Book review: Small Towns, Big Stories by Ruskin Bond
This is more a brief take than review.
Small Towns, Big Stories by Ruskin Bond (Aleph Publications)
Another little gem from the inimitable Bond, Ruskin Bond. Herein are tales from the villages, hamlets and townships of his beloved hills, accounts of interesting and eccentric people, sundry leopards, bears and birds, and all of it infused with that dry humour typical of the writer.
However, rather than attempt a review that would only heap praise upon praise, maybe more than this slim volume can bear the weight of, let me focus on one chapter titled Kipling`s Shimla. Bond informs us that Simla is worth a visit at any time of the year, even during the monsoon.
The monsoon season is one of the most beautiful times of the year in the Himalayas, with the mist trailing up the valleys, and the hill slopes, a lush green, thick with ferns and wild flowers. The call of the kastura or whistling thrush can be heard in every glen, while the barbet cries insistently from the treetops.
….Simla attracts the visitor as a place of lovely winding walks, magnificent views and romantic links with the past. Compared to some of our hills stations, it is well looked after. The streets are clean and uncluttered, the old Georgian style buildings still stand.
Simla beckons. I must return. And like (Kipling`s) Kim, I will take the last bend near Summer Hill and look up and exclaim: Ah! What a city!
Now contrast that to this account of Shimla as observed by me, on a trip earlier this year.
Shimla is hot and fetid. The less-than-savoury smells waft up from the Lower Bazaar to the Ridge, from the lean-tos that serve as food joints, across the neighbouring hills chock-a-block with ugly cement structures. There is a tree that is attempting to burst into flower but from the looks of it, giving up the ghost because of the fine patina of vehicular dust that has settled upon it.
It is a holiday and the Mall is crowded. There are traffic jams stretching for two kilometres across Shimla. We find the jams still in place at 7 pm in the late evening. The lovely winding walks of Ruskin Bond`s Simla now have people taking selfies at every bend. Tourists dressed in the strangest of attire (I spot a sheer gown here, a long flowing dress elsewhere, and at least two coats in this summer heat!) talk at the top of their voices, munch crisps from the packet noisily, then, of course, throw the packet down and walk along.
There is the smell of urine rising from the gutter that runs alongside the Ridge. I spot a woman directing her toddler to the drain and pulling his pants down. I look away hurriedly.
Gaiety looks forlorn in the morning sun, shorn of all her gaiety. A monkey sits on a ledge in the Post Office building worrying some long tie-ropes. But yes, Shimla still has one thing going for it: the charm of the old buildings. Some of the buildings, that is. Others are rickety structures wherein people live, and there are lines of grey underwear drying in the fierce sun, a most dismal sight.
Shimla repels. I will not return. I will look down from Jakhoo Hill and exclaim sadly: Ah, what a mess!