Shimla India from David Jackson

Simla station-Himalayas India

This atmospheric picture gives something of the atmosphere of this hill town..previous summer home of the Raj..1860-1947. The town and its famous toy railway nestle at close to 8000 feet.

The diesel electrics ply their service on the 94 km track winding in and out of the Himalayas. The pride in keeping this little gem running was palpable. These are good honest hard working people. It was a pleasure to meet some of the railway guys…fantastic.

See below for a sneak peek into the short story I have started to write, called “The Spirit of Simla” This is my first draft of chapter one. Enjoy!

Tapashi had travelled close to 36 hours to reach the rail station terminus at Simla. Leaving Zuluk in east Sikkim, North East India she had first walked the 5 miles to pick up the bus to New Delhi. She had an antique silk scarf around her neck which her father told her had come from the old silk route to Lhasa in Tibet. It was a warming reminder of home. Predictably the bus was overcrowded and it was two hours before she got a seat next to an old lady who smelt of turmeric and damp decay. Her baked skin was turned black having spent most of her life labouring in the field or the brickworks.

It was Spring and the heat and odour of the day were building in the cramped bus. The top sliders had been opened and even though you could hardly see out of the grimy glass the sweet but dusty air made it bearable. After ten hours of sitting on the jolting plastic seats, her knickers were sticking to her backside like a second skin. The aged suspension of the Leyland bus on the potholed roads could not stop the tubular steel frame of the seat being pushed into her soft underarm making it throb with pain.

Finally, disgorged at Delhi’s main rail station she had waited on a metal mesh railway bench willing the hours away. Her ruck-sack was tucked under her legs so as not to attract the attention of night thieves who quietly stole belongings from people as they succumbed to fatigue. The 4.30 am train to Chandigarh capital of Punjab province arrived two hours late and by this time the masala tea sellers were in full operation along with snack vendors asking a few rupees for all manner of hot rice and vegetable dishes. On boarding the crowded carriage D she proceeded to seat 12 shaking a young lad into wakefulness and asking him to move from her reserved seat. The confidence of a young nineteen-year-old woman who had worked at a Zuluc hotel was born from dealing with some difficult customers as she threatened the miscreant with the guard who would kick him off the train if he didn’t have a ticket. He shuffled off reluctantly as she positioned her bag in the racking between food bags and a smallish plastic case with tape holding its handle together.

She was dog tired as the whistle blew and the train pulled away gathering pace through the crowded kaleidoscope world of New Delhi. She looked out of the window which was cleaner than the bus. It almost felt like she had risen a level having a second-class allocated seat train ticket. Her eyes closed as she moved the wallet and her phone further inside the pocket of her trousers. She was woken by the inspector in his white shirt and blue trousers politely but firmly asking for tickets which he was punching with a hole puncher.

She had slept for two hours.

The inspector spoke

‘I let you sleep by the way, I have been down the train and am now on my way back again.’

‘Thanks‘ Tapashi said.

‘How long before we reach Chandigarh?’

The inspector looked wistfully at the moving landscape which he had experienced for over thirty years. Everything from monsoons to sandstorms along with cattle on the line and swarms of bugs had delayed the train, never mind people being hit on the line or falling from the roof. The list of reasons the train could be delayed were endless.

‘Three hours without delay, double that if we have a death..maybe tomorrow if the engine fails.’

Tapashi laughed at the fatalistic humour of the man. The perspiration on his armpits betrayed the effort of struggling through the crowded carriages. His dark hair was receding and his ears poked from beneath his cap with its brass Indian railways insignia.

Thankfully the train only added a further twenty minutes to the two hours delay but still, it meant that she missed her booked seat on the Toy train to Shimla. The ticket was like gold dust because it was sent by her mother’s sister. A first-class ticket from Kalka to Shimla on the 2.30 pm train. Still, she approached the Kalka station ticket window smiling, she explained that it wasn’t her fault the Delhi train had been delayed. She had left two hours to change.

The ticket office and station were like stepping back over one hundred years to the Raj. Newer elements had been grafted on in the thirties and sixties but still, the black wrought iron and the solid wooden doors and signage told you that you were not in the modern world. It was a make-do, mend-and-replace-only-if worn-out world.

The ticket office man explained.

‘You’re lucky that the tourists don’t like catching the late train. They take the better seats. I can switch your ticket because we have one seat left. I shouldn’t, but I will because you have come a long way.’

