I walked from The Mall to the bus station to catch bus to my house, but there I came to know that the bus was to move after half an hour. I decided to walk.
This is the beginning of March and here in Shimla it is raining. People were walking with open umbrellas in their hands. The day is advancing to dusk. I follow the road around Elysium Hill. The landscape is veiled with mist. There is a path that bifurcates from the road and leads uphill to Longwood, a house where lived Mrs. Huksbee, the famous character of Kipling. Then it also became a hotel and later it was occupied by the uncle of famous writer Khushwant Singh. In those days this area had very less population. Longwood and other houses around it are one of the houses built during the British period and later they became the properties of Indian Army.
Maniram, the cobbler is not there. He has got no permanent shop so he sits under a tree and mends shoes. It is almost thirty years ago when Maniram came to Shimla and found a hollow place under this tree. This hollow with a covering saves him from rain. He attaches a canopy to the tree to create some more space to keep his tools and, sometimes to stretch his legs. Every winter he closes his shop to go to his village and returns only at the beginning of summer season.
Once I asked him ‘What change do you see in this area?’
‘Sahib, in those days the only business I had was from the army officers living in the army quarters around this area. Their servants would bring their shoes every morning to me to get them polished. During the day hardly anyone would come to his side but now the area had become very crowded. Whole day I see people passing this area.’
I was surprises to see a line of two wheelers parked on one side of the path. This has become the irony of this hill town. There is no need of a vehicle but people are still buying them to maintain their status in the society.
To my left side, on top of the hill is a house called Sterling Castle one of the first three English houses of Shimla. The building stands on the dominating peak called Elysium Hill, the second highest hill of Shimla. I move ahead on the misty path. The valley to the right is covered with mist. A car emerges through the mist and its headlights struggle to illuminate the area. The shadows of trees appear on the veil of mist and move with the progress of the of the car to disappear in dark.
The forested path passes some of the old houses built by the British but now owned by the locals. One of them is Northwood, a Victorian cottage built buy Roland Hotz a famous photographer from Shimla in the early years of twentieth century. Roland was known fr his humbleness and also became the owner of hotel Cecil, Hotel Longwood and Hotel Wildflower Hall. When he died, whole Shimla was there to attend his funeral.
After him Northwood became the property of Hermione Montagu, one of the last Brits living in Shimla. Commonly famous as ‘Kuttey Wali Mem’ – the Memsahib with Dogs’ Hermione was known for her un usual lifestyle. A number of dogs and cats were the part of her life. it is said that whole night she listened radio Ceylon and would go to sleep by seven in the morning. The breakfast was served to her at four in the afternoon when she woke up and then she would go for a walk in the forest. Her income generally came from the pension that she received from the Queen.
The Last Descend
It is still drizzling and the path has become dark. There is no light on the road. The bulbs hanging with the poles are unable to provide any light due to mist. I remember Rajesh, once he told me about the presence of a leopard in this area. In case of some trouble I can always go to Rajesh’s quarter in Keleston, nearby. The dense oak forest through which the road runs, provides shelter to these beasts. The sound of the drops of rain falling on my umbrella is the only sound that I can hear now.
But this is not a challenge for me to walk on this rainy road in this cold weather. I have done it many times. This is a part of our life in the hills. We live with the fluctuations of weather. Who knows how it is going to be tomorrow morning. Sun is always there behind the clouds.
The last descend to my house in the valley is the most interesting. When the day is clear I can look at the villages scattered around on the slopes. At one side the cedars form the skyline whereas on the other side there are high hills.
People follow the road and I follow the forest trail. The twilight is melting into darkness. As I reach my home I look behind, before I open the door, towards the western sky of Shimla. The bulbs have started shimmering on the slopes. Soon another veil of mist rises from the valley to engulf them.