My growing up years

My growing-up years in Shimla

Some fond memories of our childhood are always engrained in our minds and so I too have fond memories from my growing-up years in Shimla, the place where I grew up. My memories of childhood have always come flooding back whenever I have visited Shimla.

Shimla is the capital city of the northern hilly state of Himachal Pradesh in India. Situated in the lower foothills of the Himalayas, at a height of over 7000 ft. above mean sea level, Shimla used to be the summer capital of India during the British Raj. It has been and remains a popular summer hill resort for many tourists who flock there to beat the summer heat of the plains.

Kalka happens to be the last station situated in the plains, wherefrom the hilly terrain to Shimla begins.  A narrow-gauge railway toy train, as it is called, runs from Kalka to Shimla.  Built in 1906, the toy train covers a distance of 96 km as it runs through 103 tunnels and 806 bridges, even though the aerial distance is just 35 km.  The average temperature in Shimla during the summer varies between 18oC to 31oC, but during the winter it can dip to -4oC.  The winter brings snowfalls a few times between the months of December and March.

In Shimla, the main landmark in the heart of the city is the Ridge, a large open space from where the mountain ranges in the distance can be seen clearly, and is also the venue for official public functions, such as the celebration of India’s Independence Day, the popular youth festival during the summer tourist season every year would be held, or other local functions.


The Ridge, Shimla (

The summer season in Shimla would begin from late April to June and followed by the monsoon season extending from late June to mid-September.  With the onset of the monsoons, everything around would look fresh, green and lively, especially when the sun would up for short durations.  The lazy cozying up in bed at the weekends while it rained heavily outside, or the pitter patter of hailstones on the tin roof of our house are some of my vivid memories even after so many years.  While going to or getting back from school, and later to college and university, the monsoon foggy weather and light drizzle at times, and raining cats and dogs at others would continue for days.  Every time I see the fog here in Calgary brings back the one memory that in my mind is most associated with the monsoons, and I would see that often from the front windows of our house. And that is the sight of dense white fog gently coming down the hill, which was described well in one of the Bollywood’s songs as a scarf gradually sliding down a lady’s hair and shoulders.

Two close-by places by the side of the Ridge are the Christ Church and the Municipal Library.  I along with my younger brother would pass these places while going to school and back every day.  By the side of the church is the road that leads to the Jakhoo Hill, which is the highest peak in Shimla at a height of a little over 8000 ft. above mean sea level, and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountain ranges.  It has a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity and monkey God, Lord Hanuman.  Narrow pathways allow visitors to embark on enjoyable walks atop the hill. We would visit Jakhoo whenever we would have guests in the house and would accompany them to show the visiting spots around Shimla. Another interesting attraction of the Jakhoo hill is the large population of the moneys that have made it their home, and live off the food items that the visitors offer them, or they are able to snatch and get away with.


A monkey perched on a railing ( )

One level below the Ridge runs the main street of Shimla, the Mall Road.  Except for emergency vehicles, no automobiles are allowed on this road, and so localites as well as visitors are found strolling at leisure here in the evenings. The Mall has a number of shops, restaurants and cafes along its 5-6 km length, besides the Town Hall, fire service, police offices and the Gaiety Theatre.  It merges with the Ridge at what is referred to as the Scandal Point.  This is also the meeting point for people who arrange an evening meeting as part of socializing.  The Mall also offers shopping for people and is more like the downtown of Shimla.  It is crowded with people in the summer.


Scandal Point, Shimla (

Just off the Mall to the west is St. Michael Cathedral, the church with stained glass, next to the District Courts. We would pass by these buildings many times to beat the rush on the main roads. Many of the offices around are housed in the old buildings made out of stone slabs and are a reminder of the typical English architecture of the colonial era.

A couple of kilometers down the Mall, with exquisite scenery to view around, one arrives at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), which is a majestic English renaissance structure that is maintained well with its sprawling lawns and flowers.  The surrounding woodlands provide an ideal and quiet ambience to this historic building.  The institute provides an environment for academic research in humanities as well as social and natural sciences.  National Fellows and scholars and visiting professors carry out research and participate in seminars.  The institute is funded by Government of India’s Ministry of Human Resource and Development.


Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla ( )

In the vicinity of the IIAS, is located the Himachal Pradesh University at a place called Summer Hill, at a distance of about 5 km from Shimla.  Spread over 200 acres of land, the vibrant University Campus presents a panoramic view of the mountains, the silver oak, pine, deodar and rhododendron trees.  The university enrolls over 4000 students in the different teaching departments and provides learning and research opportunities. It also provides affiliations to over 100 colleges spread through the state of Himachal Pradesh.

For the winter sports lovers, a ski resort Kufri is situated close to Shimla.  Many skiers flock to Kufri as soon as they receive the news about the snowfall there.  I never got the opportunity to visit Kufri during a snowfall, but had visited it a few other times for picnics, etc.


