In Shimla, Queen of British Hill Stations, we drove up and down roads that were brake-shrieking steep, only partially paved, and composed of hairpin corners that required three-point turns. I was thrown side to side and up and down as we zigzagged around other cars, monkeys, bicycles, dogs, cows and unconcerned pedestrians walking along the edge of a 5,000-foot drop. Occasionally, we met a rusty tourist bus that required the skill of a brain surgeon to get past it. I looked down at pine forests, gracefully terraced hillsides, and hotels hanging precariously off the sides of mountains, wondering how the hell the British did it. How did they establish themselves these forbidding mountains in the 1800s? Mules, I was later told. Mules hauled up everything needed to build Shimla.
Mules? A mule can carry what, a couple hundred pounds? The Viceregal Lodge in Shimla is as sprawling and impressive as the most palatial estate in England and it's furnished with fine heavy furniture and valuable art. Christchurch boasts butter-colored spires and magnificent stained glass that would rival anything in Europe. The Gaiety Theater can seat hundreds and looks as though it was transplanted directly from 1900 London. The Willow Bakery and Pelitis Tea Shoppe stood ready to supply scones and cakes for any occasion. Clark's Hotel is a big Tudor affair with all the amenities. The main street — the Mall — is lined with iron benches and pretty tubs of flowers and even has a bandstand. It was an entire Victorian village transplanted, brick-by-brick, custom-by-custom in the Himalayas. Mules? You really do have to hand it to them.
Today, of course, India is Indian and although the fine colonial buildings still stand, the Mall is a bazaar of open-sided stalls and crowds of people in a moving kaleidoscope of color. A stroll down the Mall will take you past The Timely Tailor Shop, Thakur General Store, The Silk Emporium, Sanjay's Internet Café, The Pashmina Emporium, and Tension Free Parking. You will also see noodle shops, ice cream vendors, and snack stalls where the cook is hidden behind a mountain of golden pakoras and samosas. In chai stalls, you can watch a man pour water into a tin pot, then added a spoonful of something black, something white, something brown, a dash of spice and bring it all to a boil. The result will be masala chai, a fragrant, creamy tea, redolent of cardomom, served in a tiny china cup.
What you will not see is McDonald's, because in India, a quarter pounder would be sacrilege. The cows, with their humped backs and beautiful eyes, are sacred. I saw a beleagured woman walking along a dusty road carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. The cow that she had taken to graze while she gathered the wood walked ahead of her, unburdened, well-fed and wearing blue beads on its horns.
Simla was once a British enclave for privileged colonials to escape the hot, hot weather of the plains. It was a heroic attempt to recreate England in India and it almost succeeded. The colonials went so far as to forbid Indians to walk on the Mall or enter colonial buildings, but one needed servants and so it all got hopelessly muddled.
Today, Shimla is a curious hybrid of faded British glory and changing Indian culture. Old Simla was an idyllic piece of England set against an astonishing Himalayan backdrop; new Shimla is a mélange of Indian bazaars, colonial architecture, and the congestion of 21st century hotels and cars. These days, one has to travel out of Shimla to see the Himalayas. Pity.