Murder: The Price of Your Hill Station Holiday

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Murder: The Price of Your Hill Station Holiday

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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his summer, as droves of us head into the hills for peace and tranquillity, very few will realise that these little idylls, these little pieces of heaven, stand on legs deep in malevolent corruption. Of course that’s an idea that does not square off with hot Maggi and endless cups of over-sweetened tea, long walks in the bracing wind and watching the rain pelt down from your window, writers’ retreats and yoga camps. But the shooting and daylight murder of Public Works Department employee Shail Bala Sharma in Himachal Pradesh, will hopefully force us to face it. The murder is symbolic not just of the criminality at the heart of the mountains, but it is coded with the awareness that we desperately need to keep the hills intact. For our own sanity.

When the Himachal high court passed down orders to demolish illegal hotels in the hills of Kasauli, even the most righteous of men and women admitted surprise. Our public institutions have grit, who knew? Not those at least who have lived in the hills and know how they have become the site of insipid lawlessness that is so systematic in its veins, it flows seamlessly.

Yet, not even Shail Bala Sharma, a middle-aged woman who was enforcing the laws of the country, would have prepared for anything more than an argument or a scuffle. But a bullet had her name on it.

The murder of Sharma is not something that people like talking about. It is not only detrimental to the opportunism of the future but will be considered a roadblock to the business of the present as well. Nobody wants to visit a place that cannot hold up its promise of quaintness, the charm of absence, a reprieve from the tail-lights of cars you drive to in the city, the air of the air-conditioner that irritates the throat or the absurdity of cold people in warm places. All of that is quashed, destroyed with one pull of the trigger. Kasauli reported a decline of up to 30 per cent decline in hotel bookings after Sharma’s shooting. Which is why hoteliers and bureaucrats ensure no untoward news escapes the hills.

Because for places treated like postcards, it is imperative to have the sun gleaming in a corner. Paradises can also be faked.

It’s a pattern, not tracing the spread of a disease but its normalisation, its domestication.

Sharma’s murderer, Vijay Singh, a hotelier from the town, is in all likelihood the kind of man who saw bypassing the law as a necessary, even convenient step toward building a fortune. So when life came full circle, Singh’s inability to accept the logical, manifested tragically, so accustomed to fooling the law his ilk have become. And there are thousands of them in the hills where avarice, delusion, and desperation have come to concoct a mixture of crime so delicate you pass it by without noticing.  In a town like Shimla, which has close to 1,500 such structures, we seem to forget the apparent, howling collusion it has taken for these to come up. We are talking about illegal structures, entire buildings – not handmade goods, drugs hidden up someone’s behind, or cash – but tangible, visible structures on the face of the earth. A criminal act so slow, and yet so audacious.

How then, has this been allowed to happen?

The problem is that our relationship with the hills is all take and no give. We demand the greatest “seasonal” experiences we can have, the most un-Indian, un-city feeling… but with hot showers and high-speed Wi-Fi. We stretch local resources, gentrify local culture, and encourage people to bend a few rules, here and there, so we can guiltlessly exfoliate into the lap of something we are also helping tear down.

Only a bullet, a lynching, or a rape shakes our idealism of these places despite decades of corruption, co-option and lawlessness that has now become so normalised it is a way of life. The rampant, cavernous consumption of the hills by hoteliers and the tourism industry that has put the existence of these abodes at peril. McLeodganj, in Upper Dharamsala, has about 55 illegal hotels, the Kullu-Manali valley a staggering 1,700. It’s the same situation in other places: Dalhousie, Shimla, Mussoorie, Shillong, Darjeeling, the list goes on.

Shail Bala Sharma murder

When the Himachal high court passed down orders to demolish illegal hotels in the hills of Kasauli, even the most righteous of men and women admitted surprise. Our public institutions have grit, who knew?

Image Credits: Karun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It’s a pattern, not tracing the spread of a disease but its normalisation, its domestication. These places of escape, as heavenly as their roofs may seem, are built with cadavers in their basements: Cadavers of opportunism and of bafflingly subtle excesses.

It is perhaps redundant to mention how most hill towns struggle with issues of water, traffic, lack of jobs, and contradicting overcapacity. That they are built in seismic zones, suffer from the intangible overloading of their slopes, and the softening of soil beneath. The outsider will simply see past all of it, as long as the home-stay, the easy escape is delivered. It is also pointless, because it takes the echo of a gunshot to turn people’s heads, and wake governments to the illness shouldering this diabolically public procession of guiltless crime.

I cannot help but wonder that Sharma might have lived had our laws not been so easily mocked and rejected, that their belated implementation would almost be dishonourable to some. The time in which Singh, her killer, went from breaking the law to reaping its benefits without the slightest of qualms, is also the time during which a poke, a little slap on the wrist could have saved an innocent life.

Our films, our media has helped us ascertain underbellies restricted seemingly to the cities. The hills are perhaps worse, with giant, bottomless holes deep enough for the light of law and the sound of reason to fade before the manifest horrors of consequence, like Singh, implode into being.

It’s a little like my favourite line from a poem recited on the show Twin Peaks, “The woods was our sadness.” The hills, it is evident, have become our greed.

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