A stroll in Simla

Somehow hill stations have always held a charm for me. I have always felt it would be so wonderful working or studying at a hill station. The air, the atmosphere, and the views – I find all of them quite elevating literally and figuratively. In the olden times, the popular destinations were Ooty and Kodaikanal for the South Indians and Simla and Manali for the North Indians. In the recent times however these places are considered very commercial and touristy. So among the more affluent circles, read IT crowd, these locations have become down market. They seek more exotic locations. But the irony is people want the places to be not commercial and yet have all the facilities. Either you can have pristine untouched places where you need to backpack to and use the existing facilities. Or go to the more commercial places where you have proper resorts with designer rooms, good food and internet connection. One can’t have the best of both worlds unless you are a cricket player, film star or a politician.

Anyways in spite of the run of the mill place reputation, having never been to Simla, I thought we might as well give it a try. At the outset I must say I actually liked the place. Maybe it was the season we visited. There were hardly any crowds, the place was clean and we had a good time overall. The general hill air, the colonial style buildings and the novelty of a city with multiple levels add quite some charm to the place. I know some people like to have a list of places to visit while on a vacation and with a missionary vigor cover all the places, religiously ticking off the places from the list. But I prefer just landing up at a new place and loitering around aimlessly. The pictures of all the famous places are anyways available on the internet. One can browse them in the comfort of one’s home itself. It is the general atmosphere of a place that one cannot take in over the internet.

We did do some of the regular sightseeing as well. Just that in terms of priorities, it is more fun just loitering around than have a strict schedule and trying to cover a host of places. The things we did were the local bus tour, the climb to the Hanuman temple and a day’s stay at the Oberoi’s Wild Flower Hall. The train trip from Kalka to Simla was also supposedly an attraction. The numerous tunnels on the way were a novelty and some of the views were good. There were some college kids on the train having good fun and there were some couples struggling with small kids. I looked longingly at the former as the past that I had left behind and with apprehension at the later as the fate that awaited me in the near future.

The bus ride turned out to be good value for money. For Rs.250, the bus was quite comfortable and they covered quite a number of places. Our only grouse was they did not stop long enough at Kufri. The bus just stopped for an hour in which we were supposed to have our lunch as well. The Kufri zoo was just amazing. While they did not have too many specimens, the ones they had were really exotic. Black bear, Brown bear, Tibetan wolf, Barking Deer, Snow Leopard were some of the attractions. They also had a nice set of Pheasants including the Western Tragopan, the state bird of Himachal Pradesh. The ambience at the zoo was quite nice and the zoo staff was quite friendly. With some time spent posing for a photograph as a Yak rider as well, lunch turned out to be the casualty.

Then we were taken to the apple orchards where we were shown some dried up trees without even leaves. They were supposedly the apple trees. One of the tourists asked where were the apples and the guide promptly replied, “In the markets.” The tourist retorted, “We didn’t come all the way to Simla to see apples in markets. We could have seen apples in markets back home as well.” Apparently one can see apples on trees if one were to visit in the right season. But that right season would probably be the wrong season otherwise as the city would be filled with tourists throwing garbage all over the place. One can’t have the apple and eat it too, eh? To see how apple trees laden with apples look like, there is always Google Images.

How Valentine's Day came to India

Zurich, 1400 AD

Four men sat around a table. It was evident that they were men of wealth. Wealth always has a way of making itself known through the attire, the glow of the skin and the size of the waist line. But they were clearly not indulging in merriment. The expression on each of their faces was serious.

One of them, who seemed liked the leader spoke up, “So what do we do now? This is not at all good!

Another one spoke up, “People no longer seem to have the old spirit of giving for Christmas and New Year. That too in spite of all the effort by us to encourage the spirit among them!

Let us not cry over spilt milk. Instead we need to focus how to dispose off all the stock we have built up. With time everything will start looking jaded and no one will buy them. Gift items have so little shelf life you know.

