To Mussoorie, on mission Ruskin

DSC03384-webThis year, 2014, my family’s New Year holiday to Mussoorie was dictated in great measure by Ruskin Bond. Long ago I used to be his fan. As a journalist I had trekked all the way to Landour to do an impromptu interview with Bond for Gentleman magazine. I still remember the 1994 article titled ‘A Bond With the Hills’.

Now it was my son, reading in the 10th standard, who had become a fan of Bond. ‘Baba, when will you take me too meet him,’ he constantly nagged me. My son was proud of his father’s association with Bond. Secretly, I too felt proud of my acquaintance with the celebrated author. Ruskin had told me how much he had liked my profile of his.

Our New Year getaway was at a cottage between Dehradun and Haridwar a motorable distance to Mussoorie where Bond lives. After two days of quite in the valley, my son would put up with no more postponement of our date with Bond. So off we headed to the ‘Queen of Hills’. Passing through the suburbs of Dehradun, I could hardly recognize the old city that had now become like any overgrown slum in the plains. Where had those forests disappeared?
There was so much dust and traffic now, I had half a mind to turn back, but egged on by my son I carried on.

The steep ascent to Mussoorie was a difficult drive with several sharp hairpin bends. Finally, I was relieved to reach Mussoorie without encountering a traffic jam. The plan was to park the car and trek to Landour where Ruskin lives.
But parking, with the New Year rush on, was full and we had no option but to drive uphill. It was a treacherous drive, and short of Landour I found myself stuck on a sixty degree incline in a narrow lane. There was oncoming traffic and the narrow lane in the market was clogged. Finally after some deft maneuvering by the local drivers, I could finally move. When I decided to park my car and trek the rest of the way a friendly cop came up to inform that I would be challaned. ‘A motor rally would soon be passing,’ he informed us. A vintage car rally in the narrow lanes of Mussoorie! Hell, I had to carry on driving, risking my limbs and life. Finally, negotiating a sharp climbing turn, I was at Landour close to where Bond lives.

Luckily, I found a parking space in a poor neighborhood. Strangely, that 1994 woman on the road, washing utensils, came back to mind. When I had asked her where I could find Ruskin Bond, she quipped, ‘Oh Rusky..!’ as though he were his buddy and pointed to a two-storied nondescript house.

I was a trifle disappointed that ‘Ivy cottage’, had no ivy or any other creeper clinging to it. On the last day of 2013 I felt at a loss trying to locate the same house. Fortunately, two school girls returning home rescued us and pointed to the house virtually opposite to where we were standing. It took me a while.

Then I recognized the steep stairs that I took to reach the second floor landing. But timid knocks on the door got no response. I rattled the door. Yet, there was no response. I went down to the road, disappointed. There was not a soul in sight.

Luckily, from the ground floor of the building a woman emerged and confirmed it was indeed Ruskin’s house. ‘There is a bell near the door, press it,’ she said. I went up again, followed by my son and pressed the bell. Minutes later a young man appeared. ‘You’re Suresh?’ I asked. ‘No, I’m his son, Rakesh,’ he said.

I reminded him of my visit in 1994 and said that I would be happy to be allowed in. The young man did not open the door as I had expected. ‘He is sleeping. He is not well and does not meet visitors,’ I was told. I told him I was a journalist; that my son was a great fan. He asked me to wait and disappeared indoors.

I thought Ruskin himself would come to the door and exchanged a confident glace with my son. It was Rakesh who came again to the door. ‘He’s sleeping, I cannot disturb him. He’s ill.’ There was nothing much I could do. But the prospect of returning empty handed was so embarrassing, I thought of a compromise. ‘Ok, will you allow my son to take a look at the desk where he writes?’

I wanted my son to see the Spartan room where the great writer worked (I wondered whether he still had his old typewriter). That would be some consolation. But Rakesh was firm, he couldn’t allow us in.

We descended the stairs back to the road, disappointed. While my son busied himself taking pictures of the house I felt a trifle sad. Sad, that perhaps that I would never see Ruskin again; sad that perhaps that he would never recover from his illness; sad that I had not kept my promise to my son.

That’s when I also noticed a bearded old man sitting on the street, his back to the bright sun. He lived in one of the tiny hovels on the narrow road. I decided to strike a conversation with him. ‘You would know Ruskin…Is he very ill?’ The man warmed up immediately. ‘Ruskin ill? No…no he fine.’ Then, taking his thumb to his mouth suggestively indicating the act of drinking, he said that, ‘every day he has his shot and takes his stroll in the bazar.’ I was dumbstruck. ‘But the young man in the house just told me that he was very ill,’ I protested.

He smiled knowingly. ‘Can’t blame him…you see Ruskin gets this regular stream of unexpected visitors…Anyone visiting Mussoorie just shows up at his door. He must be fed up.’ I could understand now, the old boy was entitled to some privacy. But I felt so cheated.

I chatted with the old man for a while, recalling my 1994 visit. He said he could fix a meeting with Ruskin just then. I said, ‘Let it be, I can understand him not wanting to be disturbed.’ I was also relieved that Ruskin was hale and hearty.

Just when we were getting into our car guess who we saw passing by in a car? Victor Banerjee, another famous resident of Landour. That was some consolation to my wife, the only one who caught a fleeting glimpse of Victor. Later, that night we were chilled to our bones. Mussoorie got its first snowfall of the season.
The writer is author of The Sergeant’s Son.

Ashim Choudhury

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