I've read Ruskin Bond's stories but I didn't exactly grow up on them. For that matter, my familiarity with Tintin, Astreix or Archie is also limited to the bare minimum. In the earlier years, it were mostly the Hindi comics or periodicals which fueled my imagination and later I was enthralled by the words of Enid Blyton and lost in the adventures of Hardy Boys and Mr. Holmes. But Ruskin Bond had been around; and time and again I would pick up one of his books. Even though I have read most of his works at a much older age and am still discovering him, still Ruskin Bond's stories throw me back in a bout of nostalgia; of times when life was simple and innocence was not quite dead.
I think that's why everyone specially the grown ups like Ruskin Bond because it brings back their childhood. In a way its odd that I feel nostalgic after reading Ruskin Bond because I did not grow up in a small town like Dehra or Mussoorie, I'd not seen the hills he describes till recently and I did not even read him voraciously as a kid. Still reading Ruskin Bond today brings back the memories of childhood, summer vacations, simple people, small towns, grand parents.
One of the things that I was looking forward to after moving to Delhi was getaways to hills. So far I'd lived in Jaipur, Bangalore and Bombay and while each of these is a beautiful city, I did not get the time and the opportunity to see the fabled hills. There were a few visits to places like Coorg, Munnar and Nepal but I was yet to see the 'hill stations' of the north.
Finally after a couple of aborted attempts mostly due to unreliable companions, I got on to the train to Dehradun with a wait listed return ticket. The scheduled arrival time of the train in Dehra was 5.30 AM. One of the perils of traveling alone and sleeping on the upper berth is that no body wakes you up when the train terminates. So at around 5.45 in the morning I started cursing the Railways in my sleep for switching the AC off. This went around for fifteen minutes when my sleepy head processed the information and told me that the AC should only have stopped if the train had terminated. I got up with a jolt and realized that I was the only person left in the train. Thankfully my bag was still there and I coolly walked off the train with no damage done. At six the morning the platform at Dehradun Station looked surprisingly sparse. I didn't particularly feel a chill in the air but it was certainly cooler than the scorching Delhi heat but then I never get up at six o'clock in Delhi so can't really vouch for that. The station proclaimed to have been around since 1899 (or something, I wasn't taking notes) which I found a bit funny because a station doesn't need to establish its authenticity or credibility like a shop selling sweetmeats. As I walked out, I was surprised to see a lack of auto/ taxi drivers giving multiple choice questions that are invariably encountered outside the stations. Nor were there any coolies to remind you that being a white collared guy, you can't possibly lift your own luggage. There was a taxi stand outside where it was theoretically possible to get a shared taxi till Mussoorie for eighty bucks. The only problem was that there was not one more tourist in sight and taking a look at the rickety local bus I decided to take the taxi on my own. It cost 500 bucks, cheaper than Borivali to Nariman Point, I thought. As we passed through, I caught a few glimpses of Dehra waking up. There were not too many people on the roads and hardly any morning walkers but the roads looked clean and the air smelled fresh.
In a few minutes, the car, a regal Ambassador, started making its way up the serpentine mountain roads. If I may suggest, an iPod (or any other equivalent), is a must carry for any single traveler. Good background music always accentuates the visual experience. So, I listened to the beautiful soundtrack of Once, admiring the beauty of mountain roads and the spectacular view of the forest cover. About one and a half hours later, I got dropped off at the Library end of the Mall Road which according to my Internet research was the bustling center of Mussoorie. The fact that saw a total of two cars and three rickshaws confirmed that hill stations wake up late. I walked a bit on the mall road and its extension called the hill road both overlooking the beautiful valley. I had read about an old colonial hotel called the Hakim Grand. I was harbouring grand hopes about it but it turned out to be a bit too old and stuffy for comfort. It did have the look and feel of a withering guest house straight out of an 80s horror movie but with no windows and a very suspicious electricity situation, I found it a bit too creepy for staying alone. Right opposite to it was Honeymoon Inn but I could not muster up enough courage to ask for room availability there for reasons evident in its name. Finally, I checked into a hotel built on a rock with an old stone building overlooking the valley. The clinching factor here was its name. I did not particularly care about room service or the ball room (none of which were there incidentally) but the fact that it was called Hotel Rose Evelyn Estate was enough.
