Col Mahesh Chadha (retd)
Walking for miles to school across Shimla dales, drinking water at a flowing spring; pelting stones at some pear, apple, plum, fig tree and savouring the raw fruit; plucking a berry or some wild flower; admiring a farmer ploughing his terraced fields with a pair of oxen; giving a helping hand to a whistling shepherd to mentor his sheep and caressing his lamb are unconvincing stories for my grandchildren. It is no surprise, brought up as they are in modern cities, devoid of such heavenly benevolence. They go to school by car or bus, nor do they come across blossoming fruit trees. For them, fruits and flowers are only purchased from vendors; milk from a machine or a carton.
They wonder at my confidence when I tell them that on the very first day of my school, in 1952, I walked back home to my mother’s utter surprise as she failed to pick me up. Appreciating my initiative, she showed no signs of worry. Shimla was a peaceful, walker’s paradise, then — no traffic hazards; people along the way knew us and children were considered safe everywhere. Today, children wear identity cards, carry mobiles and are collected from school by guardians as a ritual.
They do not believe that I used to venture out in severe winter, wearing heavy woollens knit by my mother, to enjoy the soft snowflakes on my face; making a snowman and snowballs to hit friends and siblings with! For them, snow may be fun, but shortlived — only during holidays, that too if luck favours it.
They go to sleep while watching cartoons on TV, whereas for me it was the melodious ringing bells of the mules passing by our house or, at times, the deafening growl of a leopard or a barking deer not far away in the jungle. Sundays meant a picnic, walking to Glen, Annadale, Naldhera or Mashobra for juicy apples and peaches etc. The ‘Big Ben’, mall road, Ridge, ‘Scandal Point’, and Gaiety Theatre were where we would cross path with dignitaries like Dr Rajendra Prasad and Marshal Tito. After a tiring walk, there would be a feast of bhutta, doodh-jalebi or puri-bhaji at Mehru and Nathu halwai. For the kids now, it is malls, pizzas and burgers.
The heart laments — koi lautade mere beete hue din, that often lure me to the now-flattened hills of my childhood — sans pristine beauty. All that one sees now is dying pines and deodars; drying chashmas, concrete jungles, noisy traffic, pollution, growing population and nobody shaking hands with a tourist.
Shimla is as bad as other cities where grandchildren live, rendering it worthy of their taunt and unworthy of a melodious story anymore.
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