The next opportunity we shall have is Easter

But there is still a good two and a half months for that."

That is too late. We need to find a way to create demand earlier than that. Is there any other celebration possible within the next ten to fifteen days?

Well, the only festival that comes up this month is this thing called Valentine ’s Day.

Ah! That is something. There might be some scope in that. It is a festival of love, isn’t’ it? Love means gifts and gifts mean sales.”

True. But we need to put some effort. For one, we need to give this Saint Valentine an image makeover. All these saints were all setting wrong examples through poverty and charity. Not at all good for sales! We need to make him more marketable!

All the merchants were excited by now and jumping in with ideas.

"Right! For one, he ought to be a lover himself. Some old country pastor as such will not excite young couples so much. How can a celibate be the icon of love? So we need to tweak the story a bit and create a story of romance between the saint and his jailer’s daughter.

To make it more heart wrenching, let us make the girl blind. People like some tragedy in romance!

How the couples will lap it up! Now let me add a final touch. Let us also popularize a sentimental letter purportedly written by Saint Valentine to his lady love.

They went about creating the plan of campaign. It turned out a grand success. The public just loved it. Especially the letter ending ‘from your Valentine’ was a super hit. Everyone was using the lines along with the gifts. The merchants managed to sell out all their stocks that year and the following year the sales were even more. It had indeed been a commercial master stroke.

Mumbai, 2000 AD

Two men reclined on the deck chair outside a swimming pool of a plush five star hotel. They were sipping a glass of single Malt whiskey as they puffed away at the Davidoff cigarettes.

Audience turnout in movies are dipping these days. Our revenue figures are not looking great. You guys need to produce something new.

Sir, people love all the action and fights. Just walk into a theater in a small town and listen to the whistles and cheering.

They will love it indeed! But they are not the ones who hold the purse strings. The world has changed, my friend. Today we have the new suave globalized urban middle class who holds the purse strings. Your angry young man fighting against corruption holds no appeal to him.

I know just the thing for them, Sir. Let us go back to the time tested recipe of love. Our people always love romance so much.

Makes sense! But do not again go back to those clich├ęd Holi songs and all that. They have outlived their time. Also they have a rustic feel that won’t go well with the modern urban folks. Think of something more urban and global.

The director now became thoughtful. He had been thinking of just rehashing the old romances of the 80’s and dishing them out. But the producer was too shrewd. He was not going to take that. He had to come up with something new. Then suddenly his face brightened.

Last time I was in Europe, they were having this celebration called Valentine’s Day. It is a really big thing out there. Maybe we should get that into our movies. That will resonate well with the audience at the new multiplexes!”

Ah! Now you are talking. Also shoot the movie in some cool foreign location. Don’t care about the expenses. I will take care. It will appeal to global Indians and bring back every penny we spend. Also the local middle class aspires to be there. That is what they will like to see. Isn't that what India shining all about? Do not show them all the local dirt and grime. That will only make them depressed. No one is going to pay to make them depressed.

And that was how Valentine’s Day finally arrived in India. Click here to read the earlier part of this story, the earlier 1200 years of Valentine's Day.

A Valentine's Day Tale

Rome, 200 A.D

His regal face was dark with rage. His army had lost yet another battle. The Gauls and the Goths were royally whipping the Roman Empire’s ass. Everyone was talking about him as a weak king. He had to do something to salvage his reputation. Ah! Here was the man responsible for his loss of face. His General: ‘Maximus’!

A tall powerful looking man walked in with his head hung shamefacedly. “So our army bites the dust yet again? What excuses do you have this time?

There was something in Emperor Claudius’ tone that scared him. Today the emperor clearly meant business. One wrong move and Maximus could easily find himself without a head. He had to make his moves carefully and weigh every word he said.

“Sir, the soldiers no longer have the old spirit. They are going softer by the day. They no longer fight like men. They run and cower and hide!

