Ruskin Bond Class of 1959
From India Perspectives December 2003, p. 15-19.
See http://meaindia.nic.in/indiaperspective/2003/122003.pdf

Mussoorie's Landour Bazar

RUSKIN B0ND

As in most north Indian bazaars, there is it clock tower. And like most clocks in clock towers, this one works in fits and starts. Almost every year the tall brick structure gets it coat of paint. It was pink last year. Now it is a livid purple.

From the clock tower, at one end, to the mule sheds at the other, this old Mussoorie bazaar is a mile long. The bazaar sprang up about a hundred and fifty years ago, to serve the needs of British soldiers who were sent to the Landour convalescent depot to recover horn sickness or wounds. The old military hospital built in 1827 now houses Institute of Technology Management. One old resident of the bazaar, a ninety-year old tailor, can remember the time, in the catty years of the century, when the Redcoats marched through the small bazaar on their wiry to the cantonment church. And they always carried their rifles into church, remembering how- many had been surprised in churches during the 1857 uprising.

Today, the Landour hazaar serves the local population, Mussoorie itself being more geared to the need and interest of tourists. There are a number of silversmiths in Landour. They fashion silver nose rings, earrings, bracelets and anklets, which are bought by the women from the surrounding Jaunpuri villages. One silversmith had a chest full of old silver rupees. These rupees are sometimes hung on thin silver chains and worn its pendants or necklaces of rupees embossed with the profiles of Queen Victoria or King Edward VII.

At the other extreme there are the Kabarl shops, where you can pick up almost everything - a tape recorder discarded by a Woodstock student or a piece of furniture from Grandmothers time in the hill station. Old clothes, Victorian bric-a-brac, and bits of modem gadgetry vie for your attention.

The old clothes are often more reliable than the new. Last winter I bought a new pullover marked 'Made in Nepal' from a Tibetan pavement vendor. I was wearing it on the way home when it began to rain. By the time I reached my cottage, the pullover had shrunk inches and I had some difficulty getting out of it! It was now just the right size for Bijju, the milkman's twelve-year-old son, and I gave it to the boy. But it continued to shrink at every wash, and Teju, Bijju's younger brother, who is eight, is now wearing it.

At the dark windy corner in the bazaar, one always found an old man hunched up over his charcoal fire, roasting peanuts. He had been there for as long as I could remember, and he could be seen at almost any hour of the day or night in all weathers.

He was probably quite tall, but I never saw him standing up. One judged his height from his long, loose limbs. He was very thin, probably tubercular and the high cheekbones added to the tautness of his tightly stretched skin.

His peanuts were always fresh, crisp and hot. They were popular with small boys who had a few coins to spend on their way to and from school. On cold winter

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evenings, there was always a demand for peanuts from people of all ages.

 

Peanut seller
The old peanut seller

 
 

No one seemed to know the old man's name. No one had ever thought of asking. One just took his presence for granted. He was as fixed a landmark as the clock tower or the old cherry tree that grew, crookedly from tire hillside. He seemed less perishable than the tree, more dependable than the clock. He had no family, but in a way the entire world was his family because he was in continuous contact with people. And yet he was a remote sort of being; always polite. even to children but never familiar. He was seldom alone, hot he must have been lonely.

Summer nights he rolled himself up in a thin blanket and slept on the ground beside the dying embers of his fire. During winter he waited until the last cinema show was over, before retiring to the rickshaw coolies' shelter where there was protection from the freezing wind.

Did he enjoy being alive? I often wondered. He was not a joyful person; but then neither was he miserable. Perhaps he was one of those who do not attach overmuch importance to themselves, who are emotionally uninvolved in the life around them, content with their limitations, their dark corners: people on whom cares rest lightly simply because they do not care at all.

I wanted to get to know the old man better, to sound him out on the immense questions involved in roasting peanuts all one's life; but it's too late now. He died last summer.

That corner remained very empty, very dark, and every time I passed it, I was haunted by visions of the old peanut vendor, troubled by the questions I did not ask; and I wondered if he was really as indifferent to life as he appeared to he.

Then, a few weeks ago, there was a new occupant of the corner, a new seller of peanuts. No relative of the old man; but a boy of thirteen or fourteen. The human personality can impose its own nature on its surroundings. In the old man's time it seemed a dark, gloomy corner. Now it's lit up by sunshine - a sunny personality, smiling, chattering. Old age gives way to youth; and I'm glad I won't be alive when the new peanut vendor grows old. One shouldn't see too many people grow old.

Leaving the main bazaar behind, I walk some way down the Mussoorie-Tehri road, a fine road to walk on. in spite of the dust from an occasional bus or jeep. From Mussoorie to Chamba, a distance of some thirty-five miles, the road seldom descends below 7,000 ft. and there is a continual vista of the snow, ranges to the north and valleys and rivers to the south. Dhanaulti is one of the lovelier spots, and the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam has a rest house here, where one can spend an idyllic weekend. Some years ago I walked all the way to Chamba, spending the night at Kaddukhal from where a short climb takes one to the Surkhanda Devi temple.

Leaving the Tehri Road, one can also trek down to the little Aglar river and then up to Nag Tibba, 9,000 ft., which has good oak forest and animals ranging from barking-deer to Himalayan bear, but this is an arduous trek and you must be prepared to spend the night in the open or seek the hospitality of a villager.

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On this particular day I reach Suakholi, and rest in a teashop, a loose stone structure with a tin roof held down by stones. It serves the bus passengers, mule drivers, milkmen and others who use this road.

