“The car’s battery ran out”, R said. “The engine doesn’t start, no matter how hard I try!” All hell broke loose!!
“What, how is that even possible? How did that happen?” I asked dripping in an expression oozing both anger & fear.
“Don’t get mad at me alright! I am trying to figure that out too. It was all ok when we came to pick your shawl this morning”, A scared R said as he tried to pacify me. “I think I forgot to switch off the headlights in a jiffy while you hurried us to walk down to Landour market to meet your favorite Ruskin Bond. It’s been eight hours since then and the car was ‘on’ all this time. The battery blew out”, he said concluding.
“What? Well, that’s so convenient of you to just trickle the blame on me, why don’t you just accept that you were careless about it? Are you driving for the first time?”
“Well, in the mountains, yes!” R said in defense.
“Easy escape, that doesn’t make a difference at all as long as you have your basics intact”. I exclaimed in an expression I can’t even explain.
“Will you please let me think of a possible solution? Don’t fret, it will be alright! Let’s talk to the locals, they might suggest us something”, he said gathering all his calm and patience. I tagged along and started browsing the shops (at 11 in the night) in hope to find a mechanic but to our dismay, we couldn’t find any. We had planned to start early next morning. God knew what held in store for us next.
“The mechanic will come at eight next morning Sirji, and will charge around Rs.300-400 to charge the battery”. Hukum Singh said with a firm voice. “But if you ask me, I would suggest you to not to hire the mechanic. There is a fair chance that the car will pump up if it gets pushed down the road so it starts itself. Then if you leave the engine switched on for a few minutes, it will get charged on its own. Let’s all try that first in the morning and if it doesn’t work, you may ask the mechanic”.
Hukum Singh worked as a guard in the city’s parking. He told us that he sleeps in the parking area in the night and we would find him right there only, early in the morning. There was something so assuring about his voice that it relieved me of most of the tension that had been brewing inside my head for last one hour. We were already done with the dinner so came back to our room to sleep.
It was an impromptu trip that I had insisted on, and R, being the loving husband that he is, had agreed to. 18th May 2018 – I had expressed my instant desire to go to Landour, Mussoorie, where Mr. Bond currently puts up, with a hope to meet him and have one of his books signed. It was a weekend and the trip could have easily be done. To address R’s apprehensions, I plunged to finance the trip on my own with whatever tiny savings I had. It is sheer coincidence that Mr. Bond visits Cambridge book café in Landour main bazaar every Saturday to meet young readers. This increased my possibilities to meet Bond even more.
19th May 2018 – Ruskin Bond’s Birthday. Mr. Bond had largely been the reason that I started writing. Our mutual love for the mountains had further pushed this itch for writing even more. A day before I had not even thought of meeting him the next day, given we already had done one trip to Dalhousie a month back. But here I was, the same night, packing my stuff in a flash to kick start our journey next morning. We decided to start at 4. I was still unsure of this happening but pulling my ropes of positivity, as I always do, I set the alarm for 3 a.m.
I couldn’t sleep for an hour. It was already 11.30 PM. The adrenaline kept going for the longest time. But I was happy for R was fast asleep as he was the one to drive. Nevertheless, the alarm buzzed at 3 and I found out that I did sleep for like 3 hours or so. I stood up rapidly and took a bath. Fifteen minutes later, I woke R up and tried gauging if he was still ready for the plunge. My happiness took the highest jump as he seemed more than ready. I stuffed every snack I could lay my hands on and threw it in the car. I had already packed my favorite book “A book of simple Living” by Ruskin last night.
We head started at exactly 4 am under the dark sky and got the fuel tank full. I kept pinching myself for first 2 hours until we got out of Ghaziabad and hit Upper Ganga Canal road which was to connect us to NH 334 till Saharanpur. By 6.30 we had crossed the canal road and it was a very scenic drive. Here, it is imperative to praise the amazing efforts done by NHAI (National Highway Authority of India). The smooth highways that they have worked up, deserves an applause. And the same applies to the BRO (Border Roads Organization) for giving us extremely malleable roads high up in the mountains. Hats off to them!
NH 334 connected us to Saharanpur-Dehradun road (NH 307) and both the highways had recently completed their construction which freed us from any tolls to & fro. It did get congested at some points where residential areas merged with the highways on one side but did not long for more than a few minutes. I think that is the advantage of starting early in the morning that you easily ditch any probable jams. We got past Saharanpur and hit Dehradun border well at 8.30 am. Mussoorie, from here, is around 36 km. Not having an appetite built up, we decided to continue till Mussoorie. The track had a few rough patches in between in an otherwise seamless trail, where a tunnel was under construction.
My eyes finally came to terms with the reality once we were on those serpentine roads meandering through a number of small temple towns perched in the valley. The ascending hills infused me with the same peculiar sensation that I always experience in mountains. It’s uncanny how it feels new every time. I almost forgot I had just visited Dalhousie 20 days back. The smell of crushed pine leaves and the symmetry of large Deodars trees gradually seeped inside me and I ensured I made most of it. I was on my way to Ruskin’s town – Landour, where he wrote most of his novellas. I had taken a risk with a hope to meet him here but there was nothing that would fortify my wish lest I visited Cambridge myself. A situation different than this might have saddened me but I was assertive to the love and adulation I have for him and which kept me positive all through.
