In a Suzuki to Shimla

My family has been going to Shimla every summer for as long as I can remember. After a week or two in Delhi, where doting relatives would ply me with aloo bhujia, kaju barfi, butterscotch ice cream and dal makhani, my parents, my brother, and my grandparents would board a train to Chandigarh and then pile into my dada’s gray-blue Maruti Suzuki to finish off the journey.

I’d watch, awed, as Chandigarh’s warm haze ascended, bit by bit, into the hills’ cool mist. (This gazing often resulted in my puking halfway through the car drive, but that wore off as I got older.) After five or so hours — with a quick pit stop at Timber Trail to grab some chai, nimbu pani, and pakoras — we would pull up a mossy slope to Pine Breeze, my grandparents’ aptly named house. Featuring a tall, ivy-covered, gray-brick tower and a vibrant garden, it looked like something straight out of a fairy tale: one only had to imagine a princess gazing forlornly out of a top-story window, and the picture would be complete.

A brother and sister stand side by side in school uniforms
Amann and her brother stand outside the family Shimla home on their first day at Ankur Day School, the primary school they attended for a month in the summer of 2013. (image courtesy: Amann Mahajan)

Shimla was a kid’s paradise

For my brother and me, the house — and Shimla, for that matter — lived up to its appearance as a land of wonders. We’d spend our days playing with other children (we managed to get our messages across, despite our atrocious Hindi), buying toffees in Kasumpti or riding ponies on the Mall, and our evenings eating Maggi noodles and slurping tomato soup while watching Chhota Bheem

A boy and girl watch TV while eating noodles
A late-afternoon ritual: Amann and her brother slurp Maggi noodles while watching Chhota Bheem on cable TV (image courtesy: Amann Mahajan)

We’d pull faces at the bandars (monkeys), seeing ourselves in their mischievous grins, and sit on the flaking green swing planted in the middle of the garden. We touched every corner of the house, barring the spider-infested areas, which we always gave a wide berth. (I never set foot in one of the downstairs bathrooms after encountering a large, hairy arachnid on one of its walls.) In other words, it was a kid’s paradise.

After COVID hit Shimla

The last time my family visited Shimla before the pandemic was in 2018. When we came back in 2022, a lot had changed: my dada had died of COVID-19, and my dadi — who has Alzheimer’s — had moved to Mumbai so my bhua could take care of her. I’d become a high schooler, and my brother a middle schooler. Shimla had transformed, too: the hills were dotted with more red- and green-roofed houses than ever before, the seemingly ubiquitous monkeys were now difficult to spot, and the primary school where my brother and I had spent a (memorable, yet slightly traumatic) month studying one summer had been replaced by an apartment building. 
The melancholy tinge I’d always picked up in Shimla — perhaps because of the fog, perhaps because of my proclivity for reading horror and murder mysteries at night in one of the house’s cavernous rooms — was amplified; the house felt strangely empty without my grandparents. I missed hearing my dada chuckle at Citizen Khan and watching my dadi solve word jumbles with her signature frown of concentration.

Rooftops in Shimla, India
Rooftops in Shimla at dusk (image credit: Shyamal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,Wikipedia)

My subpar Hindi in Shimla

Returning after the pandemic, I also felt the sting of my subpar Hindi more acutely. Although I fully understand Hindi, and can read and write it fairly decently, I have never properly learned to speak it (partially because I haven’t needed to do so to communicate with my loved ones: all of my grandparents, in the U.S. and in India, as well as most of my aunts, uncles and cousins, can speak English). 

This year, I blushed and stammered when talking to the housekeepers, Jaya and Lekh Ram, my already shaky Hindi worsened by the three years’ disuse the pandemic brought. I offered up the same paltry lines (“Aap kaise ho?” “Cold coffee bana sakte hain?”), struggling to maintain a conversation. In bookshops along the Mall, I avoided asking the shopkeeper for the volumes I wanted, afraid of slipping up my grammar and pronunciation.

