Ssssh! Don’t tell anyone our well-known local secret: there is something contrarian about the air or water here! It makes them sprout writers. Per square-inch we have more writers say in comparison to Manhattan, which is 48 square miles, while Mussoorie is just 19 square miles.
My first brush with a living author was meeting Maha Pandit Rahul Sankrityayan when my father took me on a walk to Happy Valley where in Herne Cottage lived our first Padma Bhushan Awardee, who in eight years wrote 56 books. Among authors gone on to the Great Beyond is Dhiren Bhagat. He was the young Oxford-educated, nimbu-soda drinking journalist, who in the late 1980s, had rented the Shanty in Landour, hoping to write his magnum opus. It was not meant to be. Visiting Delhi to settle a household problem, he was snapped up in a car accident that snuffed out a life full of great promise.
I’d bumped into him at a chai shop, when as the South-East Asia correspondent for The Observer (London), he had returned from covering the elections in Pakistan. ‘Who is going to win out there?’ I prattled. ‘The JJON!’ he chuckled. ‘What’s that?’
‘The largest party there! It’s the Joh Jeetay Ohdey Naal or Be-With-the-Winner-Party. Why be a loser?’
Later, he achieved notoriety for writing a mock obituary of Khushwant Singh, where he’d claimed that for 31 years the only thing the old man ever had to warm his bed was a hot-water bottle, ending the piece with: ‘Even as I write this I am sure Khushwant is busy looking up the angel’s skirts.’
Come to think of it, Khushwant didn’t have to look up anywhere as he had the last laugh—outliving Dhiren by some 25 years. This windswept ridge of the outer Himalaya has been a launchpad for many literary forays. For instance, take the Gantzers, Hugh and Colleen, who like homing pigeons retired to Ockbrook cottage—their family home in the mountains—to together change the face of travel writing in India.
Rumours persist that Aravind Adiga came to Sisters’ Bazaar to finish The White Tiger. Author Anita Desai was born here as was Stephen Alter, who went to Company School before going on to teach creative writing at MIT and Cairo University. Throwing it all up, he now writes full time giving us un-put-down-able books like Neglected Lives, The Rataban Betrayal, Becoming a Mountain, The Secret Sanctuary, Wild Himalaya and others.
‘What’s with this place Ganesh?’ exclaimed Prajwal Parajuly two years ago. ‘I can’t stop writing since I came. I’ve finished a year’s work in a month!” In Bala Hisar, you can meet the Scotsman William Mckay Aitken, who gave up an austere life at an ashram in Mirtola in the 1970s to settle in Oakless, home to the late Rajmata Prithwi Bir Kaur of Jind. When he is not trilling his bagpipes, Bill Sa’ab, as we call him, takes his readers on train journeys in Exploring the Indian Railways, Travels by a Lesser Line, or on wanderings through the mountains in The Nanda Devi Affair.
Of course, the Grand Old Man of writing remains the cherubic 85-year-old Ruskin Bond, who merrily chugs along with 65 titles and 200 books. Please notice how deftly I have left myself out! With writers, left, right and centre, the filling in a sandwich cannot complain.
Author, photographer, illustrator whose works have been translated into two-dozen languages