Tapashi explained that her great-grandfather had helped build the railway back in 1903 and had died at Kathleegat. The tunnel had collapsed and her great-grandfather who was an army engineer with Punjab rifles had tried to rescue those trapped.

‘mm…very interesting my dear. You know there are some strange goings-on at that station. Some say when you enter that tunnel you are entering the afterlife for a short period. It’s a sort of entrance and exit for troubled spirits.

Tapashi felt a shiver go down her spine.

‘Well I know I have to show some medals to a local historian and I want to see my aunt and the plaque at the station commemorating the tunnel collapse.’

The Ticketmaster spoke.

‘Your train is here, I suggest you get on board and tell them I said it was fine to change your ticket, my name is Anil Smith. I am the senior Ticketmaster for all the Simla -Kalka railway.’

‘Thank you’ Tapashi replied.

It was dark as Tapashi looked at the snow-covered bridge and red roofs of Simla station. Quite a few people with luggage struggled up the station ramp to meet various cars stacked on the single-track road.

A man was waiting on the platform near the exit with a plaque which read ‘Miss Tapashi’

He introduced himself as Pranesh and he would drive her to a house in the grounds of the ex Viceroy’s residence. This was now a part museum part research centre. Her aunt’s house had previously been accommodation for senior govt officials who looked after the whole of India.

It was close to midnight as she approached the lit porch with Pranesh behind her carrying her ruck-sac. They had entered via a secure gateway which had a military presence. Thankfully she was expected and the entrance to the site went without hitch.

Pranesh drove past a large imposing residence which had been the seat of the summer Raj from the late Victorian era to independence discussions in 1947. The smaller single-story bungalow with its Victorian lampstands stood in the snow with the lights burning. Pranesh pulled up and opened the door for Tapashi.

The door opened to reveal the smiling face of Indira.

‘Come in my dear, you must be exhausted. Sit in the parlour and I will get you a drink and a biscuit.

The older middle-aged woman hugged Tapashi.

‘You are pretty…you have your mum’s smile dark hair and brown eyes.’

Pranesh, thank you for waiting for our young traveller. You know you cannot depend on the normal railways.’

Turning to Tapashi, Indira spoke.

‘ I have no doubt you found the Toy train interesting and punctual! It is an anachronism in this new world. You might say a hybrid of British engineering with the stubborn pride of the families who built this marvel. They were mostly families from the Himalayas…your side and ours.’

Tapashi popped some sugar into the masala tea and stirred it vigorously as she looked around the old yellow pine floor covered in rich Indian carpets. The sepia photographs in gilt or rosewood frames showed a town with carriages and men in top hats. A supplementary gas-bottled fire gave off heat which made the room decently warm. So warm she eased back into the wings of the armchair and listened to Indira talk about the history of Simla. After some minutes she found her eyes closing.

‘My dear, forgive me, you must be whacked. Shall we talk in the morning about your great-grandfather?’.

Tapashi smiled

‘Yes, I am ready to hit the sack. I don’t need anything too elaborate.’

Indira showed Tapashi to a large bedroom with a four-poster bed. The posts were covered in swirls and pyramids with white cotton drapes tumbling down the outside. A dresser of polished dark local wood stood with its mirrored front. A great brass 6 lanterned candelabra hung from the ceiling.

‘Sorry the bathroom is down the hall…but you have a sink and jug in the corner. The bath am afraid is too old…it packed up a couple of years ago. Towels and shower are down the hall. We can have some doser in the morning or I can send Pranesh out to the Cecil if you prefer European-style croissants. We have plenty of tea and marmalade.

Tapashi hugged Indira.

‘Good night auntie. I will be sleep soon as my head hits the pillow.’

‘Sweet dreams dear.’

Monkeys looked in through the glass as Tapashi undressed and put on her pyjamas. She was almost shocked to see their faces as she switched off the main light and bedside lantern.

They tapped on the window, but Tapasi was too tired to be worried even if they broke in and ransacked the place. This is what she thought travelling had to be. A combination of fatigue, fear and fatalism.

The monkeys soon got bored and started a snowball fight as the full moon shone on the overtowering Viceroy’s pile of austere stone with its heraldic lions gazing imperiously to far pavilions covered in snow.

Tapashi slept like the dead…

which as would have it was a handy trait.

David Jackson
21st March 2023