I find a couple of mules tethered to a pine tree. The mule drivers, handsome men in tattered clothes, sit on a bench in the shade of the tree, drinking tea from brass tumblers. The shopkeeper, man of indeterminate age, the cold dry winds from the mountain passes having crinkled his face like a walnut, greets me enthusiastically, as he always does. He even produces a chair, which looks a survivor from one of Wilson's rest houses and may even be a Sheraton. Fortunately the Mussoorie Kabaris do not know about it or they'd have snapped it up long ago. In any case, the stuffing has come out of the seat. The shopkeeper apologizes for its condition: "The rats were nesting in it." And then to reassure me: "But they have gone now."

I would just as soon be on the bench with the Jaunpuri mule drivers, but I do not wish to offend Meta Ram, the teashop owner, so I take his chair into the shade and lower myself into it.

"How long have you kept this shop?"

'Oh, ten, fifteen years, I do not remember.'

He hasn't bothered to count the years. Why should he, outside the towns in the isolation of the hills, life is simply a matter of yesterday, today and tomorrow. And not always tomorrow.

Unlike Mela Ram the mule drivers have somewhere to go and something to deliver-sacks of potatoes! From Jaunpur to Jaunsar, the potato is probably the crop best suited to these stony, terraced fields. They have to deliver their potatoes in Landour Bazaar and return to their village before nightfall; and soon they lead their pack animals away, along the dusty road to Mussoorie.

"Tea or lhassi?", Mela Ram offers me a choice, and I choose die curd

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preparation, which is ,sharp and sour and very refreshing. The wind soughs gently in the upper branches of the pine trees, and I relax in my Sheraton chair like some 18th century nawab who has brought his own furniture into the wilderness. I can see why Wilson did not want to return to the plains when he came this way in the 1850s. Instead he went further and higher into the mountains and made his home among the people of the Bhagirathi valley.

Having wandered some way down the Tehri road, it is quite late by the time I return to the Landour Bazaar. Lights still twinkle on the hills, but shop fronts arc shuttered and the little bazaar is silent. The people living on either side of the narrow street can hear my footsteps, and I hear their casual remarks, music, and a burst of laughter.

Through a gap in the rows of buildings I can see Pari Tibba outlined in the moonlight. A greenish phosphorescent glow appears to move here and there about the hillside. This is the "fairy light" that gives the hill its name Pari Tibba, Fairy Hill. I have no explanation for it, and I don't know anyone else who has been able to explain it satisfactorily-, but often from my window I see this greenish light zigzagging about the hill

A three-quarter moon is up, and the tin roofs of the bazaar, drenched with dew, glisten in the moonlight. Although the street is unlit, I need no torch. I can see every step of the way. I can even read the headlines on the discarded newspaper lying in the gutter.

Although I am alone on the road, I am aware of the life pulsating around me. It is a cold night, doors and windows are shut, but through the many clinks, narrow fingers of light reach out into the night.

Who could ,still be up? A shopkeeper going through his accounts, a college student preparing for his exams, someone coughing and groaning in the dark.

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Three stray dogs are romping in the middle of the road. It is their road now, and they abandon themselves to a wild chase, almost knocking me down.

A jackal slinks across the road, looking to right and left, he knows his road-drill to make sure the dogs have gone.

Yes. this is an old bazaar. The bakers, tailors, silversmiths and wholesale merchants are the grandsons of those who followed the mad sahibs to this hilltop in the thirties and forties of the last century. Most of them are plainsmen, quite prosperous even though many of their houses are crooked and shaky.

Although the shopkeepers and tradesmen are fairly prosperous, the hill people, those who come from the surrounding Tehri and Jaunpur villages are usually poor. Their small holdings are rocky fields, and they do not provide them with much of a living, and men and boys have often to come into the hill station or go down to the cities in search of a livelihood.

But as I pass along the deserted street, under the shadow of the clock tower, I find a boy huddled in a recess, a thin shawl wrapped around his shoulders. He is wide-awake and shivering.

I pass by, my head down, my thoughts already on the warmth of my small cottage only a mile away. And then I stop. It is almost as though the bright moonlight has stopped me, holding my shadow in thrall.

'If I am not for myself,
Who will be for me?
And if I am not for others,
What am I?
And if not now, when?'

The words of an ancient sage bear upon my mind. I walk back to the shadows where the boy crouches. He does not say anything, but he looks up at me, puzzled and apprehensive. All the warnings of well wishers crowd in upon me - stories of crime by night, of assault and robbery.

But this is not Northern Ireland or the Lebanon or the streets of New York. This is Landour in the Garhwal Himalayas. And the boy is no criminal. I can tell from his features that he comes from the hills beyond Tehri. He has come here looking for work and he has yet to find any.

"Have you somewhere to stay?" I asked.

He shakes his head; but something about my tone of voice has given him confidence, because now there is a glimmer of hope, a friendly appeal in his eyes.

I have committed myself. I cannot pass on. A shelter for the night - that's the very least one human should be able to expect from another.

"If you can walk some way," I offer, "I can give you a bed and blanket."

 

A Tehri boy
A Tehri boy

 
 

He gets up immediately, a thin boy, wearing only a shirt and part of an old tracksuit. He follows me without any hesitation. I cannot now betray his trust. Nor can I fail to trust him...


The author, an internationally acclaimed writer, lives in Mussoorie

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