Indians pick up strange custom: time off

P. B. Singh strolls idly down the promenade at this crowded mountain retreat, past displays of trinkets from Tibet, shawls from Kashmir, and even a Swiss-style coffeehouse.

At 75 degrees F., the cool Himalayan air is a welcome contrast to 106-degree New Delhi, where Mr. Singh works as a civil engineer.

His son buys an ice cream cone, while his daughter gets a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Hrithik - India's answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger. They talk about a white-water rafting trip.

Here in this former British "hill station," Singh and his family are doing something his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never considered: They are on vacation.

And Singh drove here in his own car, another family first that, like vacations, is a modest luxury an increasing number of Indians are finding within their means.

Small Maruti cars like Singh's jam the one or two roads out of Delhi. The brand name has come to represent an entire "Maruti class" of Indians who can afford the $300 to $500 to rent a bungalow or room - and to take a week off.

While many American families head to Yellowstone National Park or Walt Disney World, Indians flock to places such as Shimla, Dehra Dun, Manali, Kullu, and Mussoorie. During the era of colonial rule, the entire British civil and military elite, with pomp and circumstance, used to decamp to these mountain retreats, or hill stations, for the hottest months. Until World War I, Indians were not even allowed to walk along the mall in Mussoorie. In Shimla, the main capital for the British Raj, where barefooted "coolies" once labored all summer carrying boxes of shrimp, sausage, and champagne for the ruling elite, Indians today eat fried ice cream and visit cybercafes.

Yet the new penchant for a vacation getaway goes deeper than just a greater ability to afford it. The idea of a "vacation" itself is something new here, a little strange, and even vaguely unsettling for some. As with most major changes in India, it involves new attitudes about the family.

Vacations stem partly from the urbanization of India, out of which a self-supporting "nuclear family" has arisen and autonomous decisions are made.

For centuries, Indians, if they traveled, would take the family, or the whole extended family of brothers, cousins, and elders, to their home village or ancestral birthplace. To go on vacation with just husband, wife, and kids, on a mission of relaxation or enjoyment smacked of bourgeois sentiments in a place where the six-day work week still predominates.

"Most of us were brought up to be answerable to the father, the head of the family, even if you were married," says R.V. Singh, a software consultant in Delhi who has been exploring hill stations since the mid-1980s. "Until a few years ago, going on vacation was an alien concept, and you needed approval to do something that might be seen as breaking the structure of the family."

"During school vacations we visited relatives. You went for a month, whether you wanted to or not," says Pramod Kumar, director of a social science research firm in Chandigarh, in northwest India. "The younger brother visited the older brother, the oldest visited the village. You had to be careful because with both parents working to make ends meet, you need the grandparents to raise the kids. So you can't always decide independently to run off."

In recent years, though, even the government has encouraged travel. State tourism offices now offer packages that combine religious pilgrimages to Hindu shrines in Tirupathi, Hardwar, or Vaishnu Devi, with a vacation in nearby resorts.

The federal government - the largest employer in this nation of more than 1 billion - gives travel credits, known as LTCs, to its workforce. Employees are literally paid to go away - and they hoard train ticket stubs and hotel receipts to exchange for a rupee credit when they return.

In an era of liberalization and privatization, the upper middle-class in urban centers like Bombay and Madras are taking advantage of new vacation packages abroad, visiting lands from Singapore to Scotland.

Yet for the aspiring middle class, the former British hill stations dotting the Himalayan foothills are the rage. Most Indians have grown up with a romantic vision of heavenly greenswards floating, cool and pristine, above the sweltering plains. Property values, and populations, are soaring.

The best known of the hill stations is indisputably Shimla, where the British viceroy, his staff, and the civil service of the Raj ruled the jewel in the British crown from mid-April to October. Shimla was the place where in May 1947, the Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten showed his draft partition plan for an independent India to Jawaharlal Nehru. The draft so angered Mr. Nehru that in a few hours, Mountbatten's aide V.P. Menon, a little-known Indian civil servant, hastily redrew the boundary lines, changing the map for a fifth of humanity.

In those days Shimla, like most hill stations, was little more than a transplanted English village, a "miniature Sussex hamlet" set up wherever the British ruled from the Red Sea to Burma.

As described by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their popular work, "Freedom at Midnight," it was "a precious little place with its octagonal bandstand rimmed with blue-and-white striped pillars, its broad esplanades, immaculate gardens, the Tudor belfry of Christ Church Cathedral, its bells cast ... from the brass of cannons captured during the Sikh wars."

Today, much to the distress of environmentalists and locals, very little of the old hill station charm remains. Like Yellowstone in the US, where cars and concession stands vastly outnumber bears, the hill stations have become a sprawl of clogged parking lots, exhaust fumes, and billboards. "I remember as late as the early 90s, you could go to the stations in off season, and only see a handful of people who weren't local," says R.V. Singh.

Anglo-Indian writer Ruskin Bond, one of the few remaining British who still remembers the old hill stations, lived in Dehra Dun in the 1950s. "It was a quiet town of about 40,000 people." Now, he says, about 700,000 live in the area.

Just below Mr. Bond's perch in Mussoorie, from which the breathtaking Himalayan range can be seen on a clear day, is a large building in disrepair. "It's where the Army chief of the cantonment here used to live by himself," Bond remembers. "Today, 60 families occupy the place."

"The hill station romance is surviving on an image that is no longer correct," says Pushpesh Pant, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and a chief proponent of environmental reform of the Himalayan foothills. "These beautiful villages, and the sanctity of nature once felt there, are not being preserved for future generations. They are concrete jungles where people build houses to play cards and do the same thing they do in Delhi."

In Rishikesh, a gateway to the Himalayas, a spiritual center with some 17 yoga centers and a town bordering the Ganges River - environmentalists are complaining of overcrowding, unlicensed tourist firms, vandalism, and mineral exploitation. "Large amounts of sand and stones are being removed by contractors from the river bank, causing total damage," says Avinash Kohli, president of the Indian Kayaking and Canoeing Association.

Yet sympathizers, while lamenting a lost world, feel the mountains still offer something for Indian families, even if reforms are needed. They often refer to a passage by Nehru in a 1938 essay titled "Escape."

"In the early morning I lay in the open and the gentle-eyed sun of the mountain took me into his warm embrace.... A measure of peace returned to me as I gazed at those white mountains, calm and inscrutable and untouched by human folly. They would remain there whatever man did, and even if the present generation committed suicide or went into oblivion by some slower process, spring would still come to the hillsides, and the wind will rustle through the pine trees, and the birds will sing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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