The curse of tourism in Shimla and what to do about it

Why are tourists swarming across the mountains like locusts? Because they're not visiting their grandparents, writes Avay Shukla

Tourists in Shimla
Tourists in Shimla

Avay Shukla

Ensconced in my tiny village near Mashobra in the Shimla hills in the summers, I feel like Raja Hari Singh Katoch of Kangra when he was besieged in Kangra fort by Jahangir in 1620. Worse, actually, because the raja had to put up with the inconvenience for only 14 months, whereas I have had to endure it every year for the last 14 years. And it’s not the Mughal army I have to contend with but the Khan Market and Lutyen’s gangs of Delhi.

Come April every year and members of these gangs, in their tens of thousands, clamber up the mountain landscape and take over our roads, markets, forests and every bed in every homestead. Like a plague of locusts, they devour everything and leave behind in their wake tonnes of plastic, bottles, empty packets of chips, cigarettes and condoms.

They lay claim to our lawns, apple trees and parking places; the women have been spared so far, but that’s only because we hide them with the cows. We huddle in our houses, waiting for the pestilence — called ‘tourism’ in modern parlance — to pass.

I have given the origins of this annual invasion a lot of thought, and have come to the conclusion that it occurs primarily because we no longer visit our grandparents. Instead, we go on vacation to the hills!

Think about it. The internet, competitive consumerism and the breakdown of familial relationships drives us to constantly seek ‘new’ experiences and ‘new’ vistas. If the Junejas can do it, so can we. Even if it means being stuck for eight hours on the Rohtang pass, being ripped off by taxi drivers in Dharamshala or abused by the 'pony wallahs' in Kufri.

When we were growing up in the fifties and sixties, it was different. My grandfather, a patriarch no one messed with, lived in UP’s Fatehpur dis-trict, in a village called Husainganj (unless the good Yogi has changed its name by now). He had built himself a huge haveli (mansion) there from the proceeds of his bookshops in Calcutta, and inscribed one golden rule in its stones: all his children and 17 grandkids had to visit him every summer. He even paid for the rail tickets.

I never saw a mountain (or sea or desert, for that matter) until I was 25 — the only mountain I had seen until then was the stupendous landfill in Ghazipur, which, like the Himalayas, continues to grow each year.

Every summer vacation, my dad would pack the family into a second-class coach of the Kalka Mail at Calcutta (or Hazaribagh or Asansol or wherever he happened to be posted at the time) for the 24-hour journey to Fatehpur, an annual migration I look back on with fond nostalgia mixed with the regret that my own sons (part of the KM gang) have never seen this facet of Old India.

Today’s train travel is all about getting to the destination as quickly as possible, it’s never about the pleasures of the journey itself. I recently travelled by Shatabdi to Kanpur and found that of the 62 passengers, 60 had buried their personalities and noses into their smart phones. The 61st was a seven- or eight-year-old who was sliding the door open and shut, letting in the flies and letting out the cold air. I was the 62nd.

Those days, the journey itself was a delight. There was neither AC nor electric traction back then. We would stick our heads out of the open windows, breathing in the soot and smoke from the massive Bullet engines, jump out at every station to buy comics from the A.H. Wheeler stalls (where have they all disappeared?), grab the local station food from the vendors — jhalmoori at Asansol, aloo tikkis at Dhanbad, samosas at Mughalsarai, puri-aloo at Benaras, delicious pedas at Allahabad. All extremely unhygienic, swarming with e-coli, no doubt, but Michelin star stuff that built up the immunity which, in later years, has enabled us to tackle the tasteless swill IRCTC serves on trains nowadays.

But the pièce de résistance for which we all used to wait, came at Fatehpur, where we arrived opportunely for breakfast and deboarded with great excitement. Its generally deserted restaurant served the best buttered toast and omelette on the Grand Trunk line, on round tables covered with spotless linen and cutlery. (The only railway restaurant that comes even close to its ambience and service is the Barog station on the Kalka–Shimla line).

We left the restaurant only when they ran out of eggs, for the next two weeks in Husainganj were to be a pure vegetarian existence, without even onions and garlic.

There was only a dirt track between Fatehpur and Husainganj, a distance of about 10 km; there were no buses, only the occasional horse carriage on a sharing basis. But my grandfather had the biggest haveli in the village and there was no way his grand brats would travel in a tonga.

For us, he sent his personal bullock cart, drawn by two of his finest oxen: a magnificent, snow-white pair standing almost five feet high at the shoulders, bedecked with colourful ribbons and tinkling bells, their regal horns sheathed in copper.

The bullock cart itself was a caparisoned wonder, with sun shades, carpeted with Mirzapuri rugs and stocked with sugarcane stalks, peanuts and nimboo-pani (watered lime juice). We flew down the dirt track like Ben-Hur in the last lap of his famous race, giving the term ‘cattle class’ an entirely new meaning.

It set the tone for the month ahead — a controlled chaos of joint family living, over which my grandfather proudly presided, a patriarch who held his large family together with stern diktats, superb logistic skills and well-placed inducements.

He is gone now, of course, and so is the world we grew up in. The haveli is in ruins, the bullock cart is now a symbol of penury, not of status, the omelette is now a leathery strip served with sarkari reluctance, the station food vendors have been replaced by catering franchisees hawking packaged rubbish, most trains do not even stop at Fatehpur. Why should they? Nobody goes there, everyone is now headed for the mountains, the seaside resorts or the casinos of Goa.

In this world of OYO Rooms, Make My Trip, Airbnb and cashbacks, visiting grandfathers is such a waste of time. But I do wish the millennial generation would start visiting the old critters again: it would make them happy, it would lift my siege, and it might even save the mountains from further depredation. I speak, of course, as a grandfather-in-waiting.

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at

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