The Shimla experience (part 1)
For some years I looked forward to a short period of my life where I could forget about commissioned photographic work completely or at the very least postpone having to do it for a while. I promised myself that rather than waiting around for the inevitability of old age to creep up on me when one day I would draw my pension then soon after that I would roll over in bed and die of boredom. I planned that at some point in the middle of my life I might create some time just for myself, a sort of early retirement plan without necessarily retiring or indeed without any definite plan.
I had already pre-visualised my own fate and I had resigned myself to the probability that one day I would almost certainly be found stagnating in the corner of an old people’s home in the West midlands, England. I thought if I did eventually make it to old age that it was more than likely I would be found drugged and drooling in an old arm-chair in the corner of a retirement complex, probably disgraced and cantankerous. I would be wallowing in the sweet fumes produced by my stale urine whilst being kept alive with dozens of prescription tablets cold cups of tea and digestive biscuits. I loath tea whether it is hot or cold and I hate all types of biscuits. This was an unhappy thought for me.
I had figured out in my early 20’s that it seemed to me as if the holy grail of western aspiration, the pinnacle of our lives was to safely reach retirement age, when we could then switch the metaphorical lights off and pronounce “goodnight all”. It seemed cruel to me that I should not be allowed to enjoy a prolonged period of recreational spare time at some point during my working life whilst I was young and my body was still fit enough to enjoy a sustained period of quality time and hedonistic fun .
My body rocked from side to side in perfect rhythm with the small first class carriage I was lying down in. I managed to secure a private compartment within the final coach on the Kalka Shimla Express by offering the train guard a couple of hundred rupees extra to open the wooden door and allow me inside. Just before the train left Kalka station at 6.00am sharp he told me that the luxury bogie would be closed for the day. I never argued with him I just manufactured my body language to look a bit disappointed, I looked in through the freshly cleaned window and the luxury carriage was empty. What a waist I thought. I sadly stared at him, the guard quietly searched down into his deep trouser pocket from where he produced an enormous set of keys, the size of which only people who work the railways in India possess. He expertly identified the correct small key, he inserted it in to the lock, he turned the key and he opened the door signalling me inside, once inside and out of view other passengers I passed the guard the money. It was polite, gentle and very quiet corruption.
From my comfortable horizontal position I made my way regally in to the white Himalayan clouds, my head was resting on the arm of a sizable padded couch, my view, uninterupted from both carriage windows at the flora and fauna that my Nan often reminisced to me about as she told me idyllic tales of how in the days of the Raj she and her school friends made their way each year back to Mayo College in Shimla escaping the oppressive summer heat of New Delhi. The yellow and red flowers she told me, would rest on green leaves as tall trees lined the route of the narrow gauge toy train and when the train briefly stopped at tiny stations allowing the train to take on water and its passengers to buy some food, she and her school friends would rush out to collect hundreds of the fallen flowers from the freshly swept platform floor and carry them with them, colourful souvenirs of their journey north in to the hills.
As I lay on my back exhausted from the previous nights sleepless train journey from Amritsa via Ambala to Kalka, the air became thinner and thinner and as the train slowly climbed higher and as we passed by the stations of Koti-Darampur-Barog-Kathleeghat the panoramic views from the large windows grew more magnificent and I noticed for the first time that the lack of oxygen at this altitude resulted in my breathing becoming quite shallow. Although I’m sure that my Grandmother would have loved to have completed this journey one more time sadly her doctor and her heart would never have allowed it. I would do the journey for her and tell her about it later, she would be pleased that I had made the effort. I felt as free as I had done for many months now.
The train arrived at our final destination of Shimla on time early in the evening, the temperature was cool the sun already low in the sky and orange in colour, as I walked up the steep hill towards the town from the station I purposely told a local porter who was not much taller and probably lighter than my rucksack that I would carry my own bags up the hill. After about twenty steps I realised I had made a huge mistake, this was the only exercise I had done all day and I was now breathing thin mountain air, it suddenly felt that my lungs were about to explode from my chest. Stubbornly and stupidly I carried on walking slowly. I stopped every fifty yards or so following road signs to The Ridge and to Christ Church, where gasping for any breath I could find, I found a middle of the range guest house and I checked in to a room.
