When I mentioned to a friend (who had just returned from a trip to Mussoorie) that I was headed there the following weekend, she insisted on lending me a book she’d bought during her trip. This was Mussoorie & Landour: Days of Wine & Roses, by Ruskin Bond and Ganesh Saili.
Ruskin Bond, arguably India’s best-loved writer in English, has been a resident of Landour (an adjacent town, higher than Mussoorie and contiguous with it) for many years. So has Ganesh Saili, who has been a friend of Bond’s for the past 30 years. They come together in this book to talk about Mussoorie and Landour.
Mussoorie & Landour: Days of Wine & Roses (published by Roli Books, 2010) consists of nine chapters. The first seven are by (one assumes) both Bond and Saili—though, since it isn’t mentioned who’s written what, it could well be that only Bond did the writing while Saili took the many, many photographs that embellish the book.
The chapters alternate between factual and anecdotal, beginning with ‘The Mussoorie I Know’, which is very obviously Ruskin Bond—his writing is distinctive here, as he talks about daily life in Landour, the people he knows, the natural beauty around, and his own interactions with both nature and people. It’s an enjoyable, informal little chapter about the town.
That informality and chattiness is repeated in other chapters, especially ‘Up At the Top’ and ‘Looking for John Lang’ (the latter about the Australian-born novelist and barrister John Lang, who lived the last years of his life in Mussoorie and is buried here). To an extent, the informal, somewhat gossipy feel also permeates two other chapters, ‘Tales the Tombstones Tell’ and ‘Tales of a Hill Station’—the latter includes this delicious quotation:
‘The famous traveller Lowell Thomas, visiting Mussoorie in 1926, wrote: "There is a hotel in Mussoorie (the Savoy) where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious, get back to their own beds"’.
The two remaining chapters by Bond (and/or Saili?) are the ones that describe the history of Mussoorie and Landour. Chapter 2, ‘Birth of a Hill Station’, is about how Mussoorie came into being (after the British defended it against invading Nepalese forces in the early 1800s—the first building here was a small hut erected in 1823). There’s more, about how Mussoorie grew, how its buildings and businesses arose (and fell!), and the people who made this town their home. Chapter 5, ‘The Schools Today’ is all about Mussoorie’s several old and very prestigious boarding schools: their histories and their current state.
Whereas the more informal chapters are fun to read, Chapter 2 and 5 are, in comparison, fairly dull—especially the one on schools, which would be interesting only if you wanted to know when each school was set up, under which head master/head mistress, with how many students, when it was expanded, when it shifted to a particular building, and so on: very boring.
Besides these seven chapters, there are two additional chapters, ‘The Himalayan Club’ and ‘A Mussoorie Miscellany’, which are neither by Bond nor Saili: they’re a reproduction of selected writings of John Lang (who was also Charles Dickens’s correspondent in this part of the world). Lang’s writings are full of deliciously juicy anecdotes, ranging from the crimes committed, the scandals, and the unfortunate accidents that occurred here back in the mid-1800s.
Mussoorie & Landour: Days of Wine & Roses isn’t the book if you want a guide to the sights to see around here, but it’s a great book to get a feel of why Mussoorie was once known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’. There’s loads of history here, both factual and anecdotal, personal and impersonal—and that, unfortunately, is where the book does stumble, a bit. The style of writing varies so much from the friendly and approachable to the boringly factual, that it almost feels, when you’re moving on from one chapter to the next, that you’ve switched books. That’s a feeling that’s accentuated by the facts that get repeated, sometimes with changes, in various parts of the book. How Mussoorie was established is repeated a couple of times; the story of Landour—how it began as a convalescence centre, then progressed to what it is today—is also repeated.
Somehow, I got the impression that nobody had edited this book, and that the authors themselves had probably not bothered to even browse through each other’s writing (or had forgotten what they’d written earlier, and not even done a re-read?). For example, in the chapter, ‘Tales of a Hill Station’, an account of Gun Hill specifies that the firing of the gun was discontinued after an episode in which the ‘shot’ (a ball of moist grass and cotton waste) landed in the lap of a lady who was on her way down to the plains. Three chapters further in the book, in ‘Looking for John Lang’, we’re told that the firing of the gun was discontinued after the shot landed in the lap of a lady who had been snoozing through the sermon at St Thomas’s Church. What are we to believe?
Then there’s this incredible statement in ‘The Schools Today’: "In 1888 Mr T.H. Garlah started a school in Willow Lodge but moved in 1898 to The Dingle, and later, in 1905, moved again to the present site Woodlands, which is why the school is now known by that name. T.H. Garlah is still proprietor and principal of the institution…". Considering the book was published in 2010, that puts Mr Garlah’s age at about 150 years, keeping in mind that he must’ve been at least 20 years old when he established the school. Hmm.
Despite those hiccups (and the occasional typo), this is mostly an engrossing, informative book. It has lots of photos, both current as well as old ones (including a lot of wonderful old pictures of Mussoorie in its heyday—ladies in rickshaws; local townspeople in Landour; numerous scenes of different parts of the two towns). All of it is packed into a fairly compact book, which I read easily over the course of the three evenings we spent in Mussoorie. A rewarding way to spend the time.