They Sullied My Shimla

Social Commentary

They Sullied My Shimla

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

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ack in 1997, when I couldn’t even spell it, Shimla was jolted into the 21st century, by the murder of local hotelier Harsh Baljee. A gun that had gone off in the night, somewhere in town, echoed for months like a ghost in each alley, each vacant chamber. To a nine-year-old, like me, the possibility of a real gun having made an appearance not too far from home was both surreal and scary. But even scarier was the thought that we had collectively lost something. The idea of the town’s quaint bedspread, bundled in its chord of safety, had been cut. And we had been kicked out of slumber, like ants onto the floor, feeling queasy from the swell that we’d never realised walking around.

I don’t remember much from the days except walking past the spot, where the incident had happened – on each occasion noticing people studying the place, as if it was theirs to claim in some regretful way. That is the thing with small towns. While they gain and lose the same as everywhere else, their local economy of familiarity, and the concern and trust born from it, makes their air that much easier to breathe. In Shimla’s case, that air felt significant on account of its heritage, and fresh on account of its natural riches. Earlier this month, however, that air turned foul, almost poisonous.

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Sixteen-year-old Gudiya (as she is being called to protect her identity) was kidnapped, raped, brutally mauled, and left in the Halaila forests in the Kotkhai area near Shimla. While coming back from school the girl was abducted, held in a van, before being raped and dumped in the woods. The same woods that my 10-year-old eyes beheld with a sense of alien fondness – a sense, both of discovering an unsullied corner of the world, and in its vast depth, the possibility of remaining joyously lost for hours. This tragedy has, however, uprooted my childhood from within that place.

What has followed, quite naturally is rage and paranoia. Only a year ago, the outing of the abductors and murderers of five-year-old Yug Gupta, had pulled citizens out of their homes onto the streets. The same streets that I have strolled at midnight, fearful, only of a stray dog. In a way, it was the company of others we always feared. People, we thought, wouldn’t understand the town, its hard life, its penchant for civil transactions, its insistence on prizing the path above the destination. Turns out, we don’t know ourselves that well.

Our assumption that beauty and camaraderie can in any way absolve, even prevent, men and women from turning on each other has proven to be naive.

There are two roads, if we can solemnly recall Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, that now diverge in Shimla’s woods, or whatever remains of it. One that left innocence a long time ago, the other, merely recalling the story of that departure as tragedy. In other words, we were perhaps never as safe as we thought we were. Never as unique as we thought we were. It was a matter of time before the forests would open and swallow us with them. In turn confirming that all along, we were the animals walking in its midst.

What troubles me more than the fact that Shimla is beginning to resemble the fetishised geographic centrepiece of tragic mysteries like Top of the Lake or Broadchurch – TV shows where women and children are victims of men who are bad despite inhabiting places that exhibit good – is the fact that for some reason we have always wanted to establish the opposite. There has always been a sense of community in Shimla. Whether it manifested in the casual strolls among known faces on Mall Road, or frequenting other homes like we would have our own bedrooms.

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What is still clear, in all of this is the fact that Shimla still mourns its losses like that of a family member. It rages, it inquires with ferocity.

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An almost familial idea of people and place, put our own idea of town before everything the world on the outside wanted to build of it – British Raj Buildings, the place where it snows on Christmas and New Years, and so on. We did not need parties or anniversaries to get together. We did not order-out our laziness or scroll real windows to wish away our loneliness. But our assumption that beauty and camaraderie can in any way absolve, even prevent, men and women from turning on each other has proven to be naive. Not any less than reading the town through a postcard or a travel guide. We are now having to accept our vulnerability, how tragically torn we are inside this incubator of love and beauty that has also become our blind spot.

But what follows acceptance is the tearing of a collectively conceived skin of calm and tolerance. Of that the latest example is the way the enquiry into the girl’s rape and murder has been handled. Rumours have abounded on social media. People have been detained and released. Too many narrative alterations and gimmicks by the local machinery has brought people out onto the streets. There is utter chaos, and things have gotten worse with the death of a suspect in police custody. It is like someone imagined this inside a beehive, free-falling under the weight of gravity onto hell’s burning floor. There are no circles of trust here anymore, just straight lines cutting across each other.

My mother, when I was little, told me that Shimla’s forests were endless. So seemed the faith its people put in relating and carving their lives to the quaintness and peace of the place. I can’t quite remember the number, but I have probably said a thousand times, “Humare Shimla mein aisa nahi hota.”

Shimla Rape

Little girls take part in protest against rape and murder of teenage girl in Kotkhai, on July 17, 2017 in Shimla, India.

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How does one then reconcile the beauty and peace the town is identified with, alongside what is now surfacing on a consistent basis? Is it merely a case of having refused to look within? Is it the fault of the town having to trundle into the future, its modern acuities in tow? What is still clear, in all of this is the fact that Shimla still mourns its losses like that of a family member. It rages, it inquires with ferocity. It does not merely register a name in some book, or a headline in the newspaper.

But like all modern families, it now comes together only in the heat of anger. There will be no going back now. No walking the streets at night. It would be inane to now assume that just because the sky in Shimla is the bluest, the hearts of those who roam under it are full of sunshine. The girl in the woods is our mirror to them. Maybe the dogs will start barking at us. Maybe the trees always were.   

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