Sunday, March 7, 2010

Snowtime in Simla

She was Grandpa’s premier amour. He was smitten by her when a teenager and that was the beginning of an enduring romance. Even after he married Grandma, with whom he had a long innings, he never did forget her. For him she was an eternal beauty who always responded the way he chose: as a companion, refuge or elixir, sometimes all rolled into one. The years trotted on but nothing ever diminished his commitment towards her; not her wrinkles, not her tatters. She remained his Queen. Grandma had resigned herself to that fact and never resisted nor forbade any rendezvous he ever planned. When we queried her on it she would all-knowingly say, “First love is not easy to forget.”

The maiden in question is Shimla! Her affect on old-timers like Grandpa has to be seen to be convinced off. There’s the classic case of a friend’s NRI relative who visits India annually to avoid the cold European months. While here, the moment he hears ‘snow’ he rushes off to Shimla, defying all logic of having come to spend time in a cheerfully-mellow winter sun. “I’ve been from Alaska to Switzerland, but nowhere do you feel the magnetism of Shimla,” he always explains.

Shimla attired in her white winter ensemble holds particular charm for them. I had never been drawn to snow destinations so the only portrait I was acquainted with was Shimla in summers with its perennial rush-hour feel. Thus Grandpa and I could never agree on her status of beauty. He had seen her heydays when The Mall was a ramp for connoisseurs of elegance and concrete structures were few and far between.

It was a particularly cold morning in the winter of 2008. This was the effect of snowfall in the higher reaches, and happily for all local newspapers Shimla wrapped in snow took care of the editions’ lead picture. “You’ve never seen her in winters, why don’t you make a trip,” Grandpa proposed. I knew he would have liked to dash off but arthritic knees prevented that luxury. His suggestion was tempting and the next morning I was in Shimla. No sooner had I arrived than I looked around in disbelief. There was not a square inch of snow! I was 24 hours late. The previous day’s bright sunshine had made sure the season’s first snow-carpet did the disappearing act.

I rued missing my date with white floss as I trudged up to The Mall. Sprightly elders zipped past me even as I huffed and puffed, halting every few moments to catch my breath. At one such pit stop a local clad in the traditional coat and pahari topi began chatting. After a while as I took his leave he said, “Don’t fret. It will snow by late evening. I can smell it.” My olfactories smelt nothing; and I was certain his too had failed him when it was way past sundown and no sign of snow. It had been an exhausting, disappointing day and I retired early.

Despite the layers I was clad in, the night had been uncomfortably cold and I was up early. An inky blue dawn sky was peeping through the window and as I walked up to the balcony I noticed that quite bizarrely the colour was being reflected from the entire township. It took me a while comprehending the visual imagery and then my eyes stayed peeled. It had snowed!

Apparently snowfall began late last evening. Never again would I doubt a local. They know the scent of snow.

I stood in the balcony till the sky wore some blush-on. It was no picture postcard I had been looking at. It was real and the experience was sublime. What heightened the affect was the contrast; the myriad hues of yesterday’s muck and mundane had disappeared and all that was visible were the shades of purity. Now I know why the many who courted the Snow Maiden did. Attired in a sinuous robe of pristine white she appeared breathtakingly beautiful. One stellar stroke from nature’s brush had magically transformed her.

I stepped out of the motel for my maiden walk in the snow. The town was waking up and only once in a while did someone appear adding colour to the whitescape. As I strolled past its landmarks —the Scottish Church and State Library on the Ridge, Gaiety Theatre and gabled-roof shops on The Mall— Shimla looked a painter’s canvas. From trees to trails to buildings, they all wore a new expression. Snow had brought in a dimension where bare was beautiful. It felt God belonged to the school of surrealism. What I was witnessing was the annual presentation of his art-work. And each composition was a masterpiece.

As I approached Scandal Point tiny cottony balls began flying in my direction and I wondered what that was. Snowfall? Ah! It was my day. Within minutes snowflakes began melting on my hands and eyelashes. The flakes barely embraced before they disappeared. If rain is a resounding raga, snow is silence in motion and quite spectacular. I walked some miles in the snowfall and in those few hours savoured a lifetime.

For the return journey I opted for the narrow gauge railway route and travelling through snow by train was the perfect cherry on the top.

On arrival I showed Grandpa digi-shots of Shimla. For me these were mere images. For him they were frames of nostalgia. He beamed when I told him she was majestic. “I’ve always maintained that,” he said triumphantly.

It’s fortunate my trip materialised. Grandpa passed away shortly after. I’m sure his Queen shed a tear.

Published in The New Indian Express, January 2010

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