The topic of discussion on #TSBC for Sunday, June 26th was “Literary Cities”. The discussion was an animated one and towards the end, one of the participants (I can’t remember who it was now) tweeted that the literary capital of India was Mussoorie or Landour, because that’s where many of the writers were based. If anybody wanted to meet writers, that’s where one had to go !
I couldn’t help smiling when I read the tweet for I was leaving for a much awaited short holiday in the hills to Landour and Mussoorie the very next day. My agenda for the holiday was to relax, read and generally chill out. Literary capital of the country or not, seeking out or meeting writers in Mussoorie / Landour was not on my agenda. I know this sounds strange coming from someone who loves books and all things bookish, but I prefer reading books to talking to their writers.
But Mussoorie / Landour had other plans in store for me as I was soon to find out. It began with my coming across a shelf full of books by Mussoorie-based writers at the Landour Bakehouse (see photograph below), which made me realise just how many writers were based there. It ended with me having a serendipitous and unexpected tête-à-têtes with two writers and exchanging greetings with a third.
On my first evening in Landour, I had just stepped out of the Landour Bakehouse when Stephen Alter passed by. We smiled and said hello to each other, and that was it. Writer spotting and greeting in the literary capital of India was done and over with or so I thought. Apparently, this was only the teaser.
The next day, my friend Mehru Jaffer, who’s an author and journalist, messaged me asking if I wished to meet her aunt Zarina who lived in Landour. The aunt lived alone and would be very happy to meet me and tell me more about Landour. Would I be interested and would I have the time, she asked? Of course, I have the time and I’d love to meet your Aunt Zarina, I messaged Mehru. Soon I had the contact details messaged to me and that evening, I connected with Zarina ji. She gave me directions to her place, which was not too far from Rokeby Manor, where I was staying, and we agreed to meet at around 10.30 am the next day.
I set off to meet Zarina ji after breakfast the next morning and sent messages to both Mehru and Zarina ji that I was on my way. Within minutes, Mehru replied back saying that I would enjoy meeting her Aunt Zarina as she too was an author. To say that this piece of information came as a surprise is a bit of an understatement.
All through the walk or rather the descent from Sister’s Bazaar to Zarina ji’s house, I racked my brains over who she could be. And once I reached her house, all thoughts of her identity and her books vanished as I admired the house and its scenic location. A sleepy dog on the porch woofed a welcome and promptly went back to sleep.
Meeting Zarina ji was a reiteration of how small the world is. Mehru’s Aunt Zarina turned out to be Zarina Bhatty, former President of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies, and someone I had corresponded with many years ago on behalf of the organisation I work for with regard to a conference. We also discovered common acquaintances !
And the book she authored? It was one I knew about and had seen in my organisation’s library, but not read — “Purdah to Piccadilly: A Muslim Woman’s Struggle for Identity”.
Zarina ji and I spent a lovely morning chatting about books, writing, academics, London, status of women, Landour, some local gossip, Mehru, my workplace, and much more. I loved listening to her account of the small release function held for her book where a few writers from Mussoorie gathered at her place and Vikram Seth released it.
Time flew by and soon it was time for me to leave for I had another writer to meet on my way to Dehradun. This meeting was even more serendipitous and was with a writer I hugely admired — Bill Aitken.
I was at Prakash Handicrafts chatting with its owner Parul the previous afternoon when the topic came around to the various writers of Mussoorie. One of the writers mentioned was Bill Aitken and I gushed about how much I loved his writing and how as a teenager I never missed reading any of his columns and reports in the newspapers.
Parul asked, “Would you like to meet him?”
I said, “Of course.”
The next thing I knew was Parul picking up the phone to speak to someone. That someone turned out to be Bill Aitken himself and I watched open-mouthed as Parul fixed the appointment for us to meet. It took all of 5 minutes and as Parul disconnected the phone, she told me in her matter-of-fact way, “Your appointment with Bill Aitken is fixed for 2.30 pm tomorrow afternoon and you can meet him on the way to Dehradun. I’ll text his address to you in a while.”
“You know him personally? You know Bill Aitken? I asked Parul, still dazed at the way the appointment was fixed.
“Yes,” Parul replied simply. “He’s a friend. And Aitken is pronounced as Aiken – the ‘t’ in Aitken is silent.”
The rest of the day passed in the haze of anticipation of meeting Bill Aitken and Zarina ji. If I had known that Zarina ji was an author at that time, my anticipation would probably have been much more. It rained heavily that evening confining me to my room at Rokeby Manor and I fell asleep to reading Bill Aitken’s book on Seven Sacred Rivers. Was it a coincidence that I had brought that copy with me to read from Mumbai? I don’t know.
Next morning, I woke up to news of landslides on the road to Dehradun and slow-moving traffic. The good people of Rokeby Manor, and my hosts at Landour, suggested that I leave a little early to avoid any delays, especially since I was meeting Bill Aitken on my way. I agreed and after a quick lunch on my return from meeting Zarina ji, we set off.
At Bill Aitken’s place, I was accorded a noisy welcome by his two dogs. While the older dog refused to come near me and barked the place down, the younger one had no such inhibitions. Freddy, that was her name, jumped all over me and managed to run away with my cell phone. The confusion and chase that followed was epic and it was 10 minutes before Freddy was caught and my cell phone retrieved.
Over apologies, lots of tissues to clean my cell phone, and Freddy barging in periodically to join the meeting, Bill Aitken and I spoke about books, his travels, other writers in Mussoorie and #TSBC. He was pleasantly surprised, and I think pleased, when I pulled out my copy of Seven Sacred Rivers for him to sign. It was a fangirl moment for me when he signed the copy and returned it to me. 😀
Much to my regret, I couldn’t spend much time with Bill Aitken as I had to get to Dehradun. Bill Aitken (and Freddy) came to see me off at the gate and when I turned to leave thanked him for seeing me at such short notice, he said:
“No, no, that’s perfectly fine. It’s always nice to meet people like you. The last time someone came looking for me was… let’s say, about 2 years back.”
Bill Aitken’s parting words continue to haunt me. Here’s a writer who was a giant for my generation (I’m a child of the 70s) and today, he is virtually forgotten. I felt the same with Zarina Bhatty too as her illustrious career is known and remembered by only a few. I wish I had spoken to Stephen Alter and also taken time out to meet Hugh and Colleen Gantzer who are also based in Mussoorie. I wish…
When I shared with friends and on social media about my meeting with Bill Aitken and Zarina Bhatty, all people wanted to know why I hadn’t met Mussoorie’s arguably most famous writer — Ruskin Bond? While I would have liked to meet him too, it was not meant to be.
In retrospect, I’m happier to have had the opportunity to have met and interacted with Bell Aitken and Zarina Bhatty. Because sometimes, you need to shed your inhibitions about meeting writers and talking to them. Because, it’s always nice to put the book to the face and hands that wrote it. But mostly because they shouldn’t be forgotten. 🙂
1. Rokeby Manor was my host at Landour and though they didn’t arrange for my meetings with the two authors mentioned here, they facilitated my visit. Needless to say, the views and words in this post are all mine. 🙂
3. Parul and Mehru, I cant thank you enough.