The taxi drops us off at our pilgrimage spot — Ruskin Bond’s house — and we get out in awe and respect. The doors and windows are shut tight; any hope of glimpsing Mr Bond is immediately dispelled. We are probably just two of thousands of people who stop here to accost one of the family members and get an audience with the writer who has taught us about mountains, nature, writing, and life. Mr Bond spends most of his time at home now and his visits to Mussoorie are rare. He does not visit Cambridge Book Depot any more to meet his readers and sign autographs. However, he is still hard at work on new books, as we have heard, and is very likely busy writing.
No one comes out for us to accost, so we continue to walk into Landour Cantonment on a path which looks out on the valley on one side, and is lined densely by foliage in different shades of green on the other. We are in the last days of monsoon and the clouds may rush in any time; we want to make the most of the fairly good weather to explore the hamlet.
At Char Dukaan, the original four shops of Landour, tourists feed the dogs or eat noodles at the little shops. Nestled amidst the shops is a narrow flight of wooden stairs that leads up to Landour Post Office, which seems to be the front room of the house of the postmaster and his wife. A wooden partition separates the staircase from the house; a settee covered in cream fabric stands by the window. The room looks cosy, but is obviously anything but in harsh weather.
We talk about winter. Water freezes in pipes, electricity lines sometimes break under the weight of snow. It gets difficult when there is no electricity, he tells us. Ordinarily, they need heaters in every room to get through the winter. I shudder to think of days and nights without electricity here.
‘Your warm clothes from the plains would be of no use here,’ he tells us. ‘We need separate quilts for summer and winter. The winter quilt can weight up to 10 kilos!’
I bring up Ruskin Bond. His adopted family members come to the post office occasionally on business. The postmaster had some autographed postcards lying around, but there are sadly none left.
A former soldier, the postmaster served in several places across India, including Jammu and Kashmir.
‘You must have a lot of stories to tell.’
‘I do. Every soldier does.’
I wish he would write his stories. He is jovial, his wife is friendly, and we go on our way with a pleasant impression of lovely Landour.
We pass the Landour Bakehouse to go to A Prakash and Co., which is famous for its homemade food items, particularly jams and pickles.
Mr Prakash has been here forever — ‘since birth’. Does he know Ruskin Bond, as everybody else here does?
Turns out Mr Prakash knows him quite well. As a schoolboy at Wynberg-Allen, he and his friends used to visit Mr Bond at his cottage near the school for help with English lessons. Imagine that, now — could there have been a better teacher?
We decide to pick up a few bottles of jam. Spoiled for choice, and because we have to carry the bottles home safely, we ask him for recommendations. He plumps for the orange marmalade, which seems to be his personal favourite (going by the article above).
I could stay here forever, begging for stories, but the rain is beginning to fall and we have a long walk back to Mussoorie. We thank Mr Prakash and begin the return trek.
Landour is that rare town that is mostly untouched by haphazard development since the British and the Americans left. Its quiet streets are reminiscent of European towns; the air is scented with moss and wood. The small church near Char Dukaan is functional and simple. The only decoration comes in the form of a few stained glass windows.
You can hear yourself think in Landour, but when you are here, you don’t want to do anything else but listen to the trees. They invite you into their world and tell you the stories of the season. The colours of the leaves, the flowers springing from the shrubs, the moss-covered rocks, and the thickly wooded mountain slopes create a world that we of the plains do not know. Imposing mountains climb far into the horizon, presently crowned by clouds.
And what a wonderful job Mr Bond has done bringing them to us! Dusk is falling while I write this and the cicadas have begun their chorus. If I write (and read) now, it is because of Mr Bond. Today, I have finally seen a few of the paths he has walked, and come a little closer to the places that have inspired his deep love of nature. I have seen the valley with red roofs that he looks at every day, as he sits down to his writing.
However, it isn’t nature alone that Mr Bond brings to life through his words. On the way back to Mussoorie we stop for lunch, and from the balcony of the restaurant we see a dusty maidaan where a game of football is in progress. The clouds have crept in and veiled the deodar trees, the rain is getting heavier, but the intrepid players continue their game on the slippery surface.
We finish lunch and walk down through Landour Bazaar, which is a narrow street packed tight with shops selling everything from food to antiques to textiles. The quiet of the cantonment dissolves by degrees.
Yes, this is an old bazaar. The bakers, tailors, silversmith and wholesale merchants are the grandsons of those who followed the mad sahibs to this hilltop in the thirties and fourties of the last century. Most of them are plainsmen, quite prosperous even though many of their houses are crooked and shaky.
Bond, Ruskin. Ruskin Bond Collection (p. 355). Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Traffic increases and further ahead, we run into a gurudwara festival, where a bus draped in marigolds has just deposited a bunch of Sikh pilgrims. A band of musicians covered in violet and green raincoats begin fiddling with their instruments. One of the senior pilgrims instructs them to start playing, and they break into loud music.
We stop at an antique store which sells jewellery, watches, prayer flags, and books. Most of the books are the popular fiction of airports and train station stalls, but among them is hidden a gem: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, one of the writers Mr Bond enjoys and has recommended in How to be a Writer. I’ve read several Greene novels over the years since my dad introduced me to his works, and to find one that I didn’t have, while we were exiting Bond territory, was a gift.
I already want to return to Landour.
Close your eyes now, and think of Ranji and Suraj in their markets and maidaans. Think of Binya herding her cows, playing with the charm around her neck. Think of the Himalayas rising high above us, clouds settling in their nooks, rivers gushing in their valleys, and birdsong blending with mountain ballads. Beauty everywhere.
People and nature come together in Mr Bond’s books. Nobody does it like him, and he doesn’t even have to go far to wield his magic.
I’m of the opinion that every writer needs a window. Preferably two.
Is the house, the room, the situation…important for a writer? A good wordsmith should be able to work anywhere — in a moving train, in a hotel room, on board a ship struggling against a typhoon, or under an erupting volcano. But to me, the room you live in day after day is all-important.
The stories and the poems float in through my window, float in from the magic mountains, and the words appear on the page without much effort on my part. I can see the curvature of the earth from my window, because there is nothing between me and the far horizon. Planet Earth belongs to me. And at night, the stars are almost within reach.
Bond, Ruskin. Journey Down the Years (p. 6). Rupa Publications India. Kindle Edition.