A church in the mountains of Shimla
St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Shimla. Built in 1850 (image credit: By ShashankSharma2511 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Wikipedia

Disturbingly, I found that French — a language I’d only acquired in the last few years — came more readily to my lips than Hindi, which was supposedly my mother tongue. 

It’s silly to worry about making mistakes when learning a language (how else are you supposed to learn? And when I do make mistakes, the worst I’ll get is a friendly chuckle and a gentle correction), but the perfectionist in me amplifies my anxiety. Back in the U.S. now, I can’t help but regret my reluctance to speak Hindi, both this summer and in previous years. I’ve missed my best opportunities, age- and location-wise, to become bilingual, and it’ll take a heavy dose of Duolingo and Hindi movies to make up for it.

Shimla’s colonial past

Yet the return to Shimla hasn’t been all wistful memories and sour regrets. Part and parcel of growing older is better comprehending the stories around you, and in these past two years, I’ve begun to appreciate Shimla’s colonial legacy as the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj. Walking along the Mall felt different after I’d done research on it for my Contemporary World History class.

People standing outside a church in Shimla
Amann and her brother stand in front of Christ Church on the Ridge in July 2022 (image credit: Amann Mahajan)

 I finally took the time to read the plaque on the wall of the Amateur Dramatic Club (of which my dadi had been a member) explaining its history and significance: Formed in 1837 by British officers stationed in Shimla, it was eventually passed on to the Indian army post-independence. My family also visited Vice Regal Lodge for the first time in 2022, a grand castle where pivotal discussions on India’s future were held in the years leading up to independence and Partition (most notably the Shimla Conference of 1945 and the Cabinet Mission talks of 1946). 

And when we stopped in Maria Brothers, a shop containing archival documents and antique books, this year, I actually took the time to flip through the tomes’ yellowing pages. My face lit up whenever I recognized a name I knew or an event I’d learned about (“There’s a reference to the Union Army’s Anaconda plan from the Civil War!”), like I was seeing an old friend.

A train chugs along the hillside
The passenger train chugs along the bridge along the Kalka-Shimla route (image credit: Wikipedia)

My family history in Shimla

Smaller, but no less important, than these larger histories are my family histories. In 2022 and 2023, my family visited the home where my father grew up, just a ten-minute walk away from our current Shimla house. Laughing, my dad pointed out the spot where he once tripped and hit his head, pushing back his hair to show us the lasting mark. 

In Chandigarh (okay, that’s admittedly not Shimla, but we always stop there on the way), my cousins and I crowded around our dada’s cousins, listening to them tell stories about their little brother and showing us photos of him. My cousin and I found books my dada had written and a little notebook my dad had stolen from his sister within the walls of our own Shimla house. These stories form a patchwork quilt I can hold about me, even if the people they’re about aren’t around anymore. And they help lift the melancholy that comes in with the Shimla fog.

A mountain highway in India
NH22-the highway between Shimla and Chandigarh (image credit: By Darshan Simha – Shimla-Chandigarh Highway, CC BY 2.0, Wikipedia)

Finding new stories in Shimla

So while it’s been a little odd going back to Shimla the past two years, a little quieter, it has been valuable. It has given me a chance to reflect on how I’ve grown up over the past few years. Finding new historical connections, whether national or familial, has allowed me to better understand the place I loved so purely as a child as a more complex “individual” with a profound legacy. 

My love for Shimla hasn’t waned; rather, it has shifted and matured, just as I have. These changes are even captured in the small traditions I’ve accrued over the years: now, there’s cheese on the Maggi, trashy Bollywood movies (I’m looking at you, Student of the Year) in place of Chhota Bheem, and Agatha Christie instead of Enid Blyton. 

The experience is no less enjoyable: it’s just different, and that’s okay.

Amann Mahajan is a rising senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Gunn's newspaper, The Oracle, as well as the incoming co-Editor-in-Chief of its arts and culture...