It was the summer of 2000, (I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that) and the three siblings D’Lima and their mother were making their way up a slope, destination Landour. School was out and we’d all spent a lovely couple of days in Simla before arriving in Mussourrie the day before. Now we were off to see if we could visit Ruskin Bond and being a reading family we were all (my mother included) in a fever of excitement.
Ruskin Bond, of the unbelievable Dust on the mountain fame. Not to mention The Blue Umbrella. Bond’s home is a tiny, tiny place lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall with books and papers. The furniture sagged and was shabby in bits. And children. I remember lots of children everywhere. I don’t know whether they were neighbours or adopted grandkids but they peeked out at us from behind doors, played outside and ran in and out gleefully, for all the world. When he met us he was quiet but affable. He posed for pictures and autographed our books. He didn’t have to do all that, and even if he was just tolerating us it was still pretty great of him.
I’ve been flipping through Landour Days, a published complilation of Bonds journal entries categorised into the North Indian seasons of Summer, Monsoon, Autumn and Winter. (I say North Indian because in Bombay we have only two seasons –monsoon and not-monsoon.) It’s a comforting read. Comforting because there is something steady and solid about the image of an old writer-story teller living in the mountains, among the flowers and the snow frosted deodars. Personally, it calms me down. The business of writing has changed. No more the dream of living like a hermit on a hill or by the sea and scratching away in notebooks. Among amateurs, the fact that you write is an attention-seeking, jealousy-ridden rollercoaster. Among professionals, it’s how well you spoke at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Self publishing. Crowd sourcing. Former newspaper journalist’s who’s bylines we don’t remember. It’s cutthroat and permeated through with the restless, rushing spirit of urgency. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t want recognition. That will never change. But writing isn’t the peaceful, patient business Landour Days makes it out to be. Subjects and themes have changed and become darker. The grimy underbelly of a metropolis. Poverty. Narcotics.
Landour Days has one entry, which I read with mixed feelings. It’s some assorted advice to young writers. “Are you observant?” Bond asks the amateurs, “Can you tell the difference between a sparrow and a sparrow hawk?” As I read that sentence, I say WHUT! The way I usually do when deeply moved. What if I don’t care about the difference? My book isn’t going to be about a bird, it’s going to be about life….life, and longing and passion and despair and about the human condition and it will chronicle the pathos and spirit of this generation. It will. My righteousness sputters itself into silence most times. Maybe he has a point. Have you ever noticed how every good book you’ve read names at least one tree? Ever noticed how if there’s a bird in a scene, the writer will name it. Details are what will make the great novel about the human condition work. We’ve got to learn the names of those trees!
If I ever do make it on the other side, I’ll have a well of inspiration and an army of heroes to thank. But they’ll always be a corner of my memory saved for that trek up a mountain and a wizened writer at the top of the hill.