The haunted Simla Road
MANY YEARS AGO the bells of St Crispins woke up the people of Mashobra on Sunday mornings. We threw open our windows and let the chimes flood into the room along with the sunlight. We watched the English folk coming from the hotels and houses for service. It was the only day in the week they were up before the local inhabitants. All morning, visitors continued to pour in from Simla in rickshaws, on horseback and on foot. At evensong when the religious were at prayer once more, the road to Simla echoed with the songs and laughter of people returning to the city.
The bells of St Crispins do not toll any more. The lychgate is padlocked and there is mildew on the golden letters of the church notice board. The haunts of the English holiday-makers, "Wild Flower Hall" and "Gables" , have not had their shutters up since they were put down in the autumn of 1947. The only white people about are a couple of elderly missionary ladies who walk about briskly, stopping occasionally to inspect a wild flower, inhale the crisp mountain air holding their arms stiff at their sides with beatific expressions on their upturned faces. There is a young English writer in khaki shorts and sandals getting the feel of the country at the country liquor shop. Sometimes Italian priests from the monastery of San Damiano stray into the bazaar to buy provisions.
Apart from the people little else has changed. There is the deckle-edged snow-line beyond the peaks of Shali in the north, and the vast plains of Hindustan towards the south; one can see the Sutlej winding its silvery serpentine course through the orange haze. There are the dense forests of deodar, fir and mountain hemlocks. There are the terraced fields with clusters of villages in their midst – and flat roofs with corn drying on them.
All day long the lammergeyers circle in the deep blue of the sky or sit on crags amongst the rhododendrons, sunning themselves with their wings stretched out. Barbets call in the valleys and the cicadas drown the distant roar of the stream with their chirpings. Convoys of mules bell their way endlessly into the Himalayas with the muleteer's plaintive flute receding in the distance. A hill-woman's song rises above all other sounds and for one ecstatic minute fills the hills and valleys with its long melodious monotone. It ends abruptly and there again are the barbet, cicada, mule bells, the flute and the roar of the stream.
There are things that make you pause and wonder whether the British have really left. Houses which look like English country homes are still unoccupied and give the impression that they await their departed masters. Local inhabitants never tire of gassing about memsahibs who did their shopping in the bazar. Even now the bania will slip into quoting price for the pound instead of the seer or kilogram. An asthmatic old Sinhalese who made jams and pickles for hotel residents still refers wheezily to England as home and presses his syrupy rhubarb wines on his listeners with a toothless “doch and dorres”. One comes across names and pierced hearts on trunks of trees that tell tales of romance which lichen and moss have not obliterated. Then there is the cuckoo – the English cuckoo – with its two distinct notes which people say was imported by an Englishman in a fit of nostalgia.
In the evening when the mules are tethered and muleteers sip tea or smoke their hookahs they tell of the many foreigners who had lived in and around Mashobra. The eccentric American missionary who converted the whole of the apple-growing valley of Kotgarh to Christianity and then converted them back to Hinduism; of an ayah who still haunts the house in which she was murdered by her master's wife; of the people who had simply abandoned homes they had built and lived in for many years because they could not be bothered to come back from England; of phantom rickshaws and phantom ladies riding side-saddle on phantom horses.
It is a long walk back from Mashobra to Simla. The road is deserted after sunset and only the lights of the city scattered in profusion on Jacko Hill keep your spirits up. On the right is the Koti Valley with its stream glistening like quick-silver and the soft glow of oil lamps that come on unnoticed in distant farmsteads. There is something which makes you keep looking back over your shoulder. You hear the stamp of rickshaw-pullers' feet and whiffs of perfume and cigar-smoke steal mysteriously across the moon-flecked road – and your heart is too full for words.
from Best of Khushwant Singh (1993)
The Hindusthan-Tibet road out of Shimla leads to the hill resort of Mashobra (picture above), an area of magnificent mountain ranges, beautiful valleys and dense pine forests. Mashobra is a perfect base for nature walks, bird-watching and horseback riding. Shimla airport is just a 40-minute drive away.