The valley of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, was an important part of my growing up. My parents hail from there. That is why, as a kid, all my summer holidays were spent there as our family escaped from Delhi's summer heat to the pleasant environs of Dehra. Anyone who has spent time in Dehra would know how the hill station of Mussoorie looks from there with its night lights. It's simply magical. The sight held additional magic for me. Because that is where, I knew, lived Ruskin Bond.
The lone fox, which Ruskin has called himself, still lives very much in Mussoorie, though now quite an old one at 88. Most tourists, in their SUVs, hurtle past his first floor home up in Landour towards Chardukan, little realising that Ruskin is most likely at that point sitting on his writing desk, penning another episode from his simple yet rich life or simply peeping out of the window to admire the view towards Tehri road. Or checking on a mountain thrush which visits his window once in a while or noticing the changing weather or maybe admiring the horse chestnut tree growing beside his house. He does all these things and more. Like, he looks out of his window and strikes into a conversation with a boy who has climbed on a tree opposite his window. Then he pens all these notes. And we lovingly read all these notes he sends us from the mountains.
I grew up reading Ruskin's short stories such as The Blue Umbrella, Angry River, the hidden pool and A face in the dark among others. As one grew up one read more autobiographical writings from Ruskin such as Roads to Mussoorie, Rain in the mountains and Our trees still grow in Dehra. With this, a desire to see the world he describes so lovingly, delicately and humorously, grew within. The desire to go up from Dehra to Mussoorie and meet Ruskin where he lived remained within me for years. Then one day I came across him, wearing a red pullover and signing books at the World Book Fair in Delhi. My wife Sonia, another Ruskin Bond fan, was with me. We went up to him and told him that we want to visit his home in Mussoorie. He smiled and readily agreed and wrote his number down for us.
A couple of weeks later, I and Sonia were buying sweets for Ruskin and his adopted family from a sweet shop in Landour. We had already called him up and he had agreed to a meeting. Before moving to this house on the road leading to Lal Tibba, he had lived in another place called Maplewood cottage, also in Landour for years. That place had a little garden too. The place he now lived in and still does is on the first floor. A wooden staircase on the side leads to his apartment.
We rang the bell and Ruskin opened the door, wearing the same red pullover. In his writings, Ruskin has complained about more than a few aspiring writers (especially retired defence officers having an unreasonably high opinion of their writing skills and life experiences)
descending on him with their manuscripts in hand and wishing him not only to read them but also to hear applauding words. Weary of casting a similar impression, we quickly cleared that even though we are both journalists, our visit is purely to see him, his world and hold a little conversation and there is no hidden agenda. That is exactly what we proceeded to do.
Ruskin's home was unexpectedly humble, but felt cosy, comfy and lived in. Ruskin occupied one drawing room and an attached small bedroom, with a window that looked out to the Tehri road. The living room with a creaky wooden floor had many old rickety wooden bookshelves stuffed haphazardly with books.
A door from the drawing-room led to his bedroom cum study cum living room. He showed us around graciously and smilingly. He showed us his books, his old single bed (which I felt was too small for him), his writing desk stacked with papers and his old typewriter. He said that he still uses his typewriter or writes down his stories and doesn't like using a computer and will never use one. He complained of suffering from gout (he said his uric acid was very high) and pointed out that he doesn't walk about much nowadays. I quickly added, "All those years of eating mutton kofta curry are having its toll I guess." I said it because I knew it was his favourite dish and he smiled his agreement.
He took us to a single window in the room and allowed us to have a look at the same view that he had been looking at for years. We spoke about his days in the Maplewood Cottage and he complained that that house even though it had a small garden was too cold. "This house is much warmer as it is hit by the first ray of sunlight in the morning," he said with a smile.
We took a couple of pictures with him. The one in which we are both together looks pretty serious. It must be a writer's thing, I guess.
I asked him to pose at his writing desk and he readily agreed. He gave me a perfect and memorable shot. Something that I will always cherish.
When I last went to Mussoorie, a couple of weeks ago, I found out that Ruskin does not go anymore for his customary Saturday afternoon book signing session at Cambridge bookstore in the Mall. He is too old for it now. I agree. The old bloke has earned his rest and quieter Saturday afternoons. But I still like to believe that the lone fox must still be dancing in his mountain home and thinking up new plotlines to continue the magic he has created for decades for admiring fans. Of Course, I am luckier, as I have that cherished picture of him at his writing desk in his mountain home.