I woke up very late the next day my mind seemed blank of thought and when I checked my alarm clock, it was just before lunch time. I also felt quite heavy-headed, I was on the 4th floor of the guest house, the vista of my room was south-facing and the windows in my room faced the corridor and balcony, my curtains were slightly ajar. I thought I could remember closing them. As I lay in bed and I looked through the gap in my curtain I could glimpse the sun occasionally glint in to my bedroom shining through the small gap in the curtain shimmering through the pine and rhododendron trees.
I was hungry, I got out of my bed and I got dressed quickly, within about five minutes and after consulting my guide-book I walked down to the Shimla Indian coffee-house. I sat on one of the wooden chairs in its colonial interior and I was immediately attended to by one of the smart uniformed waiters. I ordered two meat samosas and as I waited for my food to arrive I quietly sat alone and I searched my mind to see if I could re-collect any event from the previous night.
I went out to a restaurant cum bar that was directly opposite my guest house for food and a beer and soon after I arrived two respectable looking men asked if they could join me at the table, I said that was fine but at some point in the evening there was an argument between them and I remembered feeling uncomfortable and I said good night to both of them.
As I sat pondering the odd previous night two of the largest samosas I have ever seen or have ever seen since arrived at my table. So large were they in fact that they needed one plate each to accommodate them. I began to tackle the first one of them with my shiny metal fork and as I broke through the pastry the spiced minced lamb and peas oozed out on to my plate. I looked at the other still untouched samosa and I remember thinking what a greedy bastard I must seem to every one in the coffee shop that morning. My mind was also preoccupied by trying to fill the gaps in my memory from the night before. Dark thoughts sparked then danced around the void where my recent memories were usually stored. I was at a loss as to why I could remember so little from my first night in Shimla. Why did there appeared to be some chunks of my evening missing? As if so exceptionally drunk, I had blacked them out, I was sure that was not the case though.
I had a need to fill the empty spaces in my mind with facts and why did I have such a vivid dream of the man who sat down opposite me at my table the night before being in my room and walking past one side of my bed last night. I had left the bar with both men still in heated debate and I do remember that my beer did not taste right, I could remember leaving some of it.
So strong was the memory of the man walking by the side of my bed as I lay there motionless as soon as I finished my samosas I left the coffee shop and I walked back to my guesthouse. I spoke to the middle-aged manager who had checked me in the evening before and who was now seated behind the wooden counter. I asked him directly “did some one come back with me to my room last night” he looked puzzled and he replied “no sir”.
I was determined to get on with the rest of my day, I left my guest house and I began to walk the short distance to The Mall. The air was crisp and clear and the sky was a deep blue the unpolluted mountain air provided an almost uninterrupted panoramic view of the snow-covered Himalaya from the Ridge. I spent my afternoon climbing up and down the steep steps that are scattered around Shimla; these steps connect the small alley ways to lanes like a gigantic three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders. Thousands of middle class Indian tourists mingled with a handful young western travellers and a sprinkling of the wealthier European types gathered themselves in posh restaurants or brushed shoulders with locals in the numerous Indian sweet and cake shops. Shimlas picture postcard perfect-ness you could not compare with other Indian towns of comparable size, it was an almost sickening sight. I felt that I was in India, but not quite.
I planned that the main destination of my day would be the Gothic Christ Church Cathedral, the church that my Grandmother visited once a week for Sunday morning’s service. She was not a religious woman but I knew she enjoyed being part of her schools congregation and I know that as a schoolgirl she thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of the town after the service had finished.
Built high on the mountains Ridge Christ Church is visible for miles around and I purposefully avoided walking close to it all day, I was saving it till last. Eventually I made my way towards the entrance, a large stone archway, I opened the heavy door and I went inside. By now I just wanted to sit down and think, my breaths were deep and laboured, the church was empty, I walked half way down the isle and I sat in front of the imposing church organ to the left hand side of the church on one of the cold wooden pews.
Through out the day my memory was occasionally jogged by the brief flash of the image of the man who I met at the restaurant cum bar the night before. At times I could briefly imagine him walking next to my bed whilst I was lying under the heavy quilt. I always remained quite motionless though. It was whilst I was inside Christ Church that I really began to search my mind.
