For over half a year now, I have been part of a lively social media group that brings together thousands of people from various corners of the world who have an affinity for Shimla’s history. Residents, visitors and anyone bearing some connection with that famed Himalayan city regularly share trivia and memories about the place in enthusiastic and nostalgic terms. The one common emotion that frequently emerges from these random posts is the extraordinary love through which Shimla is viewed. Love is arguably the most mysterious and intimate of all feelings, but when it defines a large sensibility, it automatically assumes a public dimension as well. Over the course of the 20th century, even as Shimla transformed from British India’s summer capital to Himachal Pradesh’s centre, what remained constant is this very love experienced by both foreign expatriates and the independent Indian citizenry.
And yet, when you now visit Shimla, you cannot help but feel distraught at the appalling conditions the former ‘Jewel of the Orient’ finds itself in. From the litany of vehicles lodged permanently for miles together on both sides of the national highway due to the lack of proper parking spaces, to the rapid denudation of natural surfaces owing to the largely unsustainable infrastructure projects, Shimla is fast becoming like any other modern Indian city.
The government’s recently released Ease of Living Index Report that put Shimla on the top spot thus naturally “surprised its own denizens”, in the words of the local historian Raaja Bhasin. Another writer from the city and an ex deputy mayor as well, Tikender Singh Panwar, cast a strong critical eye on the entire exercise and persuasively speculated if Shimla had been given this primary place in order to attract corporate investments.
What caught my attention was the fact this was the first time that the residents’ views on the services provided by the city administration were taken into consideration through a ‘Citizen’s Perception Survey’. As Bhasin argued, “What seems to have swung in Shimla’s favour is the survey that carried a substantial weightage of 30%.”
While it is only time that will tell how this newly-endowed tag of India’s “most livable city” shall pan out in terms of Shimla’s development, it is nonetheless interesting to unpack the complexity that the word “perception” entails. The fact that the report surprised many Shimla citizens who knew first-hand about the reality of the town’s degradation sits at odds with the high marks given by Shimla citizens themselves. This goes on to show how a large-scale demographic understanding of a place is invariably riven with contradictions because of the deep subjectivity that accompanies the act of “perceiving.”
Significantly however, in my decade long research on the city, some common patterns of thought and sensibility have routinely surfaced and struck as peculiarly illuminating. For instance, despite the ongoing degradation, the majority of people continue to feel that Shimla is “different” from other urban centres, because of its “smallish”, intimate ambience as compared to the larger metropolises. Those metropolises being set in the hot, tropical parts of the country, Shimla naturally stands out for its temperate atmosphere that ends up endowing its people with a feeling of daily comfort and contentment. Hence the ubiquity of the phrase in the city, “phir bhi Shimla achcha hai! (still, Shimla is good!)”, the emphasis being on “phir bhi” in recognition of the times that have changed. It is entirely possible that some of this sense of satisfaction has also impacted the survey.
Two of the most abiding components that determine such a sense of well-being are Shimla’s natural bounty and the surviving legacies of colonial urban planning. The fact that an ordinary Shimla-wallah is able to soak herself in relatively clean air as compared to the plains, as well as partake the ever balmy sunsets and cedar trees as a “normal” way of life, effortlessly translates into a powerful, positive attribute.
Likewise, the availability of an incredibly vivacious walking culture also adds to the charm and freshness of daily living. The famous pedestrian Mall Road built during the British Era literally connects the eastern and western ends of old “Simla” and conduits people from all spheres of life into a singular, energetic space. Since most of the modern Indian urban centres have failed to develop such an ethos, a hill station like Shimla instinctively springs into relief in the public consciousness. Such is the love for walking on the Mall that people have developed a word of their own to describe their quotidian sauntering: Malling. I find it astonishing and moving in equal measure that a built place inspires the generation of a new word whose origins cannot be traced to one person but a multitude of people – proof that Shimla impresses itself in an overarching, emotional manner.
It is easy to be suspicious of such a love for an erstwhile colonial space, particularly when critics debunk it as “unrealistic” nostalgia fixed in a romanticised version of the past. But like the regularly occurring sunsets and breezes and the ever evolving nature of walking itself, perception too is an act of renewal that takes place through the day-to-day activities.
While such “practices of everyday life” – to quote French philosopher Michel de Certeau – might have a material colonial legacy at its centre (like the Mall and its buildings), its very re-appropriation by a postcolonial citizenry endows it with newer meanings of freedom, happiness, and ownership. As Shimla tussles with a barrage of development issues today, not to mention the vagaries of climate change, one wonders how long would such a sensibility of joy and ease of living sustain itself.
Siddharth Pandey is a writer and photographer hailing from Shimla.
Images: Siddharth Pandey