By Amir Ullah Khan
Humera Ahmed is a writer and a poet who recently retired from the top echelons of India’s civil service. She had an illustrious career across various departments and ministries across the country and its capital. One stint in Shimla caught her imagination and she uses her notes to write a lovely book, which is part-travelogue, part-autobiography, part-historical and in parts, a contemporary review of the state of Himachal. She also talks insightfully of how the postal service works and how it has transformed itself during the recent past. Not much has been written about this fascinating part of North India and therefore this book becomes a priceless manuscript documenting one of our most exotic provinces.
The book is titled A Year in Himachal: Memories of an Incredible State, published by Notion press. Humera starts off by telling us of her own trepidation in moving from cosmopolitan Mumbai to a sleepy little hill station. She confesses there was no choice and she had to go, but as the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that it was a decision she cherishes, as it brings her to this awe-inspiring landscape with sublime and splendid mountains. In this wonderfully crafted book, she talks of her one year spent here learning, walking, meeting people and discovering a new life and culture. As if this was not enough, there are a couple of her poems, vividly describing her awestruck gaze on nature’s work in the hills.
A number of personal anecdotes brighten up the flow of the prose. The loneliness comes through at times, as does the fact that the locals are warm and hospitable people. The book is structured ever so beautifully using seasons to demarcate chapters. You can feel the air change as rain pours down Shimla, and sense the gold in the leaves as autumn comes into Lahaul and Spiti. The summer comes alive in the description of red apples, purple jacarandas, cherries, peaches and white flowers. No wonder, as Humera tells us, that some of the best scenes in Hindi movies like Jab We Met were shot in this state.
The book discusses Dharamshala, McLeodgunj, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan influence. It takes us through historical towns and cities and their contributions to the making of India. Kangra, Chail, Mandi, Solan and Nahan are a few of the towns the author talks of. You are lost in the beauty of the trekking sites in Kinnaur and the Buddhist influence in Spiti as Humera takes you through a mystical journey of discovery and realization. A most beautiful world out there with all its diversity, calm and colour tugs at your heartstrings. If there were a travel guide that the Himachal government wants to use to compel readers into packing their bags and landing in Shimla, this book is it.
The writing is splendid. Not many people can describe how post offices function, how modern history gets made in small towns, dresses that indigenous people wear, local dance forms and yet bring out the pathos of watching a town go to seed as crass modernity replaces old world charm. This book is a must read for young authors wanting to build their careers in writing on India. The way in which the story unfolds, explaining and giving life to the various places and people involved, bringing in doses of well-researched history, painting the geography through vivid descriptions and yet giving the narrative a personal touch, is simply breath-taking.