Natural order: How to make sense of the country’s most visited hill station

Natural order: How to make sense of the country’s most visited hill station

By VINEET GILL | | 4 June, 2016
Shimla, the archetypal hill station built by the British.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, Shimla is a riot of construction activity and businesses that thrive on money brought in every season by holiday-makers of all stripes. Nature simply comes in the way of all this, writes Vineet Gill.

The proverbial hand of nature is never more keenly felt as it is on the hills. In Shimla, there were moments when we felt it as a benevolent presence — in the richness of the landscape, in the fallen leaves of the Himalayan cedar and in the cool of the west wind. But then, there were moments when we felt it as shockingly, as joltingly as a slap on the face. We could hear the wind — the squall — smash things around with blinding ferocity somewhere out in the town; and we could see excess rain water flooding our street below. Looking beyond, across the road from us, there was nothing much to see except for that envelop of clouds — the weather system — closing in on us.

When W.H. Auden, struck by the fields and brooks of Oxford, pronounced in one of his poems, “Nature is so near”, he was clearly overstating the case. This line, uttered here, in our setting, made so much more sense. Nature was so near to us, as we stood there feeling the whirlwind shudders on the plate-glass window with our
nervous hands.

One evening, when the wind had once again unexpectedly picked up, we heard something break and something crash. The window in the kitchen area was later found to be missing and on the road below, at some distance from the main entrance to our building, we saw the shards and needles of broken glass, sparkling intermittently in the glow of passing headlights. Had the window — severed out of joint by the gale due to not being properly locked — had it landed on a passing vehicle, or worse, on an unfortunate pedestrian...the outcome would have been unthinkably bloody. Yet, as we stood on the balcony with cups of locally-made peach wine in our hands, looking down on the silver remains of our window, we thought of just such extreme outcomes. We thought of how a stray window landing on your head is only one of the myriad ways in which the weather can kill you in Shimla.

Meanwhile, the newspaper headline in the local Hindi rag here announced that dozens had died due to a landslide somewhere not far from where we were. Natural death in these parts meant death by nature. We were just glad to stay in the apartment, willing to indefinitely postpone, even abandon, every item on our itinerary unless the sun begins to shine.

Some buildings here, for instance, have monkey-proof balconies, covered in iron grills: settings of a curious role reversal where you can get to see, simultaneously, an animal at large and a caged human being.  

But this being Shimla, there wasn’t much on the itinerary to begin with. We did want to make an expedition to the top of Jakhu hill, not so much for the temple that lies there as for the 200-strong troop of monkeys settled on this hilltop. My sister, who is a research scholar of anthropology, is studying ape behaviour, and has recently set up camp in Shimla for her project. She travels to Jakhu every morning and, armed with a stick for her protection, spends hours at an end patiently observing the monkeys as they hop or laze around the temple complex. The monkeys are known to sometimes pester visitors and are considered experts at nicking things off unsuspecting fools. Things like shoes, scarves, small bags and especially, pairs of spectacles. Some of the monkeys are such virtuoso thieves that they can jump or lean down to eye level, grab hold of your glasses and make off with the pair at one fell swoop, without anyone, but the victim, even noticing. “They exchange these things,” my sister told me, “for sweetmeat or food. They’ll give it back if you hand them the prasad.” An exemplary start at setting up the rudiments of a barter economy, I thought, but they’ll have to learn to do better than that if they are to survive.

The monkey population has drastically declined in the region, with the city administration now bracing to bring the numbers further down. Residents, too, try to minimise contact with monkeys using imaginative means. Some buildings here, for instance, have monkey-proof balconies, covered in iron grills: settings of a curious role reversal where you can get to see, simultaneously, an animal at large and a caged human being. 

But once all the monkeys are gone, which should be soon, the anthropologist need not worry. There’s still a subject worthy of years of scholarly study, and of whom there’s no dearth in Shimla: the tourist.

If most monkeys are to be found on Jakhu hill, most tourists can be sighted, round the clock and through the season, on Mall Road, Shimla’s very heart that beats on the rhythms of a thriving consumer economy. Everyone knows that Shimla was built by the British as a summer getaway from the plains. So the touristy character of the place, its holiday complexion, is in its original blueprint, and one can’t really grudge that. Still, I don’t know what the locals, especially those who happen to live in nearby villages, think of the tourism mill that never for a moment grounds to a halt in these parts. In a sense, the tourist will always be an unwanted intruder here. When the city was built, the figures of the tourist and the intruder were, in fact, combined and embodied in the British Raj; the ruler was the tourist. What happened to that memory?

Today, tourism still rules the town, still sets the terms. You can make an estimate of the amount of money — tourism money — flowing in here by the extent of building activity going on throughout. It starts with the winding highway leading up to Shimla, which is being expanded and “modernised” using land that’s being reclaimed from nature, by slicing the hills. This was man’s revenge on nature. If nature obstructs our path, or dares to slow us down, we obliterate it. That’s how we built our most successful cities and that’s how we’re trying to rebuild and restructure India’s most successful tourism story that is Shimla. One hill at a time.

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