The Old Man of the Mountains
March 9, 2013 § 3 Comments
Many years ago, when my fiancee and I were planning our honeymoon, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly we agreed on where to go. I had suggested the sleepy hill resort of Mussoorie because I’d been there once with a bunch of college friends, and because I was utterly devoid of imagination, particularly when it came to destinations for romantic getaways. I suggested it with some trepidation, because the woman I was about to marry had strong opinions, high standards and not a lot of tolerance for the staid and ordinary. Even back then, and even I, knew that Mussoorie was a boring choice for a honeymoon destination; people of my generation were doing Andaman, Mauritius, Switzerland…and so I was thrilled and surprised, in equal measure, at the alacrity with which the blushful bride-to-be agreed. She’d never been, she gushed, but she’d wanted to go there forever; and so it was decided.
Of course, there was no easy way to get there. We took the local train up to Mumbai, puffed merrily along the countryside on the Frontier Mail to Delhi; took the overnight train up to Dehradun on the foothills of the Himalayas, and finally experienced a vertiginous bus ride up to the little town hanging precariously from the mountain top. I remember that there were little boys selling salted slices of lemon at that bus stop in Dehradun. I wondered why, but not for long. When the drunken maniac at the wheel swung his creaking tin death machine from side to side at top speed, never more than a few inches from the most terrifying drop ever, I saw some of my fellow passengers – the touristy ones – turn a light shade of grey and suck furiously on their lemon slices. This was when I realized the great undocumented value of citrus fruit.
It was also right about then that my wife (for she was that by now) told me what it was about Mussoorie that she had looked forward to. There was a man who lived there, she chirped blissfully. His name was Ruskin Bond, and he wrote cute and funny little stories about life in the Himalayas, about local wildlife, plants and people. He was her favorite author, and had been so for several years. It was a lifelong ambition, she said, to meet this man and to tell him how much she admired him. Well, said I, slightly doubtfully, what better time for it than on one’s honeymoon?
And so it was, three days later, that we trudged past the Lal Tibba mountain, checked with a passing postman and three snot-nosed urchins, and turned a few winding lanes up to a rickety old house, unbelievably crowded with curtains, curious children and old furniture. We walked away a half hour later, fortified with tea and biscuits, charmed with some kind words from a disheveled, bemused, but very gracious Mr. Bond whom we appeared to have woken up from his afternoon siesta, and triumphantly armed with an autographed piece of paper that we had framed shortly thereafter. I think it all went rather well, and could possibly have been the highlight of the honeymoon for my wife, which neatly explains how I am still happily married to her sixteen years later. Perhaps I should take her back there for our 25th. I’m sure Ruskin Bond will still be there.
If you have read Bond, you’ll recognize that this is exactly the kind of anecdote that he would write about in one of his stories, though admittedly he would come up with a better punchline. But a story-teller’s instinct for a great anecdote is not all there is to Bond. Mildness, simplicity and a rich, warm love for the cozy mountain town that he calls home oozes through his work. Surrounded by the complex trappings of modern urban existence, I’ve always had a part of me that longed for what he had:
To live independently as a full-time writer; that was part of the dream. And I have done that for most of my adult life. No riches, no houses, no cars, no computers. But independence, certainly.
But Landour Days, his most recent memoir, does not overly glorify the hermit’s life that he has chosen for himself. It does get a bit boring at times, he confesses: he longs for intellectual company. It gets droughty in winter. The occasional snake wiggles in to share his home in the monsoon. But otherwise, it is simply brilliant – and brilliantly simple. In the summer, he lies in the grassy lawns among the swifts and warblers, with the snow-capped ranges and the Suswa river for a backdrop, and surrounded by the horse-chestnuts and poppies in full bloom, and he writes and writes, taking occasional bites out of cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. I do believe it is a kind of heaven (but how’s the WiFi connectivity up there?)
Perhaps most famous for his historical novel, A Flight of Pigeons, or for the short story, Susannah’s Seven Husbands, both of which have been adapted to the silver stage with great success, Bond will always be, for my wife and me, the writer of offbeat, semi-autobiographical, wry tales that speak of a different, easy-paced world, a world that we may just visit as giddy tourists, but which we must leave soon, with fond memories and much wistfulness, and many promises to return.