‘Still charming’ Shimla of yore

Raaja Bhasin

My late father first came to Shimla from Lahore in the 1920s as a small boy. His uncle, Bihari Lal, a well-known educationist of undivided Punjab, was helping the legendary Satyanand Stokes set up a school at Thanedar near Kotgarh. Uncle and nephew would take the train up to Shimla. Then in a combination of walking and riding, they would take three days to reach what was to become Himachal’s apple-growing heartland.  Passing through, my father fell in love with Shimla. 

In later years, as a college student he visited the town in 1943. He and his companions were accommodated in the now dismantled ‘Jubbal Scouts Hut’ on the town’s ridge. The bathroom left something to be desired and he used the public toilet that lay on the other side of the road. There, for a princely two annas, the equivalent of one-eighth of today’s rupee, you could get a hot bath, fresh towels and a small soap bar. A dhobi was stationed in the verandah outside and you could have your laundry done or suit ironed. Positioned with the washerman on the landing was a barber who could give you a haircut or shave. 

With the coming of Independence and Partition, my father’s office, Punjab’s Directorate of Educational Films, initially moved to Ludhiana from Lahore and then to Shimla. When the office prepared to move out of the hills, he left the job and took to his second calling, teaching. More than anything else, this was simply to be able to continue living in Shimla where he remained to the end. 

As I grew, it was only when we went out of this still charming town that we realised how fortunate we were to live where we did. Clean air and good people were taken for granted — as was the fact that it was a walker’s paradise. 

Then there were all the little quirks that made the place so special. 

As a child, when I first saw a groundnut in its shell, I did not know what it was. I was told to eat it. Shell and all, I did; only to gag and spew. In Shimla, groundnuts had to be shelled before they could be sold; this was to pre-empt the litter they generated. Then, there was the time when an out-of-town family friend carried that now-defunct wonder of technology, the transistor, to the Mall so that he could listen to the cricket commentary. As he walked, listening to who was batting and who had been caught out, a policeman walked up and politely told him to switch it off. What may have been entertainment or something important to him was noise to another — and neither allowed nor welcome.