The Mall as we knew it

Raaja Bhasin

OUR very own ‘10 Downing Street’ has shut down. The glasses by the sink have been removed. The half bottle of whisky has vanished. Owned by a friend, this was shop No. 10 on the Mall, Shimla. Once the sun went down, the iron slats would also go down. We would down a few, and then, a few more. In a haze of inspiration, along came the name.

The shop had a room at the back which would become active only after shop-hours. Once the shutter closed, a brave new world would emerge in that tiny space. The psychologist, the doctor, the godman, the know-all in each one of us would rush towards freedom and the hope to be heard. Problems of all sorts would miraculously vanish for a while. In those hours, as volumes swelled and sobriety collapsed, governments would also rise and fall; civilisations would vanish in the twinkling of an eye; prime ministers came and went; the decadent West crawled to kiss the feet of the pious East.

As an era for us passes, the shop is now a slick store. One more of Shimla’s ‘mom-and-pop’ shops has given way to yet another chain with pockets as long and deep as the Mariana Trench. There was a time, when it would be normal for most shops to have the owner sitting behind the counter while his wife knitted and sewed by the side. Roles could switch, and the lady would take the till while the husband’s paces re-measured the Mall for the nth time. The children would come to the shop from school, and as time went, many would take the father’s place. Seen as a bystander, there was an air of order and a sense of contentment.

Stories, anecdotes, lives are plowed into the very tarmac of this street. The tale often told with conviction and an undying air of truth is of how a ruler of a former princely state tucked the daughter of a Viceroy under his arm and headed to the higher hills. As far as I know, the ruler was barely out of his pram at the time. The only scandal at Scandal Point that I can vouchsafe is of the time when the desire to sing Que Sera Sera overwhelmed me. There was desperation within my artistic soul to sing loud, if not clear. That no one had any intention of following the song is not the point here. It is also not the point that I managed to clamber atop a post and that it was past midnight. That the portly SHO was summoned from his sleep to sort out a singer is also not the issue.

Those were the years, when we still called the street the ‘Mall’ — pronounced maal or mael. As shops changed, along came the moll with painted and sharpened claws. As far as our generation was concerned, the only molls we knew were those that hung around villains toting a gun, sporting a red lipstick!

And well, the Mall is now well on its way to becoming the moll.

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