Although there seemed to be substantial parts that were missing from my memory I appeared to have retained some very lucid recollections which seemed part dream and part memory. I was sure that the previous evening was quite genial in the beginning, although I had no visual memory of the man sitting in my peripheral to the left of me I remember that he told me he was a friend of the man sitting opposite me when he sat down. The man sitting opposite told me he was a doctor from Delhi. He was quite a handsome man, clean-shaven and tall, he had thick black wavy shiny hair and he spoke in fluent queens English with that posh Indian twang. I remembered he was wearing a smart black turtle neck jumper. I could now recall that I went to the bar to buy one more beer, a Hayward’s 5000 my usual, I took that beer back to the table and I went to the toilet. It was when I returned from the toilet that the two men were fully immersed in a heated verbal confrontation and the perfect English they had both been speaking in front of me had been replaced with Hindi, the mood had changed. The man to the left of me was visibly upset with the man who was wearing the turtle neck jumper opposite me
As I sat facing the altar in that church I tried desperately to concentrate and to access my subconscious mind searching to recall the images that I had of him walking past my bed to the toilet in my room and I could now remember that as he walked past me he walked to the end of my bed and he said “I will sleep here with you tonight”. He walked past my bed slowly almost floating with an unnerving confidence and when he returned from the toilet he lit a cigarette in the corner of the room throwing the match to the floor whilst still looking at me. The act of throwing the match to the floor frightened me but still I didn’t move. As a teenager I was lucky not to lose my life in a house fire, I would never throw a match directly on to the carpet inside a room.
I held on to this thought as I left the church and as I walked the short distance back to my guest house. I arrived back and the manager was seated behind the counter and a teenage boy was sitting along side him. I politely said hello to them both and I climbed the four sets of stairs back to my room, breathing heavily to catch my breath, I opened the door. When I entered the room, lying on the floor in front of me, was a spent match. I could almost not believe what I was looking at. I stood still for a couple of seconds and then I walk the short distance to the corner of the room, I bent down and I picked up the match. The match did not free itself from the carpet immediately it must have hit the floor whilst still hot, melting the mixed fibres of the cheep carpet as it landed. I sat down on the end of the bed with the match in my hand and I stared at the slightly open curtain. This find was surely too much of a coincidence. I still felt confused but I was more convinced now that that man had been in my room the night before but a half-burned match was the only evidence that I had. That night I made sure that the door was firmly locked from the inside.
The next day in Shimla…………
I awoke early that morning and I lay in bed catching up with world events on BBC news 24. I had been away from home travelling alone now for just over one month. I hadn’t usually allowed myself the luxury of a television set in my room but I was pleased of its company this time. I felt much more comfortable that morning as the mystery of the first nights events in Shimla began to clarify my thoughts. Reality had begun to fill the empty spaces where yesterday mornings missing memories should have been. I could now easily recall that when the argument began in the restaurant I sat that quietly for some time drinking my beer. The man next to me was clearly remonstrating about me and my beer, I kept on drinking my beer he never tried to stop me. I can only estimate that the argument must have ensued for about twenty minutes and I could clearly remember thinking that my beer had a strange texture to it and that it did not taste right. Eventually I made my excuses and as I stood up to go the man who was sitting opposite me wearing the turtle neck black jumper apologised to me for the commotion and he said sorry, he then said to me, “so where are you staying?” With out thinking I pointed out of the window and I replied “just over there” directing him straight to the guest house. He must have been able to watch me walk back without moving from his seat. I could kick myself now!
When I got back to my room I turned the small square television set on and got into the big double bed I pulled the heavy quilts up to my chest, the nights are cold in Shimla. Half an hour must have past when the door opened, the man who was wearing the turtle neck jumper from the restaurant walked in he said some words to me as he walked past me to the bathroom. In all of this time I never questioned anything, I never remonstrated I never moved, I was completely calm, I had been sedated!
In the back of my mind I knew that this situation was completely wrong and after he lit his cigarette he stood watching me from the corner of the room, telling me that he was going to sleep in my bed with me that night, from somewhere I found my voice. I shouted at him “GET OUT OF MY ROOM”, but still I did not move. I screamed at him again “GET OUT OF MY FUCKING ROOM”. Calmly he turned away from me to face the curtains and he opened them, he looked through the gap and out on to the corridor, I’m sure he was checking to see if any one was watching him, I’m sure now that he was checking to see if there were any witnesses. Happy there was no one out side my room he slowly walked towards the door, he said nothing to me and he left the room. I lay in bed still motionless and I continued watching the television set.
Jason Scott Tilley