Longwood Days: A Homage To Memories & Nature — Sumit Raj

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Sumit Raj—the writer, the poet, the shayar and the nature lover—in his own words summarises his brief foray into his writings, his work and his informational walks. In a candid interview with Sangeeta Sambhi, Keekli Intern, here is what Sumit, or fondly known as Summit by his Britisher friends, has to say.

I was born and brought up in the lap of nature, Shimla. And Shimla, by itself has a way of charming its wanderers. This semblance between nature, and, its wanderers, also proves to be a means of providing employment to its enthusiasts, i.e., for people like me, who like to stay attached to their roots, always. This makes me proudly state, that I have been in the tourism industry for over twenty-eight years. I run an organisation, named Shimla Heritage Walks, since 2005, as a means to enable my customers to experience the beauty and prosperity Shimla beholds. Our organisation basically deals in providing the customers with a unique experience of walking, while exploring Shimla, in bits and pieces. People of all backgrounds are free to experience the joy of learning about the dramatic past of glorious Shimla. Mostly a balanced combination of locals, countrymen, and Britishers, form the audience’s part.

Along with being in the tourism business, I am also known as a determined writer, who mostly writes out of love for the lush green hills. I think the knack for writing was inherited from my father’s prolific creative writing skills, in the field of Urdu poetry. Where on one side, his expertise lied in Urdu language, on the same lapse of shareability, Hindi and English, are the two languages, I mostly enjoy writing my poems in. Over the years I have written eight books, letting people avail the opportunity of visualising lush green hills, cerulean sky, fresh air and mineral abundant water falls of Shimla.

This made me go onto writing my ninth book, namely, Longwood Days. Talking a bit about the book, it is a murder mystery, which I adapted, by penning the contents written on the pages of my diary. It belongs to the genre of fiction, which is written in order to pay homage to the mesmerising valley of Longwood, that provided shelter to my family, while my father was in the railway sector, for many years, altogether. I published my book, and released it back in January 2020 World Book Fair. But, due to the erratic arrival of the pandemic, the book was lost and hence, I thought of republishing it.

Keekli: As a person, holding diverse experience of working in the tourism industry and travelling to different places, how do you perceive the state of tourism in Shimla?

Sumit: Shimla is mentioned as first ranked in the tourism list, but still there are people who do not know much about Shimla. The only thing is that government has to play a vital role in the prosperity of the tourism industry. Investment in infrastructure is required to give the visitor two days-worth cherished memories for life.

According to me, the visitors should be given a different sort of experience. But the sad reality is that most of the people who come to Shimla, do not want to learn about the place. Most of them want to explore the scenic beauty of Shimla, but do not want to know how a village consisting ten houses came out to be such a beautiful town. Most of the tourism professionals focus on making revenue out of the packages that they are able to pitch to their customer, but I believe in making the customers feel at home, by treating them to both the scenic and historical beauty of Shimla.

Keekli: Can you remember your first sight of being inclined towards the world of tourism? At what age did you decide to pursue it as a career?

Sumit: I started by catering to my very first client, who was visiting from Germany. I used to work for a company called Connections Travels, situated in Delhi. It was my first job and I was only twenty-five then. That company taught me how to be a professional tour operator. Hence, I always regard it as one of the best experiences.

Keekli: What lead you to entitle the association with Nature Walks? And which was the first city you started your work with?

Sumit: Well, I started my career from Delhi, a city where I was never interested to work in. Thereafter, I moved to Manali. I found a new job in collaboration with a hotel which had just started, namely, Holiday Inn. In those days, recruiters were looking for employees who could converse well in English. I went in for the interview and was immediately selected to be at the front office.

My passion to start with my own company came from my love for nature and walking. I am a person who seeks poise on every road my foot steps onto. I do not like to be surrounded by crowd and chaos. I have always aspired to stand out of the crowd, enjoying my little moments of joy with flowers, insects, trees, stars, traditional way of living and my forever companion, pen and paper.

Keekli: Is there any specific reason behind you preferring to scale your business in Himachal itself?

Sumit: Yes, there is. As I have been born and brought-up in Shimla, cities do not entice me for professional avenues. Though I travelled to a lot of places, including Rohtak, Delhi and Panipat, due to my father’s transferable job with the railways, but my soul was always connected to liberal air and proud mountains of Shimla. This reminds of an incident—20 May, 1977, was the day when my family was ready to board a train from Shimla, it was a day of great misery for me. On being asked by my mother as to why was I crying, I answered that Shimla was the place I liked and was determined to return some day. Though my words were taken lightly that day, but I was able to return to Shimla after a long time period of twenty-three years.

Keekli: Out of all the places you have travelled to, which one is your favourite and why?

Sumit: I have not travelled much abroad, but I have surely travelled to a lot of places in India. No matter where I go, hills attract me at any lapse. Hence, I would state that Ranikhet, is one of the most beautiful places I have travelled to. It happens to be a small town in Uttarakhand. Exploring the places in Himachal itself, I would like to state that, the high-altitude town of Dalhousie also happens to be one of my favourites. Navigating to the West, Mahabaleshwar is one of the towns which seems to be lucrative. But of course, it is needless to say that Shimla has always been my first preference.

Keekli: Your association tries to give people the pleasure of being attached to the roots, by staying at the homes of locals and relishing locally made dishes. What inspired you to initiate this activity?

Sumit: Inspiration came from my ability to do something different. It was clear from the very beginning that I did not want to replicate what my competitors were doing. As stated earlier, I always want to stand out from the crowd. I do not want to follow the crowd, rather I suggest that the crowd should follow me, as I always manifested to be a leader. Because of the tenacity of my nature, I was always inclined towards doing something of value for my customers. Initially, we started with Shimla Heritage Walks, but later on, the idea of introducing a diversified category of walks came to my mind.

Thereafter, we introduced the concept of a day in the Himalayan village. Another category of walks is also known as ‘pens and brushes’. Like this, there are other walks known as ‘spine line trail’ and ‘Viceroys’ hunting forest’. Gradually, while exploring these areas on my own and writing about them afterwards, they became a proper product to be presented forth to the visitors. I penned them down into books and presented it to the readers, that is how my company and I became famous and people started becoming aware of the existence of such a tangent of tourism.

Keekli: Can you narrate a few other traditional activities your association plans for the visitors?

Sumit: Basically, it is all about walks and visits to remote areas. Recently we introduced a new programme, known as ‘an evening in the colonial home’. Under this, we take our customers to places where the descendants of royals still reside. Drinks and barbeque prospect are available for enjoyment purposes, which is followed by dinner at the descendant’s place. Much of the time is also spent in speaking to the owner of the place, and asking him about the mysteriously beautiful, yet diverse past of Shimla. Other than this, the descendant also takes the visitors for a walk in the hills, speaking to the local residents, walking up the trail and then coming back for lunch. All of this is hosted by the descendants of royals itself.

Keekli: Do you have any plans of expanding the business to other cities in the nearing future?

Sumit: At present we do not have any plans of expanding our tourism business to other cities or states, other than Shimla. I am satisfied with all the appreciation and success I have received for the company I started. But yes, we have planned to expand our company’s operations in Dharamshala, not beyond that. I had plans of collaborating with the Himalayan National Park, but later, I found out that the locals were not cooperative and that the tourism industry over there was diluted and money minded. Hence, I dropped the idea of expansion beyond the city of Dharamshala. Also, as all of my books focus on the happenings based in Shimla, I will remain forever grateful to hold the privilege of working in Shimla itself.

Keekli: We have got to know so far of you being a nature lover, but when did the seeds of being a writer inculcate in you, as we know that your father was one too?

Sumit: My first encounter with the world of writing was when I was in the seventh and eighth grade. However, my first written work was published when I got into college. It was in a school magazine, I remember. I wrote a short story in Hindi. Sadly, since we moved between a lot of places due to my father’s frequent job transfers, I could not keep a record of all of my written work.

On most days, my father was unhappy for the career prospects, I chose for myself. Where on one side, he wanted me to become a doctor, on the same lapse of sharing genes, I wanted to become a writer and a wanderer. Hence, writing was always a point of contention amongst the two of us. He always insisted that I study and grab an economical job package. One of the things that I deeply regret today is that if I could share my success with him. He would have been very proud of me, as the career path I was sure to opt for, was raring fruits now.

Keekli: What inspires you to write?

Sumit: The only element that inspires me to write is, nature. If you read any of my stories, they are all based upon the little joys we receive from nature. Whenever I go for a walk, new ideas dwell in my mind. And as soon as I get time, I pen them down and later pile them up as stories for books. This also reminds me of the fact that the house I live in during the contemporary times, is built amidst the forests. One gets to experience a 300-meter walk, wherein the roads are full of trees on both sides, and clear blue sky brimming with joy.

Keekli: Longwood Days, is one your recent books and well received too. What made you write a murder mystery?

Sumit: There was nothing in particular that made me write this book. It was a coincidence that I was flipping the pages of my diary the other day, and found a common thread of semblance between different stories. So, I accumulated all the stories in form of a murder mystery. The reason why I changed the tangent to a murder mystery was due to an abandoned house which was situated near my house in Longwood. I am such a person who enjoys visiting houses which are forbidden to human entry, some sort of mystery always awaits to be explored at these places. And the rest is understood that once a writer starts writing, the thoughts keep on flowing in different directions of emotions and intellect.

Keekli:  What force helped you in deciding upon its title?

Sumit: The book was titled earlier as Shimla Days, wherein, I projected myself as a wanderer who went around Shimla, exploring mesmerising sceneries and writing meaningful stories on the town. But later on, I changed it to Longwood Days, as I wanted to pay homage to the place that gave me so much, Longwood.

Keekli: “This world is a university, mountains are my soul, the trails are my classrooms, I am a student.” How do you perceive this quote?

Sumit: I always count myself as a nature lover. I think I have exceeded my limit of mentioning so. It teaches me to remain satisfied, calm, grounded and humble, always. I am protected from falling prey to the greed of luxury and wealth. A person entailing these qualities is something the perception of this quote helps me to become.

Keekli: Does your passion for tourism inspires you to write as well?

Sumit: Yes, I proudly say that I have been able to successfully combine my profession with my passion. Everyone needs to understand one thing, a writer does not earn a livelihood by writing, but in order to sustain himself, he needs to commercialise the book. I have been lucky enough to club my work in such a way that my written work spread across a word regarding my work, and people started recognising me, along with my company. They now wanted to explore Shimla through my eyes. In the nutshell, tourism inspires me to write and my written work, helps me generate new ideas regarding tourism.

Keekli: Your sixth book, a novella titled Tea Shop at Narkanda, was adapted into a film, by film division of Mumbai. What is your take on that?

Sumit: I was the happiest to be acquainted with this news. I experienced mixed emotions of being both flabbergasted and jovial. The book started at the scene of Birju, the protagonist, going to visit his village. I then thought that if I stopped the story at this very instinct, people might be curious to know about what must have happened to Birju. Hence, I continued writing the novel, eventually it was appreciated amongst my readers. Thereafter, I got to know that my book was being adapted into a film via Facebook. And I have been forever grateful for it. So, you see, the key to experience the best in life is being grateful and satisfied in all walks of life.

Keekli: You have written eight books in total, what message would you like to spread across your audience through your printed words?

Sumit: Through my penned words, I always want my readers to be enjoy their surroundings. I would suggest them to leave behind the concept of being greedy and money-mindedness. I always see youngsters asking for money from their parents. But what they do not realise is that their parents have earned this money for themselves, and not for their children, however they invest enough for their children to build their own fortune. Hence, a feeling of being self-sufficient must prevail.

Very often, I ask my students a simple question, which is, ‘what will they do with an amount of Rs. 1,00,00,000, if they were to invest in their business’. Some say they shall buy taxis, and some say, they might build hotels. My first response is that this means you will accept the money given to you by them. Instead, I inspire them to aspire to dream big and make that happen independently.

Keekli: What messages do you have for your audience?

Sumit: My response remains the same. Always stay away from greed, keep working hard and karma shall reward you. Also, one should walk out of disputes based on religion, caste and creed. We all are the same, we walk on two legs, see through two eyes and have red coloured blood flowing through us, there is no chance for disparity.

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