Ruskin Bond, the Storyteller Who Made Us Fall in Love with the Mountains

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Ruskin Bond, the Storyteller Who Made Us Fall in Love with the Mountains

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

When it comes to planning a summer holiday, I’ve found that most people tend to have a marked preference for either beaches or mountains. There are those who find paradise in Goa or Bali, drinking in the sea and sun while contemplating the horizon, and there are the mountain lovers, who prefer to sip hot chai while clad in cosy shawls.

For me, the prospect of a languid day on the hot sand is delicious. And yet, when I was booking a holiday of my own, I couldn’t resist the lure of a quaint hill station that somehow made the beach seem rather insipid. Like taking a train armed with fond memories of tomato soup in paper cups and shared dabbas instead of a flight, it’s hard to beat the nostalgia that the mountain air brings with it. Maybe it’s the majesty of rolling peaks and valleys, or the lush greenery that stands as a testament to the land’s history. Or maybe we have Ruskin Bond to thank for the romanticisation of the mighty mountains with its winding roads, sky-high deodar trees, and rhododendron shrubs.   

The mountains provide a perfect backdrop for Bond’s stories and the celebrated Anglo-Indian author, who turns 85 today, has plenty more left to tell: The third and the final installment of his memoirs, Coming Round the Mountain, is set to hit the stands today. After Looking for the Rainbow, in which Bond studies the influence of his father in his early life and Till the Clouds Roll By, that trained its gaze on the author moving in with his stepfather, Coming Round the Mountain examines his experiences during Partition. Only 13 at the time, Bond was studying at a boarding school in Shimla. In an interview with Outlook India, he recalls the pomp and ceremony with which the boys celebrated Independence – until the civil unrest uprooted the lives of the school’s Muslim students. Bond’s friend was evacuated from the school by soldiers, and they never saw each other again.

This narrative of loss and longing is profoundly familiar, so much so that a tale of two friends reuniting after Partition was recently turned into a viral ad for Google India. This story has been told a lot of times, in many different ways but it never fails to strike a chord.  It’s the same effect Bond creates with his literature – a universality that transcends age, gender, and backgrounds, despite being set in the specificity of rural North India.

He knew that hill stations was where life happened in a way that it never unfolds in office blocks and five-star hotels.

Bond’s cherished mountains were home to what he saw as everyday people and the hill stations represented an extraordinary cross-section of society. Back in the day, places like Mussoorie and Dehradun were bastions of the Raj and though a lot has changed, these hilly havens, with their quaint colonial houses and elite schools, recall a bygone era of India.

These towns are now synonymous with a particular old-world luxury of simple living, a condition so sought-after that Netflix has a whole category of how-to shows on the subject. Think of the ubiquitous members-only clubs that still serve Anglo-Indian food, or the old-fashioned train stations that give hill stations their unique texture. More than enjoyment, a holiday to an old mountain outpost is in pursuit of appreciation. There’s history being told at every turn — all the better to imagine Bond’s classic stories playing out in the same places he described.

Bond rarely wrote about hill station high-society. Instead, his narratives were of universal childhood innocence and exploration. As a seven-year-old visiting Mussoorie, I remember seeing the mist that cloaked the hills — the same mists that Binya saw in the forest where she lived, and where she came upon her Blue Umbrella. Dehradun in The Road to the Bazaar, where Koki won her beetle race and made the winning catch in her first cricket, has a similar classical charm.

Of course, many hill stations now run on tourist industries, as stressed-out urbanites flock to return to a less complicated time. Famously averse to technology, Bond knew even in his day that he was writing of a world that was rapidly slipping away. In The Night Train At Deoli, he makes a case for the value of places where “nothing ever happens”. He knew that sleepy hill stations was where life happened in a way that it never unfolds in office blocks and five-star hotels.

In the book, the train stops on its way to Dehradun, for a few moments in sleepy Deoli, Rajasthan, where a passenger falls in love with a girl selling baskets on the platform. But after talking to her, the narrator, whose name we never learn, doesn’t find the basket-seller on the platform again. He feels confusion, grief, and a disproportionate sense of loss. He also knows that he will not stop at Deoli to look for her. Instead, he clings to an impossible ideal, a hope that he might one day see her, unchanged, as his train passes through the same station sometime in the future.

This is exactly how our love affair with the hills unfolds. We take to the beauty of the mountains and each time we say goodbye, we leave a part of ourselves behind. The girl in Bond’s story is incidental, she’s the symbol of everything we love about the ranges – simplicity, serenity, and the solace that they offer. And you and I, we are like the passenger who wants to hold on to the moment, knowing that it will slip away.

Still, why should that stop me from trying the only way I know — finding tranquility in the pages of Ruskin Bond’s books, going back over his omnibus under a handy peepal tree at a hill station. In the words of Bond himself: Holidays can become tedious without something to read.”

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