More than a relic of the Raj
Shimla has evolved from being a retreat for the British to a town expanding to fulfil the aspirations of its inhabitants and visitors. A hundred and fifty years after it became the Summer Capital, the town’s role has changed dramatically in more ways than one 
Raaja Bhasin

The character of Shimla changed in the 1980s. From a town that was steeped in nostalgia for the Raj and was a summer getaway, it had to cater to the rising middle class with aspirations.
The character of Shimla changed in the 1980s. From a town that was steeped in nostalgia for the Raj and was a summer getaway, it had to cater to the rising middle class with aspirations. Photo by the writer

Britain’s television company Channel Four is currently filming a mega-series titled Indian Summers. This period drama has being especially written for the purpose and is set in the Shimla of the 1930s. This is to be telecast in 2015. For those who remember Granada Television’s grand spectacle of the 1980s based on Paul Scott’s book, Jewel in the Crown, this is something comparable – if not larger – in both scope and budget. The cast, crew and production team run into scores. Not unexpectedly, this will pump in a substantial amount of money into the local economy and the publicity it will generate, should have tourists flocking to the place. The cast includes Julie Walters, Henry Lloyd Hughes and Roshan Seth. With high drama, passion, politics and sex, this is set in the time when India dreams of Independence, while the British cling on to power. Both sides of the experience is being portrayed. There is, however, one catch. This is not being shot in Shimla, but in Malaysia.

(Above and below) Colour lithographs of Simla of the 1840s by George Powell Thomas 

Among the other reasons for giving the place of its historical setting a complete miss, is that very little of the Shimla to be portrayed remains. For a project of this sort, camera lens are as ruthlessly selective as the people behind them. Studios and mocks seem to serve better. Work is on in full swing. Though, working as the history consultant to the series, it does seem a little strange to be so far removed from the action. So much for that. A few days back, I was having a drink with an old friend who grew up in Shimla and lived there for several years till he moved to Delhi. While in Shimla, he had moved to that pride of our town: New Shimla where, to quote him, "There is no parking to be had, the houses are like club sandwiches (one layer over the other) and prices are through the roof." Well, it does not sound any different from any other city in the country. Except that this is calm and peaceful Shimla. "There are two cities in the same geographical space," he said. "There is the area around the Mall with no traffic except that on foot and there is the other where there is nothing but cars, buses and bad tempers." The urban scowl has found parking under the deodars. Ironic, considering that the father of modern traffic planning, Colin Buchanan was born in the town. There are two other conversations I’d like to add to this one. The first was with one of the town’s leading businessmen and the other was with an academic who now holds a position of considerable responsibility. My businessman friend was as cut, dried and direct as ever. "So what if those Brits are gone. We are the last to the Englishmen and eat our aloo paranthas with forks and knives. And look, if someone finds an opportunity, that’s the way it is. The colonials found an opportunity and exploited it and made a town to suit themselves. This place was made by us: the Indians. We were there to serve and pay the bill, that’s all. If the new buildings, without exception, are ugly and most will fall down in the next earthquake, an opportunity was taken and has been pandered to. " Point taken. Even if aloo paranthas and the use of fine cutlery is well, a lifestyle thing. Harmless I’d say. Try explaining the merits of the British hill-station to the millions who died of famine across our country. Now, for the other conversation which raised a point that few of us would have thought of: that the town’s green cover has increased in the last few years. This, despite the spate of construction and despite the number of roads being cut by the ubiquitous JCB. The reason, perhaps debatable, is that the spillage from our homes has started sustaining infant trees and plants. Foresters may disagree and lament the slow but steady passing away of the magnificent deodars and the change in the soil’s ph. factor which influences what shall grow and what shall not, but here’s a take on a place that in the early years of its settling, hacked away at all the woods around to build homes and feed hearths.

In the 1950s, just after the British had gone and when the Punjab government had moved to Chandigarh, there was talk that Shimla should be left alone. One of the votaries of the idea was the late E.N. Mangat Rai, Punjab’s Chief Secretary. It remained a drawing-room discussion and one wonders what trajectory the town would have taken had this become reality. For one, Himachal when it came into being, could have had a full-fledged modern city as its capital. The Sundarnagar area and wide Balh valley was once mooted as a fresh site. From the early 1980s, Shimla began altering its character from that of a retreat and a town that had only rulers and their servants to a middle-class city. It swiftly packed itself with people with jobs (most with the numerous government offices that had sprung up) and the standard hangers-on that live in every place that offers political favour.

And for all that, this is still the place from where a fifth of the human race was ruled for close to a century. Though called a "summer capital", for all practical purposes, this was the real capital of India as the government moved to its heights in late March or early April every year and stayed put till late October or early November. Decisions made under the gaze of the Himalaya impact our lives to the present day – the marking of the Durand Line which somewhat established the border between un-partitioned India and Afghanistan; the McMahon Line, which became the boundary between India and China; and the Radcliffe Line that divided the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. Two things that seem to have become entwined are colonial history and colonial-built heritage. The preservation of the built heritage (or what remains of it), is not a celebration of colonial subjugation.

This is the acknowledgment of a past that cannot be wished away and also the realisation that at the end of the day, it was all paid for by Indian money, built by Indian hands and is firmly rooted on Indian soil. The misty wraith of the Indian workman finds substance in these structures.

The writer is a Shimla-based historian and author