“My mother was born in Shimla and grew up in this soil as a small child. She left the hill town with teary eyes in 1959, much later after India became independent. Till she was alive, my mother lived with fond memories of the place. Precisely, Shimla had become inseparable from her life. She left Shimla but Shimla never left her.”
These are the words of Clare, a young Anglo-Indian woman from Scotland who arrived in the town in September 2022, 14 years after her mother’s death, to trace her maternal line’s roots in Shimla.
Along with her, Clare was carrying an urn that contained her mother’s ashes. Her mother died in 2008 with an unfulfilled wish to go back to Shimla, at least once in her lifetime. On her death, she was cremated so as to bring her mortal remains to Shimla. This was quite a heartwarming and also a terribly emotional bond that an Anglo-Indian woman had kept strongly embedded in her heart for as long as she lived.
Having heard stories about Shimla from her mother — the whole essence of love around this picturesque British-era hill station, green cedars, cottages, churches, walking trails and the Anglo-Indian communities — Clare and her husband, Richard, took it upon themselves to bring her ashes back here.
With help from Sumit Raj Vashisth, founder of ‘Shimla Walks’, she could trace the final resting place — Sanjauli Cemetery, where she buried the ashes along with other ancestors.
“This was one of rarest things I have witnessed in the 18 years ever since I ventured into my work conducting Shimla-Walks for British citizens and Anglo-Indian groups arriving off and on to Shimla to relive memories of their ancestors,” says Vashisth.
The story of Clare moved him so much that he managed to trace an old house called ‘Mathew Villa’ in Kaithu locality of downhill Shimla, where Clare’s father had lived. The building is now the property of the Accountant General (AG) of India and is shared as residential apartments by some employees of the AG office.
“My grandfather was a British government employee serving at the printing press. My mother was 27-28 when she returned to the UK and later got married there but her heart used to bleed for Shimla, her play-mates in the locality, Indian cuisine and dresses. She used to wear saris to flaunt her Anglo-Indian roots,” Clare tells Vashisth in an emotional conversation here.
Shimla may be a small town but it is rich with historic events, memories of British Viceroys, Governor Generals and military establishments. Many believe that Shimla still hasn't lost its enviable charm and colonial touch as described by several historians, writers and travellers — both Indian and foreigners — who arrive here to trace their roots in its architecture, buildings and landmarks.
Raaja Bhasin, a noted Shimla historian, vividly recalls his childhood when the Anglo-Indian community had a sizable presence in the town. Many of his old acquaintances from Shimla who returned to the UK have either died or lost contacts. Yet half a dozen of them are in touch with him through social media such as Facebook.
“I can’t forget visiting those families in the neighbourhood. Eating with them, going to the church – both Christ Church at the Ridge and Chthonic Church for prayers – Christmas celebrations or Diwali did not make a difference. These were interchangeable. We also had schoolmates from these families,” he recalls.
Bhasin becomes nostalgic as he tells how as a child he learnt who Jesus was, and alternatively his friends, perhaps, learnt a little of how his family worshipped Lord Rama, Krishna and Guru Nanak.
“My friends rang temple bells with us, took large helpings of prasad, and we knelt at Midnight Mass. My parents put up a Christmas tree every year — and this was well before Christmas became yet another commercialised festival,” he says, adding many of his old friends moved overseas in search of better opportunities.
Most of the Anglo-Indians were employed in the Post and Telegraph services, Railways --- the Britishers having opened the narrow-gauge Kalka-Shimla rail in 1903 — the Government Printing Press and Army. There used to be balls (dance parties), plays, garden fêtes, cocktail dinners and matches.
In Whispering Deodars: Writings from Shimla, an anthology edited by Minakshi Chaudhry, Prof Meenakshi F. Paul, the author and a professor of English at Himachal Pradesh University, writes of a few English and Anglo-Indian women who have lived on in Shimla even as their families and friends moved away and passed the last days of their lives in the Lady Hardinge Home near Bemloi.
As the Summer Capital of the erstwhile British Raj, Shimla used to have six months of hyperactivity but an altogether extremely happy, peaceful, and picturesque period under the British rulers.
Chaudhary, the author of Love Stories of Shimla Hills and Ghost Stories of Shimla hills, says some of the great writings by noted authors like Ruskin Bond, who had studied at Shimla’s boarding Bishop Cotton School, describe life in the hill town during the colonial era as well as after.
Bond, who is now settled in Mussoorie hills, had a popular fictional character, ‘Rusty’, a sixteen-year-old Anglo-Indian boy living in Dehradun. He is orphaned and has no real family.
Bond was born to a British father and a supposedly Anglo-Indian mother at Kasauli Military Hospital in Himachal Pradesh.
Many foreign tourists and travellers visit Shimla to fulfil their desire to trace old houses, playgrounds (tennis grounds), old institutions, schools cemeteries and walking paths to recall memories of their ancestors and forefathers—both British and Anglo-Indian. A few even come with books, maps and photographs of old places to see how colonial heritage has changed over the years; sometimes, the names of those wooden two/three-storey houses have changed or have been eaten away by Shimla’s winter fires.
In the words of Rudyard Kipling, a Bombay-born noted English novelist, story-writer and poet, who visited Shimla and wrote extensively about the British town:
So long as ’neath the Kalka hills
The tonga-horn shall ring,
So long as down the Solon dip
The hard-held ponies swing,
So long as Tara Devi sees
The lights of Simla town,
So long as Pleasure calls us up,
Or Duty drives us down,
If you love me as I love you
What pair so happy as we two?
‘An Old Song’, 1922