Skiing in Kufri (

Shimla has some very good boarding and day schools, imparting quality education to the students.  My parents first admitted me to Loreto Convent Day school, where I studied till class 4, and then joined St. Edward School for boys, which was run by Irish Christian Brothers at the time.  The standard of education in the school was high, and imparted under strict and good discipline, so as to prepare boys as responsible citizens of a democratic society.  I remember, me and my younger brother, who joined me in school a year later, would get home from school and our mother would serve us hot food and we would narrate to her everything that happened each day in detail.  She would hear all our stories patiently, and also spice them up with her words of wisdom.  The six working days were spent like this and on Sundays we would go out visiting our family friends or have them over.  Weeks, and months would pass by quickly.  Our school would close down for the winter vacations invariably on the 2nd of December each year for 3 months.  We would get away from the cold wintry Shimla and visit our grandparents’ joint families during that break.  It used to be such an attractive change, especially the mere joy of meeting our maternal grandparents and the thought of playing around with our cousins. Years passed by in the same annual routine and then we reached college, when we realized we had ‘grown’ up and so stopped accompanying our mother, and instead preferred to spend the winter months in Shimla itself.  I joined the local Government College for pursuing my B.Sc. Degree with Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry as my main subjects.

One important aspect which I did not realize while growing up was that our training during the three years of B.Sc. was more with the goal of passing the annual exams and not for lifetime use in an appropriate way.  This was a flaw in the style of teaching.  After completing my B.Sc. degree I sought admission for a Master’s degree and applied for admission at both the Physics and Chemistry departments.  I got admission first in the Physics department and so joined it.  Very soon realized that there was a huge jump in the standard of Physics from B.Sc. to M.Sc. and it took me a bit of time to get over it.  The four semesters of the Master’s program were grueling but passed by and then it was time to think of the future. I next joined the M.Phil. Physics program, as it was a requirement for teaching in colleges in Himachal Pradesh.  It was during this time I also started teaching in a local Convent school to get over my phobia of facing a class, as I was very shy then.

It was the era of textbooks and chalkboards, and following a traditional method of teaching, where the students were expected to commit large chunks of knowledge to memory and write long and descriptive answers to questions in the examinations.  I would hate this aspect of my studies in school, college and the university, but had to fall in line with the system in the absence of any alternative.  Many years later, when I took to teaching and later writing, I realized what I had missed out on.

The education I received was more about receiving facts passively, memorizing them and making sure I would be able to answer questions on them in the examinations.  This was more of a ‘filling- the-pail’ philosophy of education.    In my humble opinion now that I have gradually realized over the years, the creative and critical interactive education for students is more suited for enabling students to think critically, make decisions, take action, act intelligently, and be productive in whatever they do.

In an evolving society, the clothing of education should stay relevant for the good of the individuals and the country at large.  I do not wish to be critical here, but would definitely say that the old clothing of the traditional education system has become irrelevant in the present times and so needs a change, or else we will be out of fashion.  A change is definitely required to replace the ‘filling-the-pail’ style of teaching with ‘lighting-the-flame’ philosophy.

Another rather odd confession I could make is that I did have the fear in me of not performing well in studies at school, college and university.  A natural consequence of this was that I never looked forward to learning something new each day, rather would just accept whatever was ‘thrown’ at me.  Such fear of failure I am sure has had far-reaching consequences in my psychological upbringing.  A typical consequence of failing to perform in a test or an examination is to question one’s self-worth, a thought that would pop up in my mind often.  For avoiding failure, I would devote a herculean effort to the smallest of problems, and perhaps this is the reason I never failed any exam in my life.  I was able to get over this fear only when I completed my university education.  But looking back now, I think I could have done much better if I had not been under any kind of fear.  If I had longed to go to school every day, I may have performed with flying colours. But as they say hindsight is always six by six. Going by this, apparently, my days were happier before I started going to school.

Growing up in Shimla had the distinct advantage of being close to nature.  It was quite easy for us as kids to stray onto hilly trails, touch different stones, or flowers and collect some leaves or ferns, and sometimes chase away the monkeys.  In the evenings, especially on Sundays, when we would go out and walk along narrow roads through the deodar trees, the wondrous sounds of some birds or beetles would be distinctly heard.  They still echo in my ears when I get carried away to those days.  During the time when I was at college and university, my most peaceful days were during the winter.  There used to be no pressure of studies, and going out warmly clad in the early evenings, walking at a relaxed pace and admiring the sight of nature was all fun.  The leaves would have changed colour at that time of the year, some leaves would have been shed, and a slight chill in the wind would be very refreshing.

Sometimes while taking a stroll on the Mall we would come outside the main part of the town.  On a clear night with a full moon, it would be a spectacular site just viewing the main part of the town well lit with white and neon lights and some shimmering at intervals.

I look back at my growing years in Shimla very fondly.  Sometimes, I wish I could go back in time.