Mussoorie is thickly inhabited compared to its counterpart Dhanaulti (22 km up). But that has not taken anything from the recreational activities that it has to offer to the tourists. My plan was, however, to visit Ivy Café, Laxmanpuri, Landour Cantonment in particular, which was much isolated and less populated patch than the buzzing bazaar. The café was adjacent to the Bond’s home – Ivy cottage. I was so adamant to see him that I had decided that I’d sit outside his home to steal a glance of the writer.
We reached Mussoorie at 10 am and parked our car in a very well managed public parking right in the middle of the market, overlooking steep hills on the one side and a broad bazaar road on the other. We then started scouting for a room and with a shoestring budget, did not have many options to choose from. Luckily for us, even in the peak season of May, there weren’t many tourists but that had the tariffs of most hotels shot sky-high. I personally believe in not opting for an expensive-luxurious stay when in mountains as it takes away a lot from the naivety of the countryside. We took a small and clean room in a lodge at just Rs 900. It did not boast any opulence but had all the necessary amenities in place.
After having a brunch at 12 noon, we slept as we were to leave for Cambridge Bookstore at 2.30 PM. While walking down the Landour main market, I realized how commercialization has taken a huge dive over the innocence of the place. Sometimes it was difficult to have a look in the thick green woods for it was incomprehensibly covered by a tall hotel building.
The Internet claimed that Mr. Bond sat from 3.30 to 7.30 every Saturday, but gathering some information from in and around, we came to know that he chose a different time for the day. He came at 11 AM and was about to leave in a matter of next 1 hour. I was close to being shattered but I secretly made up my mind to trek to his home the next morning, if I don’t get to see him today. There was a mad crowd and a long queue to meet the writer, the end point of which never caught my sight. I started losing hope but held my place in the queue. A lot of impatient fans collected at the main entrance and started creating a nuisance.
The store manager then came out and rendered an apology as Mr. Bond was tired and could not sign any more copies. But he said that he would get the books signed from home. The queue did not seem to budge. I was four places before the café door and chanted my prayers with all my might. I held my book tight and almost pleaded the manager with my hands folded. The girl at the door who had been noticing me standing in the line diligently, smiled with an assured look. I assembled my shattered hopes. Ten minutes into this brawl and I finally stepped into the bookstore.
The first person I saw took my book and opened it to a page where the writer could sign without much chaos. The second person took my phone and offered to click a picture. Then – I saw a man with white hair and even whiter skin, glued to a chair with whatever energy he had. A neck that swung in tiredness with the same hanging lip that Bond describes as Rusty’s unvarying feature in “The room on the roof”.
This was my Ruskin Bond. <3
“We are so sorry, we had exhausted you a lot, that too on your birthday! But what do we do? We love you so much!” I said shaking his hands with water brimming in my eyes. “That’s what keeps me going”, he said with utmost sincerity and signed my book. The person with my phone clicked three pictures in a go and handed over to me. For the first time, I wasn’t wary of how I looked in a certain picture. I bid him a bye.
That was not more than 40 seconds if I try to be exact! I was filled with happiness. My chest fluffed with content. He is exactly how his books describe him. Pure! Like a holy vibe that you get while entering a temple or a place of worship. Even though I met him for the first time, I felt a connection over years. I have been reading him, ever since I could read anything. When a habit, as beautifully stiff as this, chips into you in your childhood, it becomes impossible to release hold of it ever in your life. I still read his books like a child for it transports me to my infancy days of joviality and innocence.
We roamed in and around the Mall road and soared in my wave of happiness. Suddenly, I heard a car honking amid the hustle-bustle of the market. The car stopped for a minute, with Mr. Bond and the cafe manager sitting in the backseat. I still held the green Bond book in my hand which he had signed a while ago. The car zoom passed us as Mr. Bond passed me a smile or maybe he was generally smiling but I’d like to believe the former version. So I got to see him not just once, but twice. Call me selfish if you will, but I firmly believe that happened because I love him more than anyone else.
After dining at a South Indian restaurant, R and I walked to the parking, where a dead car awaited us. I was extremely stressed at our condition but retired for the day anticipating only our good fate. As promised, Hukum Singh met us at 7.30 am at the parking and prepared to push the car down the road. A cleaner and the parking supervisor accompanied him. I was amazed at their volunteer to help us come out of our fuss. A few more people joined in to drag the car forward. On not being able to move properly, the cleaner, who also happened to be a good driver and a mechanic himself, moved to the driving seat and drove till the engine propelled out of pressure. The car started and I jumped with joy.
I thanked each and every one with all my heart. I was so gratified by their selflessness. Maybe that is what differentiates us from them. Maybe that is what the tough life of the mountains teaches them. Be it the fellow drivers on the hills who amiably make way for the reckless city drivers or these helpful locals who go out of their way to assist people in whatever way they can. I have always seen and experienced this extreme generosity in the villagers. The surreal countryside of India has a lot to learn from and it makes me introspect a lot within.
The trip back home was uneventful. We started at 8.30 am and were home by 3 pm. It took an hour more to come back as we started during the peak hours of the day but the drive was mostly straight and smooth. I came back with a repertoire full of happiness and warmth of Ruskin’s eyes.