Controversial opinion alert — I’m not a huge fan of Ruskin Bond’s work. There, I said it, sacrilegious words for an Indian growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, lost in the world of books, one who eventually would become an author herself, that too of Young-Adult fiction. And if that’s irony, here’s another one for you: the only time I went to Mussoorie as an adult, I ended up as Ruskin Bond’s neighbour.
Of course, like any good Indian reader, I had ploughed through all of Bond’s classics in my younger days. Most of the names elude me now, though the novel The Room on the Roof (1957) and shorter works like The Night Train at Deoli (1988) and Time Stops at Shamli (1989) endure because of their evocative titles. I might have even carried one along on a holiday to Dehradun and Mussoorie, entirely unaware that his settings and descriptions were inspired by the landscape of that region.
Earlier this April, four of us decided to retrace our steps through Mussoorie. My overarching motive was to erase memories of having been a sulking teen on a routine, mandated-by-parents holiday, and explore this wildly popular tourist town; my companions had other agendas, of course. The hotel we zeroed in on was located in Landour — a locality in the north of Mussoorie.
Attracted by photographs of the hotel’s Indo-Tibetan history and the artwork in eye-popping colours on its facade, we completely failed to take note of its address — Ivy Cottage, the home of Ruskin Bond. The top floor of Ivy Cottage is owned by the Bollywood director Vishal Bhardwaj, who has adapted a couple of Bond’s stories into movies. No, we did not cross paths with either of them.
For health reasons, Bond doesn’t meet people at his house any more, though you are very likely to run into him at Cambridge Book Depot in Mussoorie’s Mall Road on a Saturday afternoon. Even if you don’t meet him, you’ll definitely get a chance to pick up an autographed copy of one of his works, and while you’re at the Mall, it’s a great point to explore some of Mussoorie’s best known spots from.
The Mall, no surprises, is quite the heart of Mussoorie, a thriving marketplace, both for residents and tourists, with souvenirs and handicrafts to buy; woollens at unbelievable bargains (I picked up an overcoat); delicious local delicacies; and even a gaming arcade (yes, I stopped to play; I am a nerd). Speaking of places to eat at, it’s better to skip the mains and go straight for the desserts in Mussoorie — you haven’t lived till you’ve tried butter-drenched cheeni paranthas, fruit-cream and chocolate momos.
Being a cantonment area, rampant commercialisation has not yet overrun Landour, conserving much of its small-town languor. The iconic Char Dukan —literally, a crossroads with the eponymous four shops, five if you count the post-office on the first floor of one — is the best place for a quick and cheap snack of bun omelette, cheese Maggi, momos, and so on, washed down with some hot honey-lemon-ginger tea. You can also pick up locally-made jams, preserves and peanut butter. There is an ongoing tussle between some of them to claim the “oldest shop” title, but the little market was set up more than 100 years ago, making a week here or month there quite moot.
Within walking distance from Char Dukan are St Paul’s Church, a view of Lal Tibba, Sister’s Bazaar (boasting of a tiny bakehouse with scrumptious delights, yes, they serve madeleines too), Kellogg’s Church. The quiet, tree-canopied roads of Landour are a pleasure to walk along, sometimes in the company of monkeys (please just ignore them) and sometimes a friendly mutt or two.
Before independence, Mussoorie was the go-to summer getaway for the British — Landour was established as a sanatorium for ailing soldiers. Various colonial treasures liberated from erstwhile British residences now line the dusty interiors of numerous antique shops in town. There is also a significant market for good-quality replicas — which means you could come away with authentic-looking faux antiques without breaking the bank.
Of course, one of Mussoorie’s enduring British connections is Bond himself. He was born in pre-independence India, in Kasauli, to British parents, and spent most of his life in Dehradun and then, since the 1960s, in Mussoorie. It’s a safe bet that the region has changed beyond recognition from his younger days. There’s always the option of diving into his books to travel back in time. Or you could just drive up the winding roads — the nearest railhead and airport for Mussoorie is Dehradun, about an hour’s drive away — and come searching for some memories. Or make new ones.
Payal Dhar is a Delhi-based freelance writer. This article was published with the headline ‘The Eyes Have It’ in the print edition.