Dehradun or Doon as we prefer to call it, is a valley in the lower Himalayas. At one time, it had everything you could possibly want of a hill station – old overgrown bungalows, winding roads, bakeries by the dozen and a host of boarding schools modeled on the British public schools. What Doon has as a bonus is Ruskin Bond, India’s most famous author.

I spent my childhood in the Doon valley. I remember it for the colors and smells – every home had a flower garden in the front and a backyard veggie patch. Conversations between neighbours almost always included updates on how the plants were doing and the newest seeds one had acquired. The other thing I grew up knowing and loving was the incredible number of bakeries that dotted every part of town.  Our homes were always stocked with freshly baked wheat cookies, the ‘rusks’ which only taste the way they perhaps must in Doon. Evenings were spent in the open verandahs and walking past, one would spy the tea mugs and rusk in hand without fail.

The other side to Doon included its schools; they have always been a matter of pride and schooling is taken a tad too seriously. What came with it was a rather competitive reading culture right from your young years. And reading in Doon started with Ruskin Bond. School libraries were filled with his titles, as were restaurants, hotels and nearly any place one could hold bookshelves. On a visit later I stopped at a modest tea stall and the books were there too, piled over the counter with a bench for those who wanted to take a break and read with their tea. They were all, of course, Bond titles. Teachers recommended them and so did all the neighbourhood “aunties” and “uncles”. My first memory of Ruskin Bond is of seeing him while walking down Mall Road in Mussoorie. I was barely six and had not begun to read his books. My parents later told me that when I was introduced I refused to acknowledge him. Perhaps, in my mind, I didn’t imagine that a great writer could be somebody you crossed paths with while walking down Mall Road for cotton candy.

The books that did make their way to my little library were mostly Enid Blytons. Birthdays nearly demanded editions of Noddy by the author. Those were expensive books and relegated to occasional buying. But one year, my mother took me to the annual fair and chose to begin my initiation of Ruskin Bond. Much against my pleading for more Enid Blyton, she bought The Angry River and The Blue Umbrella. Looking back, she was perhaps merely succumbing to the pressure that comes with living in Doon; you just had to read Bond. In any case, I picked up The Angry River, and was put off by the cover. On the other hand, I picked up The Blue Umbrella several times, rather insincere attempts to read, before abandoning it. My problem, though I didn’t know then, was that I wasn’t quite convinced I should be reading something by an author who was ‘spotted’ so easily. There was no enchantment to reading stories set in Doon and Mussoorie when I could be reading about the glorious tea parties set in an English hamlet.

I did go back to The Angry River a few years later, when I had exhausted all the Noddy’s and my birthday wasn’t too close, but returned a bit morose. There were no parties, no treacle pudding, no faraway tree, not even a mischievous pixie-like man. I knew I was done with Ruskin Bond, for all of my childhood.

Time passed, I moved cities several times and stopped visiting Doon eventually. The memory of that town was a haze. And then, sometime in my 20s, in a bookstore in Bangalore, where I now live, I came across a book titled A Town Called Dehra. I had to pick it up. That evening, I remained tucked in bed reading until the wee hours. It was almost a decade since my last visit to Doon and with every page I turned, memories of a beautiful childhood in the valley came rushing back. I was filled with deep nostalgia and an incessant longing to return to this town- to touch, feel, smell and see everything I grew up with. The intricate details of life there, the warmth of the author’s words… it was Ruskin Bond, in case you haven’t guessed already.

I knew I would return to Bond many times, simply for a whiff of Doon and for the comfort of a story told in familiar territory. But the book that showed me his prowess as a storyteller was Maharani, a tale of a devious queen set in Mussoorie. I was hooked.

The next thing I knew I was running to the nearest bookshop to buy as many Bond books as I could lay my hands on. The following months – years actually – were spent in reading Ruskin Bond and dreaming of Doon. It was steadily becoming an obsession of sorts. I read day and night and every genre I could find. Short stories, memoirs, novellas, novels… I even read erotica and cook books by him! They dominated my bookshelves, bedside tables and every nook and corner of the house. With every book came more memories and a deeper longing to return to the hilly town I had too easily dismissed as home.

The stories in the mountains, the life in a small hillside town, the people, the ghosts, the bazaars, everything was so vivid I could almost reach out to them. One year after my reintroduction to Bond, I decided to make a trip back to Doon. I went armed with a list of places from my childhood that I had to visit, things I had to do and on the top of this list was to meet Ruskin Bond, the man who played a part in bringing me home. And so, I did.

Prachi Sibal at Dehradun, getting a book autographed by the author himself.
Prachi Sibal at Dehradun, getting a book autographed by the author himself.

Cambridge Book Depot on Mall Road is a small bookshop set on a steep vertical curve. You nearly have to hop into it. Once inside, you will see a large board with a picture of a smiling Bond with a message that reads: “Meet the author here, every Saturday.” A shelf on the opposite wall is dedicated to Ruskin Bond, crammed in all directions. There  are also piles of Bond books on the floor. Walking around the store isn’t easy and the only empty space is right at the door. This is where Ruskin Bond sits, facing the busy Mall Road, to greet his fans every Saturday. He laughs a lot, signs books and poses for countless pictures with excited children and more excited adults. I was one such. Bond makes it a point to have a friendly conversation or two with everybody who walks up to him. He is unassuming, polite but doesn’t let the streak of humour – much talked about in reviews – go. The queue is long and spills on to the road. But, every person gets their moment with the author. With some, he enquires about which of his titles they have read, in an attempt to make sure they have the right person I presume. He’s written about how often he has been mistaken for another author, even Rudyard Kipling on occasion. He admits to signing The Jungle Book for a child, as Kipling of course.

Amongst the many visitors that evening is a bunch of teenagers who pose for pictures with him in turns. As the last one takes his seat beside Bond, he confesses, “I have read one of your books. My college library has many”. Pat comes Bond’s reply, “You should read the others too, they aren’t too bad”.

When I walk up to him, Bond asks the usual, “What brings you to Doon?”  I explain that I grew up around here and hence the unusually far-flung choice for a vacation in the mountains. He smiles and nods, “Everybody who leaves usually comes back.” He asks me about my profession and offers to pose for a picture. Not one for stocking celebrity pictures, I pose nervously while he smiles generously at the camera. He signs my book, careful about spelling my name right, adding a little note.

I don’t know if I rediscovered Doon through Bond or the other way around, but home for me is now Doon with Ruskin Bond.

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3 Comments

  1. Ravi juyal. Reply

    All grown ups remember youth days.Prachi described exactly how the inner sentiments about our memorable days are inherent in one small corner. She could describe them beautifully which most of us fail to give shape in words.Beautifully described Prachi.You are natural with words.Keep flying.

  2. Sanchita Das Reply

    Nice reading…it brought back my memory of meeting him on my last and my daughter’s first visit to Dehra last year.

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