Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India, 4 July 2017, 1830 hours:
In the 1970s and ’80s, the preferred mode of transport in Shimla for common folk was Number 11. (That’s walking by the way).
I remember because every place I went around Shimla in those two decades, I went walking. The only other transport I used was The Little Train and that was only to come into or leave Summerhill.
Yep, my family (aunt and uncle) lived in Summerhill and every weekend, we would all walk to The Mall. Four kilometres up, couple of kilometres around town, and then four kilometres back.
The usual route was up to the Advanced Study, through the estate, on past The Cecil at Chaura Maidan, past the Sanitorium, the Vidhan Sabha, the Public Works building, Kalibari and then the familiar stretch to the brick-red buildings of The Telegraph Office (now BSNL office) at the beginning of Mall Road.
Couple of hours window shopping, softy ice cream in cones, lunch or dinner (or both) at Baljee’s Fascination, a walk around Lakkad Bazar and the Ridge, maybe a movie at The Ritz, and then we would head back home.
People walked in those days because it was healthy, because they preferred taking the time, it didn’t cost a paisa, didn’t harm the environment, and it could be a social outing or a time for solitude.
Then buses became the primary mode of transportation; soon after came the scooters, then the bikes and cars … and now, people walk because they have to (because vehicles do not go to certain places) or because it is fashionable (’10 walks around Shimla’ etc).
I have lived most of my regular life in cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Pune. And oddly enough, thanks to the Summerhill walking habit, I usually walk the cities and towns (even today) because it is the best way to get to know the place or get a pulse on the place. You get to see a lot of life (and understand it) when you are walking. But the pace of city life (and now: all life I guess) makes it really difficult to slow it down such that you know what you are doing and why.
I visit Shimla at least once every year, and it has always felt great to walk the Summerhill-Mall stretch and definitely The Mall, because it has always been free of traffic. Walking zones are appreciated, specially if one is coming from Mumbai and Pune, where local governments have tried and failed repeatedly to establish traffic-free streets in specific zones even for a Sunday.
This time around it was different though. There were quite a few private vehicles parked on the lower end of The Mall Road (towards The Clarkes), and I encountered cars driving in race-track mode on four occasions within two days. Walking with a child on that road used to mean freedom and security. Guess those days may soon be gone.
But Shimla is a great town to walk even today. Every road has paths going up and down, and each of them eventually leads to great trails further into the mountains. Our little kids – who complain if they have to walk more than 50 metres back home in Pune – have been walking up and down the hills for half an hour to 45 minutes at a stretch. Which is good because where we are headed, walking will be the only mode unless they want to stay put in the hotel rooms!
This time around I spent some time taking long walks around the Jakoo Hill. Unbelievably quiet trails, dense forests, and stunning views of the town hills. Old houses. Solitude. People passing you by way down below. Chirping of birds. Chattering of monkeys and langoors. Fresh air. Life.