Millennium Post

Talking Shop: The Softer Side

There is a reason Britishers chomped their way up India’s mountains and lived there in summers. It is time to overlook their excesses and enjoy our heritage

Talking Shop: The Softer Side

"When the green woods laugh

with the voice of joy; And the

dimpling stream runs laughing

by; When the air does laugh

with our merry wit; And the

hill laughs with the noise..."

— William Blake

I am oft-told, sometimes reprimanded by hard-nosed and opinionated people of a certain cloth, that I write stuff much too serious, using words and phrases that don't go down well with their chosen colour, creed and belief(s). To them and their ilk, my rare repartee is that I do this as these are burning issues facing my country and someone needs to write (more so, since few in the media 'write' anymore). "There are other issues too," they retort. I agree. Thus it is then that today, I will talk about another important issue, one touching only the softer side. Why should I lie? I am selfish. This issue is close to my heart. Here's soft for you.

Before getting into the issue, I have to say that my teenage fascination with quotations continues, perhaps stronger than does my disgust now for our shattering value systems. Around me, I witness a growing debacle of many formerly bold counterparts now shrivelling and withering in their stated objectives, consumed with survival and make-believe riches. But amid all that is wrong and awry, there are still vestiges of purpose and a glimmer of hope today, and that is the catalyst for this softer vein today.

This particular vein was tickled by a phone call I recently had with a person I hold in very high regard. We discussed the British and what they did to India for over 200 years. Mid-way through our debate, we decided — "Forget the bad and recall the good, if any." We found large chunks of good, hunks that can be enjoyed today, even if we do it only to thumb our noses at the tragic excesses witnessed by our former generations under the despotic English Raj. However, we now own the legacy of their indulgences. For instance, what they did in our mountains every summer. I feel it is time for us Indians to have the last laugh.

Why India's mountains?

Well, because coming from where they did and doing all that they did to us over the first century of their rule, the British witnessed debilitating epidemics and medical exigencies, "predominantly resulting from India's hot weather", as one particularly vicarious English nobleman tabled before the Queen. Truth be told, their frail physical innards and lavish upbringing didn't help them too much either in our climes. Thus it was that having plundered India's plains and countless rulers and masses, they turned their sights on our mountains, if only to escape the heat, recuperate and, well, have some fun.

The cool and temperate climate of India's hills protected the reeling British Army personnel from diseases. 'Hill stations' were thus developed as sanatoriums, places where soldiers could be sent for rest and recovery from illnesses and injuries sustained from our 'kirpans' and 'bhalas', manned by those Indians who survived their bullets and bayonets. Hill stations, therefore, served both as sites of refuge and places to carry out surveillance and subterfuge. Up there in the clouds, the British then both engaged with and disengaged from the kingdom they ruled, another classic tactic of winning on all fronts by making those that you exploit serve you, or else.

What helped the British was that a majority of the highest hill stations in the world then were in India (they still are). In the process, they founded Simla (present-day Shimla) during the course of the Gurkha War (1815-16); the Anglo-Maratha War of 1818 led to British interest in Mount Abu; and Darjeeling was wrested from the rulers of Sikkim in 1835. Many, many others followed and a mountain empire was created for the(ir) summers.

Not an easy task

Having balked at their excesses and vicious use of India's largely poor to build fancy retreats for themselves, let's not overlook the fact that the British did inadvertently end up creating India's incredible hill station 'network', one that sees millions flock to our land. They also created what is now the world's largest railway network, Indian Railways, which ferries more people in a week than they can in a year. Sometimes, even the devil has to be given his due. There were many skirmishes during Britain's mountain colonization of India, some hilarious, some heart-rending, and some a bit of both.

Here's a both (sic). It is of the Barog Tunnel, 1,143-metre-long and built under the supervision of British Colonel Barog, the longest of the 102 tunnels on the Kalka-Shimla 'toy-train' narrow-gauge railroad. Galore has it that Colonel Saahib committed the mistake of digging the tunnel from both ends simultaneously to finish quicker than the others. When work came to a closure, the two ends did not meet due to 'alignment issues'. The furious British allegedly fined Colonel Saahib Re 1 for wasting 'Government money'. The Saahib, unable to digest this humiliation, went for a morning walk and never returned—he first shot dead his dog and then himself.

There are other stories, but newsprint is close to extinct and words are rather cheap. A peculiar one is on the ghosts of Gulabi and Pahari Wilson who, to this day, are said to lurk in the Doon Valley, largely owing to author Ruskin Bond's supernatural stories, 'Wilson's Bridge'. Today, gone are the suicides, ghosts and other supernatural elements of the past. And this now is an opportune moment to venture out and enjoy what our ancestors helped build.

Take a drive to India's Barog, a township that is thriving and beautiful, as are Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Chail, Mashobra, Narkanda, Ooty and Mount Abu. Our own Manali, Reckong Peo, Leh, Tattapaani and Jibhi are bustling with nature, well-settled and totally-equipped. Herein it is that we have a fantastic new option for India and Indians to live and work.

Glorious opportunity

Whatever gates it has closed, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown open new ones as well. As factory and Corporate shutters clanged shut and sealed in early-2020, a harried industry was forced to throw up a new concoction—WFH (Work from Home). Locked up at home and petrified to the gills by the deathly news raging all around, a majority of Indians debated, cussed and cursed, though a few enjoyed a new-found liberation in being able to talk to their bosses on voice and video calls while clad in underpants and a formal jacket on top.

The bosses, themselves shorn of trousers and clad in underpants or less, demurred for a while before their Finance Departments informed them of the massive savings made on office and travel expenses over the first two months alone. Suddenly, WFH was made mandatory. Two years later, the trend continues. More than 50 per cent of the top executives at India's top companies have revealed that they are keeping the remote WFH option open. Many companies are hiring only WFH employees. What of the employees? Well, 82 per cent prefer WFH (even at lower salaries). It means less travel, more family time, greater flexibility and lower electricity bills. The results are out there. Scores of Indians have moved to India's hills, resulting in visibly less traffic snarls and pollution on city streets.

What of the hills? They are gearing up for the wave and local economies are beginning to stand on their feet again. Furnished accommodation with all the bells and whistles are being put in place, spurring rapid sales of washing machines, refrigerators and fans. Since connectivity is key, telecom companies are frenetically laying down Wi-Fi lines and modem sales are hitting historical highs. Transient labourers are staying at home. Monthly rentals for furnished houses are crashing, as are local commute charges for out-off-towners. City-dwellers are discovering a peaceful life, fresh air, as also food and vegetable prices that they paid years back. City-dwellers are the new transient labourers. What a comearound. As Henry Ward Beecher said once, "It's easier to go down a hill than up it, but the view is much better at the top."

That's food for thought. We should chew on this for a while, till we find out what the end-dish tastes like.

The writer is a clinical analyst and communications specialist. Views expressed are personal.

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