My father loved the hills. He could feel the romance of a hill station. He would have loved to own a little ivy-covered stone cottage on a pine hill. To have walked down its cobbled pathway through the morning mist, sporting a masculine overcoat, the broad brim of his stylish felt hat pulled low over the brow and the gloved hand tight on the polished wooden staff. Headed for work, that afforded meaning and dignity. To have retired in the evenings with a book, to a wooden study, by the fireplace. To have shared his scotch with gentlemen. To have debated on the issues of the world with men of substance. A modest ambition by certain standards, but it was a far cry for the gentle village boy of Daad.
My father was brought up by his grandfather, a devout Sikh, who had settled down to farming after having retired as a Subedar-Major from the Indian-British army. He would sit on his lap learning the hymns and the prayers, which were a part of the old man’s daily routine. The grandfather was well regarded by the entire village. He had donated land for the village school. He would make occasional donations to the Gurdwara. He had had the guts to go against the tide and had afforded protection and shelter to the hapless Muslim families of Daad and had saved them from being butchered in the genocide that accompanied the Partition. My dad loved his Grandfather and was by his side till his last breath. He learnt the value of quiet dignity and grace from the man. Though he spent his entire childhood and early youth in the village, yet the village life never really caught his imagination. The typical concerns of his rustic peers, their love for the daily fracas, the highs of ‘santra’ (cheap country liquor) or the peasant’s pride in getting a good harvest, were completely lost on him. He would be ridiculed for ironing his pajamas, for his pretentions at being more cultured than the rest and for the framed picture of Kennedy that was a part of his permanent possessions. He yearned to be away from it all. To a place and a life that had grace and style.
He got himself an education. He studied literature and got a job as a college lecturer. He rued missing out on a more dignified and manly profession but there was optimism in the heart. He successfully wooed a city-bred colleague, beating better placed suitors by his innocent charm and gentle style, got married and settled down at Amritsar. He lived beyond his means as he was convinced that a gentleman must have his dignity and he had no fear of the future. His children had to study in the best of public schools, wear the best of clothes. The couple’s twin salaries could barely meet the lavish lifestyle. But it was a happy family. The colleagues found the couple cheerful company, their parties warm and their manner endearing. My dad had settled down to the simple yet tasteful life of a middle class householder.
But the hills were calling him all the time. He studied for a course as a company secretary and landed himself a job in Shimla. The colleagues advised against the career move as the new job would not pay enough to offset the loss of my mother’s salary and the benefit of free Government accommodation. But nothing would dissuade him. He felt it was his destiny to live a life of quiet dignity inspired by all the literature that he had read. He landed in Shimla and scouted around for a good house befitting a gentleman’s family. Shimla has always been an expensive town. But he was not going to be deterred by rentals. What was the fun of living in a hill station if you did not have an open terrace overlooking a wooded valley? So he settled for a pretty little house which was a part of Good Wood Estate, a mere half hour walk from the ridge. While he was running around getting things ready for his family, we kids were going crazy with anticipation. We would imagine the snow covered slopes and the snowmen. The housemaid, who was a constant companion for the kids, was equally excited at the prospect of living in a fairyland, called Shimla. Finally the D-day dawned and we were all off to Shimla. The maid was to be left behind as we would not be able to afford the luxury of a full time help any longer. It acted as a spoiler and the poor girl was heart-broken, but our excitement made every other thing pale into the background.
It was probably my first train journey and we switched trains at Kalka. The sight of the small blue compartments of the hill train took our breath away. The quaint compartments swayed gently behind the chugging steam engine as we began the ascent. I looked out at the mesmerizing hill views, feeling the pine scented hill breeze. The goats, grazing idyllically, on the slopes along the rail-track. I was six and I fell in love with the hills.
On reaching Shimla the porters carried our luggage piled high on the back and we walked through Shimla to our new home. The scenically located Good Wood Estate consisted of a huge building with separate portions built on terraced slopes that were rented out to different families. It was a small community with lots of kids. We shared a huge open terrace with another family and it overlooked a fascinating valley. A white haired lady lived alone in a tin roofed house down a slope and we kids used to throw pebbles on her roof and scamper for safety before the lady emerged. Her lonely existence and cranky temperament fed our fertile imagination and we half expected her to come after us flying on a broom. Shimla of the mid-70s was everything that a child could wish for. The ponies on the ridge. The toy shops on the mall that fascinated me. The ‘Ashiana’ restaurant with songs of Kabhi-Kabhi. The book stores that my brother could not resist. The long walks. The snuggling against my Dad to stave off the evening chill as he carried me home from the Mall, while my older siblings trudged along.
The picnics under the pines. The view from the fence of the Auckland School. The monkeys. The chanas in paper cones. The skating rink and its loud music. The first raincoats and the duckback shoes. The torrential rains. The sunny afternoons on our terrace. The 25-paisa apples I had as tiffin. The ‘Triple Taste’ toffee wrappers that we collected and exchanged for albums that were used for pasting the new wrappers! The thorns of bichhu buti. All this and more. Shimla was a fairyland. I was decided that we would never ever leave Shimla and would live there happily ever after. But our luck ran out. My dad’s romance with life ended. He realized that being a middle order functionary in a large bureaucratic organization afforded even lesser dignity than being a college professor. And we could no longer afford living at Good Wood on a single salary. The family was under debt and hard economics put an abrupt end to my dad’s dreams. We left Shimla without having seen the snow. My dad returned to his earlier job only to realize that he had lost his posting in a decent city and had to join in a rural college. The Government accommodation was lost. The style withered away and so did the optimism and the dreams. He never recovered fully from the shock. I cried for days when we came back from Shimla. I hated my new school. The new town. I never forgot the hill station.
Later, whenever I would visit the hill station with my wife and kids, I would try to recall the first train journey to Shimla, the sounds and sights of childhood, but they were buried far too deep in time. I tried remembering where our house had been. The path we took to the cloud-covered ridge. But it was all too vague in memory. Then a couple of years back, I was deputed to attend a conference at Radisson, a newly built swanky five-star hotel. The Radisson Hotel is a beautiful wooden structure built on several levels. As we broke for tea and came out on the terrace I looked out into the open valley. And the hills beyond. I suddenly had the uncanny feel of having been there before. It was weird as I can count the number of occasions I have visited a Star Five hotel. But the deja vu feel would not go and I asked the manager what area it was. ‘It’s the Good Wood Estate and it belonged to some lady. There used to be houses here earlier,’ informed the manager cheerfully. Here I was 32 years later standing unwittingly at the same spot where I had spent the happiest days of my childhood. I wanted to hug my father and tell him that he may not have had the money but he always had taste. Our Good Wood Estate now housed a 5 Star Hotel. But he’s gone long back. He went when I had just about begun to understand him and his romantic view to life. Quietly, without a fuss, like the gentleman he was. Leaving his dreams for a house on the hills buried deep in my heart and soul.