‘It isn’t time that’s passing by, my friend. It is you and I.’
Armed with talismans, tikas and theplas, a good pilgrim sets out from his city, proceeding ever northwards to the hundreds of roadside deities and majestic shrines that dot the vast expanse of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Some may choose to pay their respects to the Sufis at Ajmer while a few others may veer off course to witness the awe-inspiring juggernauts of Lord Jagannath at Puri, while the rest will trudge along with me to bathe in that Holiest of Holies on the outskirts of Allahabad – Sangam, where one mythical, two real but three great mythological rivers meet. Having absolved ourselves of our past (and present) sins, we will then march on towards that pantheon of Gods, the Himalayas; but here is where your path and mine will diverge, my friend – while you seek the gruelling trek that will bring you to abode of Vaishnodevi, I will drop all pretences, shoulder my backpack and begin the last leg of a pilgrimage of my own – onwards to Mussoorie, to meet Ruskin Bond.
Hopping on to the first train for Dehradun, or Dehra as he calls it, I shall then have to risk my life aboard a seventh-hand bus that will appropriately belong to the Victorian era, veering about hairpin bends at speeds that you expect to airborne (and heaven bound) any minute. Pausing to catch my breath over a cup of tea at Mussoorie, I will then walk the last four kilometres up to Landour to finally clap my eyes on where lives the Grand Young Man of Anglo-Indian literature.
Ruskin Bond was thirteen years old when India gained her independence, about the same at which my father introduced me to the delights of this hill – bound author. An old man of thirty two when my parents were born, he still found himself a failed writer, with only a few years of youth left to him – and two or three of those will pass in waiting. So why is it that this nineteen year old ‘adult’ will someday find himself on that sacred passage to the mountains, even though he is well past the age for which this ‘children’s author’ is said to write?
Because after over seven decades of life in India, Bond is still a boy. Because on days when he finds himself down and out, this young author is inexplicably drawn to the short stories, vignettes and novellas of that ruddy – faced literary doyen. Because even on the days that he is not gloomy, Bond’s stories never fail to bring a smile to his face and make him laugh at the little inanities of life. Because he knows that it will be Ruskin’s tales that will keep him forever young. And because he sees himself on some rainy Saturday afternoon far in the future, sitting snug on a couch with a wide-eyed child of his own by his side, beginning – ‘Chachi died at 6 p.m. on Wednesday the 5th of April, and came back to life exactly twenty minutes later. This is how it happened…
Many authors create great plots; few can concoct those that can sustain the interest of a child. So many more write charming children’s stories, yet none can awaken the child in every adult without being dismissed as a fable writer. The beauty of Ruskin Bond’s writing lies not in the fact that he received the prestigious Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for a novel he wrote at the tender age of seventeen, but that his work attracts readers from ages seven through seventy. His greatness does not come from his being honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Award but from the curious revelation that he can inspire his readers to both nostalgia and mischief, quite often at the same time. No one else has even come close.
So where was I? Ah yes, about to meet Mr Bond. But what could a city-born and bred aspiring doctor have to ask or tell this irascible legend from the hills? I’ll thank him for writing. I’ll thank him for never underestimating his child reader’s wisdom or giving too much importance to his adult fan’s self-importance. I’ll thank him for helping me create in my mind an alternate universe to which I often escape when the going gets tough. And I’ll ask him what keeps HIM young. And what makes him connect with both middle-aged kids and childish grownups. And finally, was there really a Miss Mackenzie, did he ever meet Sushila again and where IS Rusty now?!!
But maybe I mightn’t get a chance to actually meet him after all. He may be out, sick or even dead. Ruskin Bond will never be lost to me – I will see him when I see a grandfather enthralling his brood with yarns of past exploits and expeditions and I will think of him every time I meet a pale boy, three miles out of Dehra with blue-grey eyes and fair hair, his hands in his pockets and his head down, walking homewards. I will be reminded of him whenever I land up in the mountains where the blue gentian and the purple columbine grew and I will feel his presence when I write something that I am proud of, hoping to mystify and cheer up a thousand other readers of my own. Maybe.
Or maybe I WILL get to meet him someday. Perhaps I may bump into him on the Mall at Mussoorie and he will consent to sign my copy of his works and maybe even pose for a picture with the mountains in the background. Perhaps I may stumble upon him in a little bookshop in the bazaar and we may spend a couple of hours walking about Camel’s Back Road, admiring the old British manors and chatting about our favourite books with the lights of Doon Valley twinkling below. Or perhaps he may open his front door one fine spring morning and finding me standing on his front lawn, may fetch his walking stick, clap me on the shoulder and take me along on one last trek into the heart of the mountains that he so loves.
So they began to walk. Ahead of them lay forest and silence – and what was left of time.
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