Later in the day I started a walk from the Mall Raod towards Lal Tibba, the highest point the region. On the way I soaked in the beautiful vistas that are so beautifully portrayed by Ruskin Bond. I passed through the Landour market with its narrow stone paved lanes and old shops on both sides. Some of these shops looked like they had always been around and since being old was not a novelty or specialty, none of the shops had sign boards with 'since 1938' or something like that. Modernization though had also crept in. So right after the 'National Walking Stick Company' shop there was a shop selling 'original HP cartridge' as if it was right next to a market of counterfeit electronics. I walked on further ahead leaving behind the cantonment area, as the road became slightly more sloping. Although it was only a gentle slope and not an arduous trek, I had to stop a couple of times to sip water specially due to it being a very sunny day.
After walking for about half an hour more the view became spectacular. I could see the valley covered with trees, distant hill ranges and the town of Dehra (at least that's what I thought it was). A few minutes later, the forest cover became thicker, and the trees covered the sky above the road providing a welcome relief from the beating sun. The road itself was covered with dry Pine leafs and ferns creating a thick and comfortable natural carpet. Every ten or fifteen minutes a vehicle would pass me but a bit further ahead even that stopped and I reached a zone of perfect silence. Nothing. Not a single sound. No sound of wind in the trees. No crickets. No sound of even the birds. We are so used to having some noise or the other all the time and standing here on a road covered with trees with my eyes looking at the outstretched lands, hills and clouds and absolute silence all around, was quite overwhelming. This is probably what the Gods feel, looking at everything and hearing nothing. I passed a beautiful catholic cemetery. With a dense cover of trees all around and the stunning view, it looked like a good place to spend the afterlife.
My further progress was stopped by the boards which proclaimed that the area was some kind of army research institute and was off limits for the civilians. It used to be a British army hospital where soldiers too sick to recover were sent to spend their last days. On my way back, I saw a couple of beautiful nineteenth century stone churches. Some of the contributions for these came from the families of soldiers who died serving Her Majesty in the area. Whether they died in conflict or fell pray to one of the many deadly diseases that were common in India those days was not clear but it was clear that their families remembered them and a hundred odd years later when all those people would have died themselves, the memories of their loved ones remain in the form of plaques in a church in Landour.
On the way back, I stopped at the famous Cambridge book store which prides itself in being frequented by Ruskin Bond and in having all his works ever published. I was told by the affable shop owner that Mr. Bond visits the store every Saturday but this particular Saturday that was the first time in the year when he could not make it as he was out of town. It could be true or it could be what he tells to every eager tourist. Although slightly disappointed initially, I was overjoyed by picking up a book autographed by him. I also bought a book and asked them to send it after getting it signed from him which they did.
So far, my stay in Mussoorie had been completely peaceful and I had not come across too many tourists, but when after a short nap in the afternoon, I stepped out for an evening walk, I was shocked to see hordes of honking cars and swarms of chattering tourists much like the invasion of the undead in a zombie flick. The exodus from Delhi had started and everyone from grandparents to toddlers to newly married giggly couples seemed to have pinned their hopes on a weekend of relaxation in Mussoorie. Although, it was probably not as good as the peace and calm of the place in the morning, admittedly, this rush of tourists did lend a festive atmosphere to the place. After getting my fill of the atmosphere, I drifted towards the quieter Garwahal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) restaurant which very prominently promised to be serving the kind of beverages that I was looking for. So I stood in the balcony of the place, right on the edge of the valley, drinking from a cold bottle, looking at the lights spread out in the plains and the dim moving headlights of cars making their way up to Mussoorie. Things seemed quite clear from here. Life is good, I thought.
The whole point of going to a hill station like Mussoorie is embodied in the feeling when you get up in the morning and look outside the window at the clouds floating around. I had slept in the night with the windows wide open and by the morning, the blankets which had seemed quite useless had become critical. The chill in air was aided by the presence of clouds which had been pretty elusive the previous day. Although it was quite tempting to stay in the bed and sleep through the morning, I managed to drag myself out. I walked up till the famous Savoy which I had been told was closed for renovation. Although the place was not much to look at, because of the repairs going on, it was quite easy to imagine looking at the beautiful green rooms and the brilliant view outside, that it would soon be back with all its glory. The short morning walk done, it was time for a lazy breakfast at Whispering Windows (at Gandhi Chowk). Sitting there I read the local news paper and found about the electricity crisis, corrupt politicians and other existential issues in the region. There was also an interesting article about a youth from a Garhwal village who was arrested in Dehradun. The boy who was living in Bombay for some time had apparently called up some businessman there and asked him to cough up some money. For establishing his credentials, the boy said he was an associate of Ajmal Kasab. But the businessman did not buy it knowing perhaps that all of Kasab's associates being dead would be indisposed to use a mobile phone. I am not sure if Kasab has since then started an action for passing off or perhaps defamation against the poor boy.
