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This gossip's not over the hill

When one sees a book set in the hills — Mussoorie, no less — it is impossible to not think of Ruskin Bond and his writing. Are you conscious of these comparisons? 
Ruskin Bond is a good friend and there’s no question about what an established writer he is. He is a master at the craft and I have no qualms admitting that I, and all other people in Mussoorie, put him on a pedestal for what he brings to his work — and to Mussoorie — through his writing. I think it’s all got to do with the focus he brings to his work — to fiction, and he’s great at that. I can understand where the comparisons come from, but my work is quite different from Bond’s. I write about social history — people of the hills, their gossip, their idiosyncrasies — through the looking glass. 

It was, in fact, Bond who pressed me to start writing in the 1970s. He became the editor of Imprint magazine and, one day, just said, “Come on now. Go and write something. Go, just go!” Many writers here owe their art to Bond’s encouragement. But yes, Bond came to Mussoorie in 1965. I was born here, in 1948. So I have an advantage there (hopefully)!

Where did you draw your fiction from?
I think my first observations of the world around me come from my school days. I studied in a small school in Mussoorie — we were 20 students, that’s how small it was. My childhood was about chasing butterflies and observing how caterpillars turned into butterflies in a glass bowl. It was non-competitive, just like magic.

I began teaching right after college and was a teacher for 40 years. Even now, I teach photography to students here. As a young student, you can’t help but notice one thing about your teachers — there are some who teach because that’s the only thing they want to do, and there are teachers who are there because nothing else worked out. A student can always tell the difference. I think I began observing over time, scribbled a bit here and there and finally, when it was time to write, I found I had quite a lot to put down.

And what did you pick?
Everything — right from the life-in-a-bubble air of Mussoorie to it’s people who love to gossip, and the businessmen who wait for those few months in a year to make a killing. Everyone in Mussoorie knows everything about everyone. You have someone over for lunch and everything about your guest — even if he’s a complete stranger to the hills — will be known to the locals, right from the reason behind the choice of colour of his car to what he likes
eating most.

Your short stories are full of gossiping, scandalous, whimsical characters in Mussoorie — with names like Mrs Luscious and Mr Strutter. Are they real?
Every character in the story is a blend of four-five different characters, and every incident is very close to reality. Mrs Gossip, for instance, is many women in Mussoorie rolled into one. Long ago, I remember, I met a lady during a walk, who refused to let me move an inch until I hadn’t heard her scandalous tale. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but couldn’t, in the name of God, make out who she was speaking of! Her gossip was so enjoyable that I wanted to know a stranger badly, just enough to enjoy the tidbit doing rounds.

Why have you stuck only to the 1960s in Mussoorie?
Yes, I dwell in the ’60s…because I think what’s happening in Mussoorie right now can come and go away anytime. There’s honestly nothing much to write about in the present. What can I say — people are focused, being laid back is not an option — does that make for a good story? I don’t
think so.

We don’t have those characters today. There was a man called Gambhir back then, who, for two whole years, would come to the bus stand with a large horn and scream the day’s most salacious gossip. I still remember how he slurped tea at the stall near the bus station. Locals had to treat him to avoid being featured in the ‘daily news.’ Then, there was a doctor, Dr Massey, whose claim to fame was the fact that his wife was a midwife. He made a living out of simply wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck, and prescribing medicines he had no idea about. He also proudly printed Bond’s landline number on his visiting card (more than half of Mussoorie did that because Bond was the only person who had a telephone in Mussoorie back then).

Which bits of Mussoorie did you leave out?
Oh, many. Mussoorie’s ice wells were the stuff of legend back in the ’60s. All the four big hotels here — The Savoy Hotel, The Himalaya Club, Charleville, Hakman’s — dug large, 20 by 20 ft ice wells near their hotels and used them to store food and whiskey. Of course, they eventually disappeared because people built homes and shops over it all.

Then, there was a lady here who began breeding Angora rabbits and her wool was really expensive. So, the men who worked in her factory began stealing the rabbits and selling them to locals. In no time, the whole of Mussoorie was breeding Angora rabbits without knowing a thing about the poor creatures. Obviously, the rabbits began shedding wool and the whole business was wiped out. I think this can happen only in Mussoorie.   

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