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SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Chronicling the hills
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Another era: Bond’s Mussoorie belongs to the past.

There comes a point in every long-gestation literary project that one doesn’t want to see it anymore. One hands it over to the editor with the fervent wish that he will do the rest and not send it back for more revision and rewriting, or for ti nkering with voice and tone, or for taking out more favourite paragraphs. A blue folder left my desk two weeks ago with similar prayers perhaps nine years after its first seeds had been sown. For a while at least I cannot be too worried about its future; a sense of relief overwhelms all other emotions. There is a perceptible lightening of the shoulders, an uncoiling of the mind. Suddenly, the horizon seems further away. The mornings seem to have an extra hour; the weekends are what they are meant to be. In such a mood it is difficult to even read anything that is demanding or intense. One searches for the languid prose that would speak of beautiful places, unhurried times. Four books on Dehra Dun and Mussoorie on my shelf present themselves.

Whimsical collection
Ruskin Bond’s Landour Days with its dreamy blue watercolour vista of hills and valleys is first to hand. One can easily picture this understated chronicler of Mussoorie at work on this journal sitting in his cottage on a typical Landour morning: “No water in the taps. No electricity until late afternoon. Telephone out of order. Postman comes by, but without any mail.” The absence of mail, and hence of cheques and acceptance letters, can have a poignancy of its own for a committed freelance writer. Bond’s journal is a whimsical collection of stray observations, such as those on the mating habits of swifts and typical anecdotes that one can imagine being traded at the Writers Bar in the now-vanished Savoy Hotel, while long-robed ghosts of sahibs and memsahibs looked on.

Every once in a while there is the unmistakable flash of genius: “The wind in the pines and deodars hums and moans, but in the chestnut it rustles and chatters and makes cheerful conversation.” Or in the description of the death of the peanut seller who has sat at a Landour corner for decades, hunched over his little fire, “as fixed a landmark as the clock tower or the old cherry tree that grows crookedly from the hillside. The tree was always being lopped; the clock often stopped. The peanut vendor seemed less perishable than the tree, more dependable than the clock.”

The peanut vendor gone, eternal questions left hanging in the air, Bond still walks Landour in the “moonlight, starlight, lamplight, firelight…” The night, as he says, is his friend; at night he can see smell a leopard without seeing it, watch the prowling jackals or the flitting squirrels or the foxes dancing in the moonlight. Ruskin Bond may have forgotten it but I remember well that summer morning thirty years ago when I walked in unannounced, a young student, into his cottage and was presented a copy of his slim volume of poetry called Lone Fox Dancing.

The peanut vendor — he must be the same — makes an appearance again in Stephen Alter’s affectionate recall of a Landour childhood All the Way to Heaven, a book that touches one only as something written straight from the heart can. Alter sensitively evokes the life of the missionaries on the Landour hillside in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when hampers with fancy canned food and seconds clothes still came from the West. A time when the shopkeepers came to take orders of the daily needs of custard and Ovaltine, of Dalda ghee and Brooke Bond tea, when the the razai wallahs, the kashmiri wallah, the kabaddi wallahs followed the egg wallah, the cheese wallah and the meat wallah all the way to the doorstep.

It’s easy to relate to the young Alter feeling sick in his father’s old Landmaster car, driving up the hairpin bends to Mussoorie and waiting to suck on the slice of lemon at the toll tax barrier. Or walk with him from Rajpur, past the ugly wounds of the limestone quarries, past the railway school at Jharipani, through the fresh bakery smell of Barlowganj and into the dark green deodar cover of Landour. Or lie awake at night listening to the orchestra of the cicadas building up only to be drowned by the hammering of the sudden monsoon rain on the corrugated roof.

Lost world
It is easy I say because while Stephen Alter was growing up in Woodstock, I was doing it in the schools of the valley below. So somewhere, through half closed eyes, his memories begin to merge with mine. The black and white world of the 1960s, the lost forever world of childhood begins to come alive.

A world where we played Robin Hood and his Merry Men in a lush green nullah outside the school. A world of watching Jerry Lewis comedies and John Wayne toughies and eating aloo tikkis covered with imli chutney in the interval. Of weaving our cycles expertly through the crowded Paltan Bazaar until we reached the target of the black gulab jamuns made with atta, of risking our lives in the Chakrata Road traffic just to buy linseed oil and develop the ‘stroke’ of our cricket bats. Of buying new schoolbooks every year on Rajpur Road along with brown paper jackets, glue, pencils and those so expensive scented erasers. A world where one still had the time to make little paper boats and float them down the canals that rushed churning white down the hillside or to lie around in the sugarcane fields beyond the Rispana, chewing idly on juicy blades of grass…..

The canals have now become roads; the fields have changed into concrete residential colonies. The lazy, friendly town of tongas, litchi gardens and bungalows is changing into a crowded, rushing, concrete city. I don’t even need to reach for the other two books still on my table. The world has caught up with Dehra Dun. But let me not lament its passing; let me instead celebrate its memories. As Ruskin Bond does when he writes: “Dear old Dehra: I may stop loving you, but I won’t stop loving the days that I loved you.”

navtej.sarna@gmail.com