We just returned from a trip to Shimla, a hill station located in Himachal Pradesh. The town is much like Mussoorie, but inexplicably far back into the mountains. Considering all of the empty mountains that we had to pass on our way there, one might ask why Shimla was not established closer to the plains. So I did. But I am afraid that the deed is done and no explanation is likely to satisfy me, since the truth of the matter is probably something like 'It seemed like a good idea at the time'. I remember my consternation at reaching the top of my own mountain only to see the villages peppering the mountains further into the range. Robert Frost has a theory about this here.
Shimla is trivially interesting because Rudyard Kipling lived there. In fact, his father designed a mural which was once in Christ Church. We went to Christ Church, but the mural is gone, painted over or stolen or lost or destroyed somehow. The church is a giant yellow cathedral full of brass and marble memorial plaques to British officers who died in naval battles or epidemics or wars around the world. There were a few stained glass windows left, but it seems like one breaks every couple of decades and it is replaced with a cheaper window of a lesser splendor. The organ pipes were painted matte silver like the scratch-off portions of lottery tickets. The ceiling was a fortress of hefty timbers nicely finished and well-preserved and strongly arranged--built like the inside of a boat, as my dad once pointed out to me in a church when I was little. Inside, we had to take our shoes off, like in a Sikh temple.
We were in Shimla during Holi, which is a Hindu holiday that brought back my memories of Carnivali in Italy, which in turn brought back my fear of clowns. Upon reflection, the people of this world (and often enough in the name of religion) throw themselves into the celebration of a good many holidays which exist to glorify the fleshly passions.
Anyway, Holi is celebrated by throwing colors on one another. The colors are stained water or brightly colored powders. People get drunk and stoned and do their best--and encourage their youngsters--to abandon themselves to the holiday. The bazaar was full of colorful characters, and while we declined most of the glassy-eyed invitations to have ourselves smeared with the most vivid greens, pinks, oranges, and purples you have ever seen, we did not escape unscathed, and my jeans have some faint stains.
While wandering around Shimla we found a tourist map, which we stared at for a few long minutes before discussing with one another, doubting ourselves and each other and finally, doubting the map itself. Admittedly, certain contextual cues had me doubting the map a bit anyway, but I didn't imagine it was quite as erroneous as it actually turned out to be. Maps of mountain cities are difficult, to be sure, because the terrain is rather three dimensional and does not offer any proper projection to two dimensions except through the aerial view, which distorts the distances and deprives the map of any depiction of altitude, which is a rather weighty consideration for us pedestrians. For that reason, I did not expect to make sense of the map right away. After a few minutes, however, we realized that not only was the map distorted or poorly marked, but it was entirely reflected horizontally. North was at the top and South at the bottom, but West was at the right, which only really provides a worm’s-eye view of the town, as Pete said. The transformation, though preserving betweenness, made it almost impossible to learn anything.
The map was painted onto an enormous concrete sign, and it appears to have been there since Rudyard Kipling left. How the fearless Shimlite leaders lack the pride or self-respect to fix or deface such a thing is beyond me. The map is right next to the local and state government buildings, and right across from a hut for a well-armed traffic cop who likely only pretends to possess a geographical instinct.