Kings of the world, raise your great white heads and laugh. I look up the blue-vaulted sky around me and I see you. I see you all, from east to west, a wall.
Long after, when I’m leaving, you recede at a stately grace. Down from your head to your chest I slide, along winding roads I descend. Clouds below me part, and re-form above me, far above me. There I was, by that crag, on that cliff…but its already ten minutes in the past, and I’m leaving your presence. A fall.
Now I descend to your knees. The folds of your skirt undulate slowly, surely. Down them I slide inexorably.
You’re gone now, a few miles to the east. An unending wall of dark grey, black. Clouds far up your slopes, hiding your face, like frozen breath. You will become ghosts soon, then a distant outline, like a myth at the margins of that road. Far along the horizon you’ll form the dream line to your echoing magic kingdom.
Kings of the world, I close my eyes and remember your proud heads of snow.
There’s something weirdly endearing about rain in the hills. For one, it isn’t as boring as in the plains. The clouds creep up slowly and ultimately engulf you. They caress the skin with a cool softness that just cannot be compared to anything. You know that its going to rain when you can’t see two feet ahead of you. The ghostly whiteness closes around you till you feel as if you are walking through water. And then, without warning, it starts pouring, and if you’re walking alone on a mountain road, then it seems as if you’re adrift in a vaccuum with just the sound of the driving rain splashing on the rocks for company. You cover up the best you can and plod along, looking for a rocky overhang to take shelter under. As the cloud passes by, it thins and bits of vastness start peeking at you. A glimse of a valley here, a hilltop cottage there. At last it clears and you look around. It seems as if the mountains are steaming, the way they trail wisps of clouds.
This is exactly what happenned to us countless times in our jaunts…the heaviest being during a lonely walk doen the aptly named Camel’s Back Road which bypasses Mussoorie town and out to Tehri Garhwal proper. And yes, we did find the rocky overhang. Strangely enough, I occupied myself during this cloudburst telling my friend the story of Oedipus. Don’t ask. Stumbled upon a smoky old cemetery established in 1829 by vacationing Brits. The neighbour to this sight out of an Edgar Allen Poe story was a tea stall boasting pictures of India’s very own vacationing stars. Like any other Garhwali, the nice men manning the stall offered us hot cups of sweet tea to help with the rain induced chills. They were hilariously discussing the pains of directing demanding, scowling tourists to this or that hillside temple. The question seemed to be, if it was a Shiv temple and also a Parvati temple and also a Hanuman temple, then what should it be known for? At least Gurdwaras are easy. Carried about like this. Braved the horrors of the Mall-rain and clouds seemed to have dampened the spirits of the Mallers not one bit- and searched for the Mussoorie Freemason lodge. Situated just above the Picture Palace bus stand, it’s barred Gothic gates looked mysterious enough. Wondered if there was an initiatin in progress. Took up Ruskin Bond’s casual invitation and forced ourselves on the old man. Was rewarded with great conversation- mostly about the art of writing essays and thoughts on his forthcoming memoirs. Frankly, I’ve never read much by him, but I was still awed. He’s one of the greats after all. Wonder if he’s a Freemason. Maybe not. His room is the cosiest little thing I’ve seen. Facing the Southeast on the road to Lal Tibba and painted a soothing burnt yellow to catch the morning sunlight, it consists of his writing desk- where he writes by hand- a schoolboy bunk with old trunks underneath and the odd potted plant. Full of pictures and cuttings, can’t think of a better room for writing. His living room is full of books- mostly eminent Victorians. Found out that he’s a great fan of Somerset Maugham. Not surprised then, when he called himself an essayist. He also confided that all his ghost stories were made up. Has a schoolboy’s handwriting. I felt honoured to go through some of the rough drafts of his memoirs. The bit I read is about all the female nurses that he has ever encountered. Some were apparently blindingly beautiful. There’s something about him which reminds me strongly of Gerald Durrell.
The long hike back from his place in the night, through the sepia tinted lights- because of the heavy fog- of Landour and Mussoorie and then to the eerie desolation of the road to our hotel has to be one of the highpoints. Could’ve dreamt up a hundred ghost stories just by walking by the ancient rockfaces and twisted trees with strange shapes. The night was a glimmer of ghostly grey and the hills seemed to be hiding a dozen phantoms behind every rock.
Landour was just the tip of the iceberg. Walked up, leaving the town and all its attendant horrors far behind. After a few steep twists in the road, past the Tehri highway…a veritable fairy land of sal and pine forests!! Didn’t know that I was approaching Lal Tibba- the highest point in the Mussoorie hills and also the houses of the who’s who. Absolute peace and quiet, not a soul in sight, apart from the occassional Tavera bearing disgruntled looking tourists to Lal Tibba. And the bungalows! The location makes you jealous and the isolation makes you sigh. Now we really were in the hills, with just forests all around and the occassional century-old church hiding behind a canopy of pine trees. The only sound to disturb the peace would be that of a dog barking with the sheer joy of existance somewhere among the trees. Almost the entire area is private property- the various estates, the army, Doordarshan, etc. However, this also ensures a sense of splendid isolation. At every other turn, you come face to face with an unexpected bit of stray cloud. You stop, bow in greeting and let him glide over you witht a cold shiver. Believe me, ghosts have nothing on them. Lal Tibba itself is nothing in itself. Just an ugly observatory with “really powerful binoculars” mounted on top to view the greater Himalayas. Dunno why anybody would spend 25 bucks to peer into them when the entire area is under a white blanket. But one should never underestimate the stupidity of tourists. Us hikers actually got pitying looks from fat Delhi and Punjabi burghers in their Opel Astras as they made their disgruntled way up the slopes. The state govt could do much worse than banning the use of cars on these roads but I guess that’ll never happen.
The actual highest point belongs to a beautiful early-19th century estate called Childer’s Estate. Built by some homesick Scot in 1829, this beautiful retreat and its farmsteads belong to the Nahata family. Its called something suitably dumb now.
Made our way down to the horror of the Mussoorie Mall and to the Cambridge Book Depot, where Ruskin Bond was making his weekend visit to sign autographs for smitten kids, their proud parents and assorted Delhi socialites with fake American accents going “Oh Mr Bond, I adooooore your works. I read all your stories in my school books.” And then they would proceed to get photographed with him en masse. There was even a proud parent who gave him an Enid Blyton book to sign wi\hich he signed, “With Best Wishes, Enid.” Not that anybody noticed, in the frenzy. My friend was realising a lifelong ambition to meet him and spent a long time chatting with him. He sounded rueful enough about the sights and sounds of the Mall, and encouraged us to take walks outside the town and invited us over for tea to his place. Ah, celebrity! Dunno if we’ll take it up. Would love to see his cottage though, hidden somewhere among the pines of Landour Cantonment.
Here’s something for all you Musoorie nay-sayers. Though much of the mall is admittedly fucked up by Punjabi families in their Opel Astras and their bawling kids whom you want to murder- not to mention the Barista!!!- there are some really nice places if you only look. Right now I’m in a part of old Musoorie called Landour bazaar. Anyone who ever comes to this town, please visit. Nice walks, local people (!) and clouds surprising you at road corners. You could also try climbing to Gun Hill-and not taking the touristy cable car. Though once you do get to Gun Hill you’ll only find wheedling shopkeepers and loud tourists….but the climb is worth it. Anyways, let me see some more, and I’ll let you know.