for that. It’s empty as well, which is an additional bonus when my nose is dripping like a tap, onto the table if I don’t get the tissues out in time, and you can follow my progress around town by listening carefully to where the sneezes are coming from. One never looks one’s best when stricken with a cold, but the locals are a mellow bunch and are far to polite to stare at the honking and cursing gora in the corner.
The whole town is vertiginous, strung out along a ridge. There’s a steep valley in the middle and buildings cling improbably to the slopes like the terraced hillsides that are used to grow crops here. There’s a curving sort of promenade, like you might get in a South Coast seaside resort, except that here beyond the edge the ground drops away and there is a sea of mountains heading to the horizon. I can see why the British liked it so much: it has that combination of quaintness and prudishness that characterises so much of the British Isles. And of course the Indians would have felt right at home with the stifling class system. As it is now, it’s become something of a place of lost ideals: old soldiers creaking along pining for the Raj, and the kind of vibe that feels like a permanent Sunday afternoon some time in the 1950s. Girls can walk safely at night arm in arm along the promenade, as long as they are home in time for bed. It’s a goody-two-shoes sort of place which makes me feel profoundly depraved and slightly contaminated, not just by the shower of exotic bacteria that I keep spraying about the place.
There was a movie in the 1980s called ‘Footloose’ – one of the Hollywood bratpack films so popular at the time – where a preacher had rigid control of a small town in America. He’d banned dancing, drinking, smoking, any kind of music that wasn’t the dullest sort of wholesome dirge espousing family values. And in consequence the town was full of nice but hopelessly frustrated teenagers who were just aching to rebel but didn’t quite know how. Into this ferment of thwarted adolescent hormones comes Kevin Bacon in the tightest pair of blue jeans you ever did see, with one of those twin tape deck ghetto blasters (‘with hi-speed dubbing!’) and a series of bootleg electro music of the kind where the synthesiser manages to sound even more synthetic than it should, and which marks it out unmistakeably as being from 1980-1989 in origin. And Kevin likes to dance… no, lives to dance. Dancing is his life. Naturally he goes head to head with the preacher, who sees him as a danger to the moral integrity of the town. But Kevin wins over the local kids and soon they are all jiving away to electro-pop in their skintight jeans. It’s all rather comical really – expressing teen angst through the medium of 80s dance. Cue lots of rather tame yet unmistakeably suggestive bumping and grinding culminating in a rather chaste snog in the back of some large 1950s American car like a Studebaker or a Chevrolet or something equally impractical. Anyway, the point of all this is that the disco / nightclub down by the cinema here in Shimla is called “Footloose”. Someone round here has a wicked sense of humour. I hope.
I met a group of British tourists on the little rattletrap train up here from Kalka. It takes five hours and winds around the foothills in an astonishing piece of engineering. They were on a group tour, something to do with classic railway journeys, and had flown into Delhi before boarding the Shatabdi to Kalka then on to the Himalayan Queen up to Shimla. “I hope the place is worth it!” one of them quipped, and followed it up with a burst of honking and utterly humourless laughter that the British specialise in. I scrutinised them covertly from behind my sunglasses. They had packed lunches the size of hat boxes and nibbled cautiously at their sandwiches, peering out of the window from time to time. I was glad to see them though; I suspect most were in their sixties, and India isn’t always the easiest place to navigate around, so fair play to them. I got chatting to one man at a ten-minute halt in a small station – we’d both stepped onto the platform to stretch our legs. “Are you British?” he asked me in surprise.
“Well you’ve clearly been here before and know your way around.”
Yes, I suppose so. How are you finding it?
He adopted that confidential manner of not wanting to be overheard. “It’s awful, isn’t it? The poverty, I mean. It really hits you. Just doesn’t make any sense, how people can live like that.”
I tried to remember what that must feel like. To be shocked by it. We were in a cute little hillstation, and I cast my eye round for a heap of garbage with kids looking for food, or some hideously disfigured cripple, but saw none. I told him that I understood what he meant, as I had been taken aback seeing an armless man begging in the traffic in Kabul. His eyes bulged. “You’ve been to Kabul? How was it?”
It was great, I told him. Really interesting. Bit tense at times, but very worthwhile.
He looked a bit unsure of himself for a minute, and took in my Nehru vest, scarf, several days of beard and pakol hat. “Here – you’re not one of them are you? No, of course not. I mean you couldn’t tell me even if you were.”
I smiled enigmatically and wished him a pleasant holiday.