The spirit of English sahibs and their equally grand memsahibs would be troubled by Himachal Pradesh’s BJP governments recent proposal to rename Simla, their once delightful summer capital 154 years after it’s founding in 1864.
They would barely have come to terms with the mushrooming of ungainly cement structures across Simla over the past five decades, topped by rusting corrugated sheets crammed into tiered hillsides, that they were sideswiped by the near certainty of it being rechristened Shyamala.
The BJP and its ideological ally the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) want to rename the hill town after the Hindu goddess Shyamala Devi, a fearsome reincarnation of Kali in a facetious bid to collectively reject their colonial past.
Himachal’s newly elected BJP Chief Minister has claimed that that before the British arrived Simla was known as Shyamala, and that his administration would seek public opinion to revert to this name.
“Sticking to names (of places) given by oppressors (like the British) is a sign of mental slavery” said state VHP head Aman Puri recently. Changing their names is a small but significant step in renouncing it (servitude), he solemnly stated.
Puri, however, also had a more prosaic explanation for Simla’s name.
The British he claimed could not, like in several other instances, pronounce Syamala and hence called it Simla, a name that stuck till 1972 when in the re-organisation of states an ‘h’ was added to its name and it became-and remains- Shimla.
In response to renaming Shimla, the Opposition Congress Party has, for once, sensibly declared that the BJP should concentrate on resolving the towns’ myriad problems, particularly its endemic water shortage, garbage piles and galloping unemployment.
A social media campaign in May had urged tourists to stay away from Shimla and let it breathe for a while, as tens of thousands of people queued up with buckets to collect water from tankers provided by the city’s municipality.
The officials blamed the water crisis on a dry winter, claiming that the mountainous region saw record-low snowfall this year, but the calamity is far deeper and seemingly insoluble.
“It’s a disgrace what an awful place Shimla has now become” said Amrita Singh, a former Shimla resident and frequent visitor to the hill town. It smells like a lavatory round the year and has little or none of its charm left, she lamented.
But during colonial rule, successive Viceroy’s moved their durbar from the searing heat of the imperial capital Calcutta (now Kolkata) and later New Delhi to Simla’s cooler climes to manage their ‘Jewel in the Crown’ and execute policies with global ramifications.
Historical events like the Anglo-Afghan wars in the 18th century, Young Husband’s expedition into Tibet and crucial military decisions during the two World Wars, were decided on Simla’s misty slopes once thick with pine and deodar and populated with varied wildlife.
Its main promenade, The Mall, captivatingly portrayed by Rudyard Kipling was the social watering hole of the Raj’s English elite.
The pedestrian-only Mall was washed clean each morning by wizened mountain men with goatskin water bags tied to their backs and on special occasions, even oiled.
Courteous policemen ‘directed’ walkers to avoid congestion and a smart dress code prevailed.
Tweeds, blazers, flannels and of course, ties were the preferred garb for men and dresses or saris for women inhabiting the Mall; none dared to violate these sartorial restrictions for fear of social ostracism.
A century-and-a-half later these gracious pedestrians of past years have been replaced by raucous holidaymakers from the plains and their accompanying debris.
Rubbish litters the Mall on which rich and influential people manage special permits to drive up and down scattering unsuspecting walkers with their horns.
Garish fast food parlours and eateries selling inedible hamburgers, inflammable ‘curry’ pizzas and equally hot Chinese dumplings have replaced the Mall’s once genteel tea-rooms with starched linen, wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, assorted confectionery, delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea and wooden dance floors.
Tiny cubicles selling cheap cotton and nylon clothing and vacation-town glitz have sprung up in place of posh haberdashery stores and other regal shops offering an extravagant range of riding gear, foodstuff, books and objets that once rivaled products available in London and Paris in style and grandeur.
Noisy video arcades and scores of shady hotels and shabby boarding houses have erupted in recent years with cheap neon signs and ugly hoardings, spawning a severe water shortage when Simla’s population doubles to over 400,000.
Mountainsides denuded of lush forests by corrupt timber contractors have played havoc with the weather making it hotter in summer and rendering uncertain, Simla’s normally dependable and theatrical snowfall.
“There is little of the old Simla that remains” town historian Raaja Bhasin said.
This decline was hastened after Simla-renamed Shimla-become the capital of the newly created Himachal Pradesh state in 1972 leading to changes in land use, rapid de-forestation and a breakdown of civic amenities, he lamented.
“Once regal Simla with its stately British cottages, obvious style and understated elegance has become a noisy, concrete jungle where the greenery is fast disappearing and the ambience already has” mourned Bhasin.
Other old timers complained that Shimla had become a ‘physical and social wilderness’ where even amiable coffee shops had disappeared and with them engaging and intellectually stimulating conversation.
Even Simla’s renowned bespoke Chinese shoe-makers who arrived at the beginning of the 20th century bemoan the crass commercialization. This forces them to display factory-made shoes imported from the plains and to convert parts of their shops into beauty parlours and fast food cubicles.
But a handful of relics have managed to endure, despite the odds.
A handful of Shimla’s bakeries and majestic, baronial hotels, once owned by Europeans still serve roast lamb, baked potatoes and bread pudding and offer Mint Juleps and Planters Punch cocktails.
The towns many exclusive private schools, where chapel service is compulsory and whose students sport uniforms that even English school children no long wear today, are feebly trying to cling to their colonial legacy in the swiftly changed environment.
And, the Maria Brothers antique bookshop on the Mall remains possibly the only commercial establishment that has remained impervious to change, still offering a fascinating collection of rare books, old Tibetan paintings and Raj prints and etchings.
Shop owner Rajiv Sud also possesses one of 30 existing original lithographs of the American Declaration of Independence.
“It was folded inside one of the books we bought from the Viceroy’s library decades ago” said Sud who has not yet succumbed to lucrative offers for the lithograph from Western antique auction houses.
But all this too is probably just a matter of time before it too vanishes in Shyamala.