Before they peaked: Poonam Saxena on hill stations in classic literature


As a blanket of blazing heat descends on the north Indian plains, it’s time for the great summer exodus to the hills. Today, hill stations (at least the popular ones) are known more for traffic jams and unmanageable crowds than for their traditional charms. But there was a time when they offered the undiluted pleasures of promenading down the Mall, walking amidst whispering deodar trees, enjoying cool weather and a bracing breeze.

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Shimla, 2021. India’s more popular hill stations are known more for their traffic and concretisation than as breezy getaways, today. (HT Archives)

At a time when exotic overseas vacations were not the norm, hill-station holidays also held out the promise of romance, excitement, and experiences outside one’s normal, mundane life. Hindi writers of the 1950s and ’60s seized on this possibility and wrote captivating stories set in Mussoorie, Ranikhet, Shimla, Nainital and other such retreats.

Singling out just a few is not easy, but I’ll go with two stories, both by women: one by the very-well-known Usha Priyamvada, now 92, who has seven novels and over 40 short stories to her credit; the other by a lesser-known writer whom even Hindi-speaking readers may not be familiar with, the talented Zahra Rai (1917-1993; incidentally, the wife of Premchand’s son Sripat Rai).

Priyamvada’s story, Poorti, was written in 1958 and Rai’s Lamhe in 1961. They depict the yearnings of two very different young single women, for whom a fleeting encounter in the hills becomes a memory they will cherish all their lives; a memory to help them through difficult, desolate times.

Poorti (Hindi for Fulfilment) is the story of a lonely college teacher named Tara who breaks away from her indifferent family to live on her own. She tells herself that she’s happy; she likes her work, she’s independent. But there is an emptiness to her life. Tara goes with a group of women teachers and girl students to Mussoorie, and stays back for a few days on her own after everyone else has left. Nalin is in a neighbouring cottage, and has been the object of much interest among the girls and teachers.

Once she’s alone, Tara goes for long walks on Camel’s Back Road and watches the lights of Dehradun on twilit evenings. She bumps into Nalin off and on, on rainy evenings outside their cottages or in a Mall Road restaurant, where they have tea together. They get to know one another a little better and she discovers that he’s married. But that doesn’t stop the frisson between them from culminating in a night of lovemaking. Tara returns to her little room in the college and her quiet life, but she no longer thinks of herself as alone.

The protagonist of Lamhe (Moments) couldn’t be more different from the diffident Tara. Young and beautiful, she’s very conscious of the effect she has on men. She doesn’t shy away from admiring good-looking men herself, even if it’s just a strapping, well-built young lad carrying her luggage. She’s in Ranikhet on holiday, alone, unwinding after her MA exams (in English literature). Her mother had opposed the idea but she was supported by her abba, who understood her need to be by herself.

What — who — is she looking for? Is it love? She doesn’t know. Revelling in the feeling of being by herself, she checks into a hotel room that looks out onto snow-capped peaks. She spends time putting on makeup and a green silk sari. At breakfast she notices a handsome young Iranian man with a winning smile. In a few days, they are smiling at each other (she takes extra care to smile as sweetly as she can), and soon strike up an acquaintance. She invites him to her hotel room for coffee and they flirt lightly. They begin meeting regularly, and while walking down a deserted mountain path, he takes her in his arms and kisses her. It’s her first kiss, a delicate, precious moment that will stay in a corner of her heart.

These are stories of love in the hills, but the misty gloam and dimly lit roads also provide haunting backdrops for tales of loss and loneliness. Mohan Rakesh (1925-1972) wrote a series of melancholic stories such as Doraha (Crossroads), and Miss Pal, replete with memorable images. Doraha’s protagonist Kesari walks on a mountain road late in the evening, wrapped in an overcoat, smoking a cigarette; Miss Pal lives alone in a cottage in Kullu, trying desperately to escape her stifling life in a Delhi office.

Rakesh’s 1968 novel, Na Aanewala Kal, is set in a school in the hills, where the protagonist, Manoj, is trapped in a life he didn’t want, with a wife and a job (as Hindi master) that he can’t bear. Rakesh, an inveterate traveller himself, taught at Shimla’s Bishop Cotton School for two years.

It is a vastly different world that these writers would encounter in the winding, hilly lanes today.



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