And isn’t it your job to make men of them? What have you been doing, you wretch?” Claudius growled.

Maximus could see a murderous glint in the emperor’s eye. Today the emperor definitely sought a head at the altar of the shameful defeat. He had to somehow deflect the king’s rage towards someone else. But who could be the ideal victim? Not one of his soldiers. That would further dent their already sagging morale and would be a sure shot recipe for yet another defeat. Not one of the nobles either. They would have powerful families and friends. He could not afford to make that kind of enemies, especially when his fortunes were on a downturn.

Then suddenly he had a brainwave. That pesky priest of that new religion! He was just the kind of person he needed. A soft target! He had been annoying people by preaching all funny weird ideas. People would enjoy seeing how the lions at the circus find his words. He was too weak to fight back and had no one to stand up for him.

My emperor, it is all the doing of that new priest. It is because of him that our men have taken to wearing petticoats and skirts. He has been secretly getting the soldiers married. He preaches love, compassion and other ideas of womanly weakness to them. I think he is an agent sent by our enemies to destroy our army from within.

Off with his head,” roared Claudius. Phew! That had been close! Maximus sighed a breath of relief as he gave the orders to the soldiers to arrest the priest.

London, 800 A.D

The Cardinal looked majestic in all his ceremonial attire. But his brow was knitted and he had a worried expression on his face. An intelligent faced deacon stood by him with an equally grave expression.

So many years have passed and we still have not been able to fully stamp out this pagan religion. As long as the pagan religion thrives, there is always a threat of the people going back to old way en masse one day. So many good Christians also still hold on to some of those vulgar old pagan rituals. It is so sad.

That is true, his holiness. Some of the ancient ways are so entrenched in the psyche of the people that they just don’t seem to be able to let go of them?

So what do we do, my dear deacon? I especially find this fertility ritual so disgusting and un-Christian!

The Cardinal’s face was filled with loathing. The deacon paused for a while. He seemed to be deep in thought. Then he said, “Maybe we have been approaching the problem the wrong way.

What do you mean, my good deacon?

If we cannot beat them, maybe be we should join them.

The cardinal’s face flushed red in fury. “What? You mean give up the ways of Christ and start rolling on the hay with wenches like those God forsaken pagans?

The deacon continued, “No, my holiness. Not at all! What I meant is if we cannot stop the ritual, why not make it part of our Christian myth? People are any ways going to continue doing it. That way the people will not feel compelled to choose between their rituals and Christianity.

The cardinal’s expression cleared a bit. “Interesting! You have a point. We need to be pragmatic and be ready to make some sacrifices to preserve the core of our faith. How do your propose to do it?

We need a saint, a martyr to associate with the day and a good story to tell the people. I am still on the lookout for one.”

By now the cardinal was excited. “Your search ends here, then. I know just our man. The people in Rome tell the tale of a priest who was executed by the Roman emperor for preaching the message of love. He would be just right for our cause.

That is great, my Holiness. Let us canonize him and make him a Saint and name the fertility day in his honor. What was his name, by the way?

Well. There seems to be no name mentioned in the myths.

No problem, your Holiness. If he does not have a name, let us give him one. After all what’s in a name? A rose smells as sweet under any other name. A saint gives out as much holy aura under any other name. What was the name of the person who told you about the story of this priest?

It was one of those serving chaps at the Vatican. His name was Valentine I believe! A bit dull in the head, but good at telling stories!

Then Saint Valentine, he shall be. Our dear saint, who laid down his life for the cause of love six hundred years back! And henceforth let us call this day Valentine’s Day.

Click here to read the rest of the story on how Valentine's day evolved and finally came to India.

Picture Source: Wikipedia

Chandigarh: The City where Autos are Pink

Off late there has been a lot of uproar about police force in India. I remember a friend once told me of how corruption was institutionalized in the police of his city. Apparently a new law was passed regarding use of helmets for two wheeler riders. My friend had not yet bought one and as luck would have it, the police caught him.

