THE NAME IS BOND, RUSKIN BOND
At the foot of the climb from Landour Bazaar to Char Dukan, the unpretentious residence of author Ruskin Bond sits atop a popular restaurant. Until a few years back, it also existed anonymously. Not so, now.
The octogenarian Bond’s lifetime of quiet dedication to his craft has exploded into a celebration of his existence. At any time of the day, his fans can be seen on the road outside his home, hoping for a glimpse of Mr Bond through the window he has made famous via his writing. Some are clicking selfies at various levels of the painted red staircase that leads to his apartment. Others throng the lone bench under a tree at the nearby entrance to the restaurant. They wait, hoping to see their favourite author climbing down the stairway. Prior to the pandemic, Mr Bond did so often.
A street in LandourThe staircase to Ruskin Bond’s flatView from Ruskin Bond’s window
Both the restaurant at Rokeby Manor in Landour and the bar at The Savoy in Mussourie had arrangements for his fans to drink and dine with the writer, albeit for a fee. On Saturday mornings, he graced the Cambridge Book Stall on the Mall in Mussourie. Here, he would autograph his books and graciously chat with his readers. This chance to interact has alas, all but evaporated since COVID 19 struck.
Perhaps it is this that has led people to besiege his residence in the manner they do. Yet while they stare at his window, none looks in the direction of where the fenestration opens to. Nor, as they tip toe up his stairway, do they venture too far to where the steps lead to outside. The view from Ruskin Bond’s window is as magnanimous as is his writing and the passage beyond the stairs leads into the lush forests of Mussourie-Landour where his intrepid explorations have inspired much of his work.
Ruskin Bond has unquestionably lent life to his surroundings and long after he is gone, the locale shall be enlivened by the imagination and descriptions of Mussourie’s most famous resident. Like him, visitors will be rewarded by widening the scope of their sightseeing and seeking out unique and less well-known aspects of this popular hill station.
DEMOLITION OF HOUSES
The quaint town of Landour, perched just above Mussourie and nostalgically named after a Welsh village by a colonial administrator is largely within a cantonment precinct. Most of the cottages that line the ‘chakkar’ here retain their original British names fondly harking back on a bygone era. Ownership though has since mostly shifted to well-heeled north Indians.
This was amply evident in the recent demolitions that shook the placid hill-town.
The popular Indian subscription to build what you want, where you want and when you want wasn’t acceptable to the Cantonment Board that governs the town and sits amidst the high-security Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) campus. It is the DRDO that occupies much of what is present-day Landour.
Evidently, money could not buy a ‘blind-eye’ and consequently, four or five properties that had violated the building regulations in varying degrees were subjected to demolition. The most visibly affected were the opulent residences of a banker and a hospitality tycoon.
This brings into the spotlight rampant construction in the entire belt. The haphazard manner in which the same is being affected has assumed disturbing proportions. The entire route from Dehradun to Mussourie is pockmarked by eateries that have sprung up at virtually every bend. Within the towns rampant construction, often of monstrous proportions, is indicative a lack of ecologically sensitive planning.
Given this scenario, the oasis that is Landour reminds us of how colonial planning and architecture of hill stations was different from that in the plains. The sensitivity and sense of aesthetics at work when Dehradun and Mussourie were planned and built are, alas, a lost consideration now.
AND AT THE END ARE THE CLOUDS …..
The cynical would shake off present-day Mussourie as a hill-top Chandni Chowk.
Crowded, chaotic and cumbersome.
While this assessment may wholesomely apply to parts of the city, there is redemption at hand when one veers off further from Landour Bazaar and the Mall towards the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Charleville. Here one enters a comparatively unhurried vicinity where a number of princely palaces are located. In their day, some Maharajas and Nawabs preferred Mussorie to Simla as absence of the Viceregal firmament here meant they weren’t subjected to a stringent colonial hierarchy.
Many of these palaces speak of neglect over time. Others have been effectively converted into heritage hospitality ventures catering to an ever-burgeoning domestic tourist circuit. A new relevance has crept in through past decades. Once beyond the colonial edifices, private forests round off the further edge of Mussourie here. The most visible of them is Lyndale Estate that curves along the Hathipaon Road and sinks all the way to the valley beneath. Enveloping an abandoned beer factory that sits perched on the edge of a hill outcrop, this property spread over hundreds of acres belongs to the owners of DLF, India’s largest real estate company.
Further along the same road is Cloud End, another expansive private forest. Unlike the other estates, this one is accessible to public. For a fee, one can walk through parts of the estate although this only allows a limited sojourn and hardly does justice to the captivating landscape.
If you are willing to make the effort a more rewarding experience is to walk along the road leading to Cloud End which offers stupendous views through gaps in the foliage and a distant peek at the cottage of the famed geographer Sir George Everest. This building has since been converted into a museum.
A TRAIN TO MUSSOURIE
Numerous schools dot the Mussourie-Landour landscape. The Doon valley and it’s surrounding hills are a cottage industry in education.
Some of the older institutions are Woodstock, which is possibly the largest land-owner in Landour, St George’s College, Oak Grove and Wynberg Allen.
All of these schools trace their inception to the nineteenth century. Oak Grove School in Jharipani, run by the Indian Railways, was founded in 1888. Apart from claiming an alumni as distinguished as that of the others, it is a part of a curious tale that lies buried in the forested hills below it, for over a century.
In 1920 the British Government made a second attempt to build a railroad from Dehradun to Mussourie. A site within the Oak Grove School was ear-marked for the penultimate station with the Himalayan Club as the last station on the route. The precise location considered for the station, a rare patch of levelled ground, now serves as a sports field.
The rail line had progressed in parts when an accident occurred during the construction of a tunnel between the town of Rajpur and Mussourie. There were casualties and the project was abandoned.
What may have also been a factor of discouragement to recommence work was a vehement agitation against the rail line by the traders in Dehradun. These merchants were apprehensive of losing the business of the well-heeled and ruling classes who flocked to Mussourie every summer. The railway track would have diminished if not eliminated their usual stop-over at Dehradun.
A walk to one edge of Oak Grove School near the building housing the middle classes treats one to a panoramic view of Dehradun. Below a sheer drop are the extensive forested undulations of Jharipani. Approachable from Rajpur, amidst this forest lie the rail tracks abandoned since a century and now obscured by foliage.
Upon exiting the sylvan ambience of a hill station school and driving into the chaotic traffic of Mussourie, one would ask oneself why a railway line here wasn’t a possibility today if it was a consideration over one hundred years back.
Contrarily, given the environmental damage inflicted by the daily movement of hundreds of petrol and diesel vehicles, an electrically operated train service would be a godsend in this fragile ecology.
Residents of Mussourie, riled by daily traffic jams along the approach to and within the city have taken to questioning the intentions of their government. The fact that recently a train service has been provided along a stretch to Srinagar in Kashmir makes a rail track to Mussourie seem eminently feasible, to their minds.
In absence of a state response, the rail tracks hidden in the forests of Jharipani shall serve to remind of braver and more adventurous times.
Rajesh Luthra is an architect in independent practice. Having graduated from Columbia University in New York City, he designs, writes and teaches in New Delhi.