The day was turning out to be completely different from the previous one with the clouds becoming darker with every passing minute and the possibility of showers imminent. However, as I walked towards the Happy Valley, a Tibetan settlement, the winds became stronger and although there were a few drops every now and then, it did not actually pour. Now all the tourist guides listed Happy Valley as a place to visit but I am sure, its not polite to walk into the homes of people, no matter what the guide books say. But of course, the pretext here was, as is usual for any Tibetan settlement, the Buddhist temple somewhere in the settlement. Social conventions taken care of, I deliberately ignored what appeared to be a straight forward route to the temple and ventured on a path which took me inside the settlement. I passed the small shops selling groceries and a high school basketball court where some guy seemed to have carefully hidden his books. Of course, after walking for fifteen minutes, I was lost in a maze of narrow rocky pathways cutting across houses. After taking every ten steps, I would hit a dead end and had to ask for directions, being the helpful people that they were, the young guy or girl who I would ask for way to the temple would point in a direction and say 'just keep going straight'. I realised that they probably figured that when I hit the next dead end, I'll anyways ask for directions again. So I walked, stopped, looked around for a friendly face and asked again. There is something inherently simple and good about the Tibetan people and it shows on their smiling, glowing faces. On the way, I crossed a few beautiful sights in the valley surrounded by plush green hills on three sides. I passed a lot of kids, sitting outside their houses, lost in their school books. Either it was exam time or these kids really worked hard. Finally I reached the temple which was much smaller and simpler than the Buddhist temples in Bylakuppe near Mysore but had more peace and calm and quietness.
After a forgettable afternoon at Kempty Falls, the famous and tourist filled water falls near Mussoorie, and a thoroughly filling and satisfying lunch at Rice Bowl, I took a taxi back to Dehra. I dozed off for most part of the way listening again to Once soundtrack which was definitely the theme music of this trip by now. I told my friendly Sikh driver to drop me at the Elora Bakery which he did and also told me that the Railway station was pretty close from there, a statement which I later found out to be heavily exaggerated. I bought the famous 'jaw stickers' and 'rusks' from Ellora Bakery but when I turned back, I realised that there was not one but in fact two Ellora Bakeries right next to each other and both of them claimed to the authentic, original and old Ellora Bakery. I just hoped that the one I bought from was the more original one!
Soon after, the weather took a drastic turn and it started raining. Not wanting to get drenched with my bag which was now filled with books, I took shelter outside a closed shop. This turned out to be the smartest thing that I'd done all day because the rain quickly gave way to hail-storm and hale stones the size of grapes started pounding the ground which triggered the burglar alarm of one car. When it was safe to venture out after fifteen minutes, I started walking up and about the famous Rajpur Road which was filled with the army school guys blatantly and hilariously leching at every girl who had the misfortune of passing by. After about ten rounds of walking, I gave up and the only honorable way to kill time before catching the train was to watch Kites. Waiting outside the theater, I sat on a bench with three Buddhist monks who also happened to have the seats next to me in the theater hall. So while I was not looking at Barbara Mori on the screen, I was trying to look at the reaction of the monks to the movie. Did they also find the same jokes funny as the rest of the people. Do they also snicker when the couple kisses on screen. Of course, it was a pity that there was not enough light to see the reaction on their faces. Anyways, not wanting to take the risk of missing my train for gawking at Ms. Mori, I left during the interval. There was enough time for having dinner at the famous Kumars' on Rajpur Road. The only problem was that there were four Kumars'. So I ate in one which appeared to be the costliest and hoped that it would also be the real Kumars' not that it would really matter, but still.
At ten in the night, Dehra wore a deserted look. There was still half an hour to kill. Instead of spending it on the platform, I went inside a Cafe Coffee Day, hoping to finish off some pages of 'Friends in Small Places' the recently purchased Ruskin Bond book. I was again mildly surprised to find it completely deserted but halfway through my coffee a couple of groups of boys and girls presumably school students walked in. All right, things were not so bad in Dehra after all. It would have been interesting to catch parts of their conversation but the loud music ensured that I couldn't. After a ride in a Vikram (the more powerful and more polluting version of an auto) which turned out to be longer than I was expecting, I found myself on the station, well in time for the train and like all happy endings, by the time I reached station, my ticket had been confirmed; even though it was tantalizingly wait listed number one till the afternoon and looked all set for a nail biting finish. The train was supposed to reach Delhi at 5 o'clock in the morning and I had the upper berth. This time I slept with an alarm in my cell phone. What's the point of traveling if one does not learn anything!