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Mussoorie: A writers’ town in smartphone era

A great paradox of our times is that the reading habit is becoming important precisely when it is also dying.

, ET Bureau|
Nov 12, 2019, 08.47 AM IST
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In the smartphone era, it is refreshing to see the importance Mussoorie gives its writers and artistes.
Early in the evening in Mussoorie, a cool breeze caresses the ears and the nose tip. The air carries the umami scent of cooking from a red-coloured Tibetan restaurant festooned with prayer flags. Nearby is an exquisite two-storey building with a tiled roof, constructed in 1898 as a hotel, now housing a national bank. And opposite the bank is a book shop, in which Ruskin Bond sits facing the street, and meets readers, who have queued up to get his autograph and take a picture with him.

Perhaps no Indian writer is as celebrated by his hometown as Bond is in Mussoorie. His face is in street art, in restaurants and in shops. At a time when the word icon is loosely used, Bond really is one.

In the smartphone era, in a country that can’t look beyond cricketers and filmstars, it is refreshing to see the importance Mussoorie gives its writers and artistes. Further down from the book shop on Mall Road, in a restaurant, dishes are named after the town’s creative stars. On the menu is a Tom Alter shepherd’s pie, Victor’s (Banerjee) Choice chicken, Bill Aitken brownie, and a Shailesh Bhatt risotto. Perhaps we are forgetting someone. Oh yes, there is Ruskin Bond fish and chips.

A great paradox of our times is that the reading habit is becoming important precisely when it is also dying. Excessive gadget use — though popular — damages mental health. Reading is calming. Books are also high art. Like sculpture or paintings, they are magic created solely from imagination and sweat. Far from being outdated, they are the mother lode from which often emerge money spinners and job creators, like Harry Potter or House of Cards.

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Sir Roderick David Stewart or Rod Stewart loves kitbashing and scratch building. In simpler words, the Hall of Famer is heavily into model railroading. He has a 1,500-square-foot model-train layout in his Beverly Hills residence, which is a model of New York’s Grand Central Station. The singer traces his interest in trains back to his childhood in London. He never had a train set, but British Rail operated not far from the shop his parents ran.(Image: rodstewart.com)
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The spell of the mountains, especially places like the uncontainably gorgeous Landour (visit it before a mall sprouts up there) do bring about a mood of reflection, especially in those over 40. Many urban preoccupations and material possessions simply cease to matter. Books re-enter your life because switching on the TV seems like abuse of the region’s tranquility.

Mountaineering accounts are a personal favourite, and one day in Mussoorie it was decided to lie in till late afternoon. There was a crisp Riesling to sip and Bill Aitken’s 'The Nanda Devi Affair' to read. Outside the sky was clear blue and the valley was vast and green.

Aitken’s is an enjoyable book for the most part, dealing with his obsessive love for the shapely Nanda Devi, at 25,640 feet, India’s second highest peak (after the 28,169 ft Kanchenjunga). A Scotsman who made Mussoorie his home, Aitken writes spontaneously, the words gurgling forth like a stream. He rarely uses a comma. Some descriptions are worth a second helping, or tenth. Here’s a line about the pug marks of a snow leopard, an elusive creature: “The animal had suddenly halted, crouched and then backed off from the water’s edge leaving an immaculate visiting card.”

Not much to say after a sentence like that, except that any chance to revisit Mussoorie and Landour, and some books, must be seized.

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