A Story for March: Shimla

March 2017

A story of mistakes and forgiveness.


The story: What happened when we went to Shimla? That place up in the hills—you know the one—that hill station? It was always cooler and people used to go up there, way back in the days of the Raj, to get away from the crushing heat down below. Who can blame them?

Of course when we went there it was just a few years ago, and there was nobody left to remember those days when the British went up there, when the Viceroy himself used to have a house on a ridge overlooking the town. That house is now a hotel, I think—Wildflower Hall—and you can stay there and look out over the Himalayas if the weather lifts. That is always a very special moment for any visitor—when the weather lifts and you see those peaks in the distance. I defy anybody to be unmoved by that.

What happened when we went? You can get there by road, of course, but I do not recommend it. The ordinary roads in India are frightening enough but when it gets to mountain roads you have to either close your eyes for the entire journey or have nerves of steel. The road winds its way up the mountain in a series of hairpin bends with nothing at the edge to stop a vehicle going over. And the drop is truly breath-taking—thousands of feet, it seems, right down to the valley floor below, to where the river is a tiny snaking band of green. At regular points alongside the roadside there are little shrines, sometimes with flowers, sometimes with plaster gods or offerings to mark the place where buses or lorries have failed to make a turn in time and have hurtled into the abyss. You start to count these and then you stop when you reach ten and you avert your eyes. Or, as is the habit in India, you just don’t see things. Survival, psychological and physical, it seems, is somehow connected with being unable to see the things that are right in front of your eyes.

We went by train because I had once done one of those journeys by road and had sworn never to do it again. There is a small train that goes from Kalka at the foot of the mountain all the way up to Shimla. It moves slowly, struggling against gravity, and stops at numerous sidings along the way. The carriages are very small, with a gauge of two feet or so, and are drawn by a correspondingly tiny diesel locomotive.

I had brought a book with me to while away the journey, but I had a talkative neighbour in the seat opposite me. He addressed me with the formality that marked his generation in India.

“You will forgive me, sir, for interrupting your reading. I am fully aware how annoying it can be if some other party interrupts one’s good self in the middle of an intriguing chapter.”

“I don’t mind at all.”

“That is very good. I should not like to speak to you if you did mind. Then I would not speak at all, but would sit here in silence.”

It’s a pleasure to talk to you—it really is.”

“Thank you. Now I can see that you are a visitor, and I trust that your visit is going well. You will enjoy Shimla, I think. It has a great deal to offer the visitor—there are many sights of great interest—very great interest.”

“I’m certainly looking forward to it.”

My eyes wandered. Our conversation was being followed intently by a youth of sixteen or seventeen who was sitting on the other side of the aisle. His eyes moved from my new companion to me, and then back again. We were being scrutinised.

“We have many tunnels on this line,” said my companion. “We have already been through one or two, but you will see that there are many more. There is one that we are approaching that has a very strange story attached to it. It is called the Barog Tunnel after the unfortunate engineer who was initially concerned with its construction. I call him unfortunate, sir, because he was very unfortunate indeed. He started to dig the tunnel at both ends, you see, with a view to meeting up in the middle. That is the ambition of every tunnel engineer, I believe, but sometimes that dream is a nightmare—I can tell you.”

“They don’t meet?”

He clapped his hands together. “You have anticipated the outcome, sir! That is exactly what happened. The unfortunate man had made a miscalculation and the tunnels were misaligned. It was a very tragic matter.”

“He must have felt very bad about it.”

“Oh, he did, poor man. He was fined one rupee—that is a token fine, of course—but he was consumed by shame. It was very sad. It always is when somebody is humiliated.”

“It is.”

“Yes. We must remind ourselves, I think, of just how easy it is to make a mistake in this life. None of us is above the making of a mistake. I have always said that, and I shall say it again. Any one of us can try our best to do something well, and then find that this best is not good enough. It is very unkind to blame somebody for doing something that is only human.”

We entered a tunnel, and the train became dark.

‘There are meant to be lights,” said my companion. “The lights in this carriage are clearly not working. That is somebody’s fault, but we shall not blame him, shall we? We shall simply sit here in the dark and think about human fallibility.”

Silence ensued—or at least a human silence. Outside the train, reverberating in the confines of the tunnel, was the noise of the train wheels and the engine—a loud clatter of sound.

We came to the end of the tunnel, and the carriage flooded with sunlight. My eyes quickly accustomed themselves to the daylight. My companion was smiling.

“That is very much better,” he said. “We are used to power cuts in India. We need more power but it takes a long time to get it. You cannot build a power station in one month, you see.”

I nodded, and asked him about Shimla. Had he been there before?

“I go there regularly,” he said. “I have business there.” He paused. “You will like Shimla. You will be enjoying this trip too, of course.”

“Of course. It is good to have a conversation. People don’t talk to one another on trains as they used to. We are all used to wrapping ourselves up in cocoons of silence. We don’t talk.”

He laughed. “In India, we still talk because we are very, very interested in people. I enjoyed our conversation very much too.”

“I was interested to hear about that tunnel.’

He laughed again. “Yes, that is very interesting. I like to tell that story for two reasons. First, because it is true. Second, because I myself have made a very big mistake in my life—a really dreadful mistake. It helps me when I hear—as I heard you say—that we should not be haunted by our mistakes. That helps to lessen the burden of guilt—I can assure you of that.”

I looked at him. He was still smiling, but I could tell that he was serious.

“You made a dreadful mistake? Do you mind if I ask you what it was?”

The smile faded. ‘It is very difficult to talk about these things in public.”

The young man’s eyes had widened. He was staring at my companions with rapt attention. My companion noticed this, and turned to him. “Yes, you can look at me like that, young man: you haven’t had the chance to make any big mistakes yet. You are too young. But you’ll find out soon enough, I can assure you.”

“Your mistake?” I pressed.

We entered another tunnel, and conversation became impossible. It became dark again—pitch black. At the other end of the carriage a woman raised her voice.

We came out into the light. The seat where my companion had been was empty. I stared at it for a moment, and then looked at the youth. He cleared his throat. “He’s found another seat further down the train. I think he had had enough conversation.”

“Oh, I see.” I paused. “He was an interesting man.”

Nothing more was said until we reached Shimla, when the youth stood up, took his bag off the rack, and shook hands with me.

“I must say I’m still a bit puzzled,” I said. “What do you think that man had done?”

He looked apologetic. “He has never told me,” he said. Then he smiled, and added, “He has been a good father to me, though, and that’s what counts, don’t you think?”

He started to walk away, but turned after a few steps and addressed me again. “My father is also an engineer,” he said. “He digs tunnels.”