The British found a range of Indian hill stations to run away from India. Now, we have decided to maraud every hill station

‘[Darjeeling] used to once smell of tea leaves and now it smelt of Land Rovers,’ the playwright Tom Stoppard said at the 2018 Jaipur Literature Festival, when talking about his visit years later to his childhood town where his mother used to work at a local Bata shop.

I happen to visit Darjeeling after 25 years, hoping to find bungalows, tea gardens and a Downton Abbey-meets Bengalis-eating-momos feel. Instead, I found a place that resembled a large construction site, a Mahindra Scorpio garage and a teenage stampede rolled into one.

In the last 30 years or so, thanks to a series of events starting with Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation and ending with the Covid-19 pandemic, a harmless word has turned quite frightening in transforming the landscape of India’s pristine hill stations, whether it be Darjeeling, Mussoorie or Kunoor. That word is ‘development’.

Sure, there was development by the Brits when they found these places and had their administration (read: chairs, tables et al) be carried up the mountain, so they could feel like they were in Warwickshire, when, in reality, they were in Garhwal-Kumaon in the United Provinces or in north Bengal. However, there wasn’t much development for us. Indians weren’t allowed in any of the nice hotels, clubs, gymkhanas, bungalows and mall roads they built. Except as servants.

Even through the years of Nehruvian socialism (now, bad words), the hill stations retained their charm, perhaps forgotten, perhaps decaying, like a Merchant Ivory film everyone has heard of, but no one has watched. Independent Indians drove their Marutis and Fiats into the Victorian wooded architecture of hotels named Savoy, Windermere, Rockeby and Pinewood, and embraced them without feeling the need to turn the places into a Badshah concert. All that changed, like the rest of India, in 1991.

A surge of new money led to developers developing. Every entrepreneur with a bit of cash built or bought a resort, or tore down old British ones, cut pine trees, hill faces, to the point that all we have now are resorts staring at resorts, and not a mountain in sight. I exaggerate only slightly when I say that we are only years away from the area around Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, looking like Delhi’s Saket Mall.

Anywhere else in the world, ‘development’ would mean roads, electricity, water and the environment first. With us, it’s SUVs, stolen power lines, water shortages and a resort called Arun Mountainville Pinnacle Resort, or some such overlooking a construction site called ‘Arun Mountainville Pinnacle Resorts 2 — Coming Soon.’

Some time ago, I saw a viral video of a band of Toyota Innovas stuck in a traffic jam en route to Shimla, with drivers in hand-to-hand combat, over some overtaking on a hair-pin bend. All-round terror. Around the same time, another photo went viral of a traffic jam on top of Mt Everest, with climbers waiting in queue no different than the ones during demonetisation. In our effort to modernise hill stations and India’s hills, we’ve brought our quintessential prouct — the traffic jam — even to the highest points on Earth.

The British found a range of Indian hill stations to run away from India. Now that the Brits have actually run away from India, we have decided to maraud every hill station, like an Alauddin Khalji invasion, till it begins to look like Chandni Chowk on a busy Tuesday.

Our only hope, like with everything else, are young people. The same ones shouting outside the COP26 meet in Glasgow. They have a sense of the preciousness of ecology to preserve whatever pristine is left. These Gen Z’s — or ZZs, or X7, or whatever they are called — are restoring old bungalows, making homestays and advertising on Instagram, taking over abandoned ancestral land, growing vegetables and are ambitious to save the hills and ways of the old.

Without them, we may as well turn our hill stations into giant petrol pumps.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.