Take out 50 Rs.,” he had demanded.

My friend paid up but raised a genuine concern, “It will be difficult for me to bribe the policeman at every signal.

But the resourceful policeman was ready with a solution to the problem, “Tell any policeman who stops you that you have already drunk Pepsi.”

My friend tried that and it worked like a charm and every policeman let him through without a bribe.

The next day again my friend set out without a helmet armed with the fact that he now knew the words to let him pass through without bribes. So when the first policeman stopped him, he said,

I have already drunk, Pepsi.

The Sardar policeman broke into laughter, “Nice try, my friend! Today it is Coca Cola, not Pepsi. Now take out hundred bucks!

That was more on the lighter side, but frankly given the general impression of police, we were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by a policeman the moment we landed in Chandigarh airport. He politely gave us information on places to visit, how to get to our hotel, where to get a taxi and how to avoid getting cheated by taxi drivers. Then he told us it was an initiative by Chandigarh police to make the city tourist friendly and took our comments on a register. That gave us a very good first impression of the city.

We had heard a lot about the city’s planning. So the expectation was very high. The roads were indeed wide and it did look better than many Indian cities but having already seen foreign countries, I was not really awed as such. Also the local shopping complexes looked rather jaded. Maybe it would have been a much more impressive spectacle when it was just built. Also with the entry of so many malls across India, shopping complexes no longer hold any charm. However when you enter one of the supermarket stores, you can sense a difference in the kind of things being sold: a reflection of higher standard of living. Or should we say higher disparity of incomes? We could see many more homeless people on the streets as well.

Like people, cities also have some eccentricities that help us remember it by. And for Chandigarh, it was the pink colored autos. Wonder whoever got this idea to have pink auto rickshaws! And apparently you can’t hail these pink autos off the road. You need to call up a number and book them like a call taxi.

As far as sightseeing goes, since we had just two days, we decided to have just two places on our itinerary: the rock garden and the rose garden. As you get older, every place starts looking the same and you don’t get the child like excitement at seeing new places. Vacations become more of a ritual: something you do because all people of your status do it. I do get cynical about some places, especially the ones with a lot of hype associated. But I often do stumble upon places that charm me every now and then as well. Both these places fall in this category.

The rock garden has a unique history of being established illegally by a former roads inspector: Nekh Chand Saini. When the government had discovered it, they had wanted to demolish it. But then bowing to public opinion, chose to regularize it instead and further make it a city memorial. A testimonial of how things work in India! But then I am happy they did. I really loved the place. It had a magical feel to it with all those sculptures assembled from an ensemble of recycled materials. It was indeed amazing how one could create such beauty out of ugliness. Seeing those sculptures of people and animals from various materials, it seemed to me as if I had entered the fascinating land of Oz. I wonder if Frank Baum’s stories had any influence on the design of this place. The creator apparently still has an office in the garden and people could interact with him. But though I admire his creation, I had no clue what I would say to him. So I decided to skip that part.

Unfortunately, it was not the right season to visit the rose garden. But I really loved how the garden was organized. In most of the gardens I have seen, plants are just randomly put together all over the place. Here however, the different species of roses were neatly arranged in rows and columns with small placards naming the species. I was surprised to learn that this park alone had 800 species of roses. It would have been fascinating to see them all. But unfortunately they were just planted and the roses would be in full bloom by March only. But we still spotted one or two stray flowers of over twenty different species of roses. We kind of enjoyed playing a game of rose spotting, trying to spot the stray roses that had bloomed among the barren stumps.

So that was Chandigarh, the starting point of our week long north India tour. We stopped by briefly to see Pinjore gardens as well on the way back. It was a nice garden built in Mughal style but did not really leave any lasting memories as such. Unless one wants to count a horde of large bats that were raising a ruckus right outside the garden!

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces