One evening at a book store in Mumbai, I came across what I was looking for.
It was Ruskin Bond’s `Landour Days,’ subtitled `a writer’s journal.’
In it the author wrote, “ when I first came to live in Mussoorie, some forty years ago, I did not expect to be the only writer living in or around the hill station. There were, of course, writers in Dehradun, which had a literary climate of sorts; but in Mussoorie there was none, at least not until I had been here for some time.’’
Situated at an altitude of 6000 feet plus, Mussoorie had been a hill station for long. Was it after reading `Landour Days’ or was it before – I don’t remember when exactly – during a brief stay in Mussoorie, I used to frequent the small cafe near Woodstock School for an occasional snack. The school was on the Landour side of Mussoorie. The name Landour, was originally derived from the name of a village in south west Wales. I asked the cafe owner about Bond’s morning walks, which he had often written about. The man thought a while and said the writer wasn’t as frequent as before in his walks.
“ Hmmm…’’ I said biting into the delicious bread-omelette he had served me.
Somehow for me, that simple meal always felt wonderful in the Himalaya. I suspect this sudden discovery of satisfaction in simple pleasures had much to do with the complicated, consumerist life now left behind in Mumbai. More precisely, the perceived switch to different world was relative for Mussoorie itself had been slowly gathering consumerism.
I didn’t know if what the cafe owner said of Bond’s walks was true but a question on the author usually found response from people as though knowing the subject was part of everyday Mussoorie life.
It was pleasantly old fashioned to hear that.
How often did you find unassuming writers, poets and artists remembered by people these days, that too, in such detail like whether the person was as frequent as before on morning walks? A man walking by is a dismissible event. But repeated many times over and married to a certain hour and juncture in your everyday life, it becomes a painting in the mind. From dismissible event to memory, it is a painting by time. Good, old fashioned time, now forced to sprint with only hurried sketches for memory or a quick photograph that captures image but not the whole impression. Bond could write a story from the simplest subjects under the sun.
Ruskin Bond was popular all over India.
Yet that fame didn’t take anything away from the effect of hearing somebody recall the author’s walks past their shop or house. If you liked such things as art, music and literature, better still, if you have lived by practising it for livelihood, then you would understand what I felt. Being remembered was all that anyone got for having lived. We don’t ask for it. It just happens. Bond was well remembered for his works from an age preceding the industry of memory. Memory too had since become industry – what else were media and social media all about?
It was early October 2010.
The Mussoorie International Writers’ Festival had just been inaugurated by the Governor of Uttarakhand state. There was a reading by Ruskin Bond, the hill town’s best known author. His was a name that people, big and small in Mussoorie, knew. Coming to think of it, he was probably the only writer around in the English language that average folks from anywhere in India probably bothered to ask about should they land up in this hill town. Not to mention, some of them at least, must be remembering his writings or discussing him once in a while, each time they visited the hills; any hills. Some may even carry a book written by Bond along.
In Mussoorie, you could easily find directions to reach Bond’s house.
Thanks in large measure to Bond, Mussoorie and writing now went together. Other well known writers had appeared on the scene; `Landour Days’ itself mentioned several from the time it was penned. Plus there was that charm of being writer in the Himalaya. The first Mussoorie writers’ festival kicked off in 2007 with writing across cultures as theme. The next edition in 2008 had for theme, writing on nature. In 2010, it was mountain literature. That attracted me to the place. “ We wanted to celebrate Mussoorie’s own literary heritage and also expand that with new voices,’’ Stephen Alter, Curator, Winterline Centre for the Arts, said.
Winterline incidentally was the name given to the sharp delineation of sunset-sky from the inky blackness of earth below, which one saw on the horizon during winter in Mussoorie. It was reputedly only the second place in the world where you could see that, the other place said to be in Switzerland. The Winterline Centre for the Arts, which was the driving force behind the writers’ festival, was supported by the Winterline Foundation, begun by Woodstock alumni. The main venue for the event was the school’s Hanifl Centre, dedicated to outdoor education and therefore an ideal address for a meet-up of people loving mountain literature. “ I do generally think that if Mussoorie has to define itself, then it has to look for an identity. A literary destination is not a bad idea from that perspective,’’ Alter, a successful novelist, said.
For its subject of mountain literature, the festival’s organizers had tied up with the Himalayan Club. The overseas speakers included well known field biologist and author Dr George Schaller; climber, writer, filmmaker and painter Jim Curran, the versatile Bernadette McDonald (climber, musician and writer, she was for many years Director of the Banf Mountain Film Festival and founding Director, Banf Mountain Book Festival. Among her books was an unforgettable biography of the late Slovenian alpinist, Tomaz Humar), Garry Weare, best known as the author of all five editions of Lonely Planet’s `Trekking in the Indian Himalaya,’ Andre’ Bernard, Vice President & Secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Vince G Martin, President, The WILD Foundation, David Wagner, botanist and artist and Kate Harris, adventurer, writer and photographer. Participants from India included veteran mountaineer and author of many books Harish Kapadia; traveller and writer Bill Aitken, filmmaker Toby Sinclair, actor Victor Banerjee, poet Arvind Mehrotra, novelists Anuradha Roy, Sudhir Thapliyal and Paro Anand, environmentalist Bittu Sehgal and journalists Prerna Bindra and Shailaja Bajpai. There was a small book stall, featuring works by the participating authors and other books.
According to Alter, one aspiration of the festival was to draw an audience of teachers and students from both Woodstock and other schools in the region. Dr Schaller’s address for instance was attended by students of the Doon School as well. That aside, what captivated was Mussoorie as location for discussing mountain literature. The organizers, enjoying access to an entire mountainside thanks to Woodstock, had the option of locating evening get-togethers at picturesque outdoor spots. Movement between venues required a small walk.
Festival over, I went to Bond’s house to get a quote from him for this article. It was the blessed hour of afternoon nap, 2PM. I wondered whether I should intrude or not. If I didn’t it would be months before I came back to Mussoorie for another attempt at saying hello to him. If I did, I probably risked triggering annoyance. I realised I had to take my chance. A slightly agitated Bond opened the door. I explained that I was a freelance journalist from Mumbai seeking a quote from him for an article on the Mussoorie writers’ festival. He smiled. I couldn’t help feeling that he may have seen through me and realized that all I wished to do was say hello to him. Coming to think of it that was correct. Had I left Mussoorie without meeting him, Mussoorie wouldn’t have felt a complete experience. “ Well the festival gives writers a chance to meet, you know,’’ he said. Having read about mountains and liked Bond’s own work, I just had to hear it from him.
I thanked him and took my leave.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An edited version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)