I am sitting in a quaint, stone-floored cafe overlooking a verdant ravine in the Himalayas. The 7,700-odd feet lend coolness to the sunny September afternoon. I am writing on a piece of paper at the back of which our helpful Mussoorie hotel manager has drawn a rough map.
The map shows the road through Landour Bazaar. Past pucca stalls of greengrocers, past the tired looking bakery with pink- and yellow-iced pastries of uncertain vintage. Becoming narrower, the road climbs steadily even as the buildings on either side hem it in and reaches a fork. The right branch goes towards Dhanaulti. The left branch loops around, climbing further between old houses and reaching the brightly coloured Doma’s Cafe. Behind the cafe is Ruskin Bond’s house.
At this point I could safely leave the reader, saying, Mr Bond, like his namesake in espionage, needs no introduction. But the temptation to talk about one’s favourite author is too strong. ‘Gentle reader’, as he often addresses millions like me in India and across the world, creates an understanding that is unique. A favourite with children, I was introduced to his writing in my thirties, when a friend lent me Rain in the Mountains.
In his world, geraniums quivering in the breeze, birds on the hillside, are celebrated. A constable trying to get his boss’s literary efforts published to cage a transfer, or a schoolmaster helping out failed students with pass certificates are recounted with loving detail. To these I have returned time and again. Each time rediscovering the mint-fresh beauty of the Himalayas.
I have for long harboured a desire to meet my favourite author. Mr Bond is truly living his dream, amid the mountainous locales he has been writing about for 65 years — for he just turned 82. So I booked tickets, packed my bags with my favourite Bond classics, Love among the Bookshelves and Tales of the Open Road, and convinced my husband to come along. For Landour was full of ghosts, if the writer is to be believed.
We reached Mussoorie at twilight. Our hotel on the top of a hill on Oaks Road was like an isle of peace. Lights glittered in the Doon Valley and atop Depot Hill lay spread a bird’s-eye view of Ruskinland at its bewitching best.
That morning I woke from a fitful sleep at 4.30am. Would I be able to meet the author? Ruskin Bond is not a recluse. But to live as he did required the temperament of a hermit. So was it a good idea to disturb such a person in his reclusive abode? Sleep eluded me. I got up and emerged into the cool mountain morning.
Climbing down a rough pathway on the hillside, behind the hotel I found myself facing the Wynberg Allen Girls School. When he left his job in Delhi, initially Bond lived in the Maplewood Lodge on the hillside below the school. I remembered the stories told about the quiet abode, the window seat, the huge half-burnt maple tree where woodpeckers toiled through the day. But Maplewood proved as elusive a sighting as the Himalayan thrush, whose dulcet tones I could clearly hear.
We started for Landour at about 9.30am in the rain-washed sunny morning. Doma’s Cafe is easily found. Painted blue and white, the windows festooned with Tibetan prayer flags, it dominated the landscape. The author’s home, Ivy Cottage, adjoins the café. With whitewashed walls and arched windows, the edges picked out in bright red, described by the writer in many of his anecdotes, the cottage is unmistakable.
I stood there taking it all in. Climbing up the famous red steps, my heart thumping, I rang the bell. Rakesh (Mr Bond’s adoptive son) answered the door. “Mr Bond is sleeping, resting,” he said. I looked at him, too overcome to protest. But my husband disclosed the story of our quest: “We have travelled all the way from Kolkata, only to meet Mr Bond for two minutes.” “Come back in the evening,” Rakesh relented.
Thus brushed off but not discouraged, I set out to explore the place where most of Ruskin Bond’s essays are based. We took the road which goes to the right, leaving Ivy Cottage behind. To our right the steep fall of a gorge, with graceful tall pines and deodars, ‘tree of the Gods’, rising up from the valley below.
I am no poet, so I fall back on Joyce Kilmer: “A tree which looks at God all day/And lifts her leafy arms to pray….” Moss and lichen festooned the trees like giant green streamers. Remnants of the morning rain glinted on the shaggy branches.
The woods gave off the sweet scent of conifers. I could understand why the British chose this pristine spot and made it a home for their battle-weary soldiers. Soon we reached Char Dukan, the town centre with the bank, post office and a few shops.
It also has St Paul’s Church, the quaint little structure which leaps at you when you search for Landour on the net. St Paul’s is tidy with polished woodwork. I browsed amid pews and wondered if Mr Bond came here to pray.
From here we climbed to Lal Tibba. Pine needles padded the path, muffling our footfall. At a humble café at the top, we were ceremoniously ushered on to the terrace. Silvery white clouds floated in the azure sky.
The resident photographer, dozing in the sun, approached us, “Nice photo?” When we politely declined, he receded to his corner without demur. Perhaps it is the tranquillity of the mountains. It humbles you and makes you more receptive of what comes your way.
We continued, crossing Rokeby Manor, home of Pahari Wilson, who made his fortune by introducing apples and the Lan dour Language School to India. Lunch was bun omelette and cheese toast at Anil’s Café, after which we headed to Sisters Bazaar.
I was keen to explore this place as Bond had lived there for some time before moving to Ivy Cottage. But instead of the peaceful surroundings, he found the mountains buzzing with writers—published or aspiring to publication.
From retired brigadier to reclusive actress, they, by their combined literary efforts, tried to put Bond “out of business”!
Sisters Bazaar got its name from the Dormitory of the Nurses, built circa 1827, to care for the wounded soldiers of the British Empire. The bazaar is a quiet narrow street and is home to Prakash Stores which finds mention in many of Bond’s essays. I bought apricot preserve and honey-roasted almonds. Evening still far away, we decided to while away the cool, lazy mountain afternoon at Chardukan. This time I chose Ivy Café.
Which brings me back to where I started. I am penning my impressions of Bond country as I saw it —from Landour Bazaar with the peanut vendor in the windy corner, who always has hot crisp peanuts to quiet St Paul’s Church. I am again waiting to meet Mr Bond.
Soon it was time to retrace our steps. I rang the bell a second time to await my destiny. A lady opened the door, “Mr Bond is not back yet. Come after half an hour, he may come back by then.”
As we went down the steps, I cast back in my memory, to think if I ever wanted something so much and it did not happen. The eternal optimist in me could not think of a single instance.
At our final sortie, my husband rang the bell. As I stood two steps below, I could see someone in a dressing gown coming to the door with slow, deliberate steps. The door opened. A kindly face beamed at us. Ruskin Bond!
“We have come from Kolkata. My wife is an ardent admirer of your books,” my husband said.
I suddenly found my tongue too, “Sir, please keep writing the good stuff that we so love to read. Thank you for writing.”
“That I have to do,” he thanked us, signed the books and posed graciously. I told him that we walked in all the places I had read about. “I do not walk much these days,” Bond said wistfully.
As we thanked him and went down the red steps, I suddenly realised how much this meeting meant to me. Joyful and content, we took the road leading back to Mussoorie. The sunset revealed a wonderful rainbow.
Next morning it was time to head back to the plains. But deep down there was a kernel of peace. As we passed through the dusty roads and negotiated our way past thundering trucks, the mind kept wandering back. To a quaint village tucked away in the hills, lost in the mists of time.
A man looking at the tall deodars, blue pines, at foxes dancing in the moonlight, at an old kitemaker snoozing in the sun and putting it all in his writing. Silently I wished Mr Bond well. May he continue to weave his magic.