I pass a rough night. Not only is the generator blasting away at ear-splitting levels, but at 4am a truck supplying water to the hotel pulls up outside (we’re on the ground floor). I spend the next three hours listening to water being pumped into a tank. It’s louder than the disco at the London Camden Palace I used to go to as a teenager, and that’s saying something. By the time it’s stopped, I’m too weary to sleep. I’m sniffing and sneezing and the room is dusty. We need a new abode.
Two hours later. we’ve found one and it’s far superior, though we’re still all sharing a room. At this point, however, I don’t mind at all and neither do my friends. I actually like their company and feel comforted that if I become any sicker, they’ll look out for me. They tuck me up in bed and go off for a walk. I sleep for several hours and when I wake I feel much better. Yael and Nir are nowhere to be seen so I scribble a note and head off down the hill.
Shimla is completely charming! I am captivated. It’s like a scene out of turn-of-the-century country England, complete with churches (Protestant and Catholic), a town hall and library (where you can pore over faded exhibits) and guards, dressed oh-so-smartly, scattered across the main square. There are few Westerners around; the centre is full of well-to-do Indians, strolling happily, their kids trotting round the square on donkeys whilst their parents take endless photos of them screaming with joy.
I spy a beautiful little boy, aged around 6, dressed smartly in blazer, tie and pressed trousers. He smiles at me and I smile back. His parents tell me they’re here from Delhi for a few days and we fall into casual conversation about my love affair with their country. The little boy is fascinated by my white skin and jeans and asks his mother to take a photo of us together. We say “cheese” and he grins even more broadly.
The surrounding scenery is stunning, Shimla being a hill station. In the days of the Raj, it was the spot from which the British ruled the entire country. Six months a year, government officials and their minions would decamp from the heat of Delhi each April, in pursuit of the cool, and I can understand why. After the blistering heat of Rishikesh, the breeze is a welcome relief. I can feel my spiritual equilibrium returning…and my appetite. I head for the Indian Coffee House, a traditional working people’s cafe, with plain wooden tables, no frills cutlery and pictures of Nehru and Gandhi adorning the walls. The decor doesn’t bother me – I know all too well that the best places to eat in this country are usually the cheapest. I order myself a large plate of scrambled eggs, toast, fried potatoes and tea and for the next 45 minutes I enjoy a leisurely breakfast, whilst absorbed in The Times of India.
The rest of the day I wander alone, happy, content, scribbling in my Moleskine notebook (if it was good enough for Hemmingway, it’s good enough for me), taking in my surroundings, imagining what it must have been like to live here in the days of yore. I stumble on an ice cream parlour, bursting with oddly-flavoured names (“Strawberry Love” “Orange Magic” and “Chocolate Marvellous”) and indulge. I drink more chai in a backstreet dhaba, off the tourist track, whilst I watch local boys playing cricket barefoot in the waning sun.
I think about how good it feels to be back in this country- enjoying simple pleasures. I feel blessed with my health, my wealth (by Indian standards I am fabulously wealthy) and the overwhelming feeling of “belonging” I feel back in India. Shimla is a new experience for me too – it’s clean, orderly, calm. I see signs strategically placed across the square, warning that litter- droppers will be fined. (Now that’s a first in this country). It suddenly hits me – Shimla is the Indian equivalent of Switzerland!
I am still in the centre when dusk falls and the square lights up. In the blink of an eye, it seems to come alive, and is filled with hundreds of families, chattering nineteen to the dozen as they enjoy their pre-dinner strolls. I feel endless eyes upon me, but I don’t feel in the least bit threatened…it is simple curiousity and not only am I used to it, I actually enjoy the conversations it brings about.
Before I know it, I’m surrounded by a clan from Mumbai, who are thrilled to hear I’ve visited their city. Within minutes, I find myself accepting their request to diner with them, and we spend the next two hours eating channa dhal, sag paneer and hot chappatis, whilst I tell them tales of the bhel pooris I ate at sunset on Chowpatty Beach and the culture shock I felt those first days in that hot, noisy, dirty city (back then I was an India virgin and so Mumbai was my baptism of fire).
It’s great having dinner company and reliving my earlier trips. But by the time we’ve paid the bill, it’s almost 9.30pm and I know I’m running out of steam. We exchange emails and they tell me to come and visit them the next time I’m in their ‘hood.
I climb up the hill, slowly, catching my breath and collapse into bed. Nir and Yael are nowhere to be seen but I have no fear. I only hope they’ve had a good a day as I have. We’ll catch up tomorrow, and compare notes. I pull the duvet over me and within moments I’m out for the count. Shimla is a delight.