By JAMIE ALTER
The mind wanders a lot these days, more during this period of uncertainty on account of the COVID-19 pandemic than before, to the days of yore. Specifically, to time spent growing up in Mussoorie, in specific the cantonment and Landour. A boyhood in the mountains, spent wearing flannel shirts and blue jeans and Velcro-strapped shoes while climbing trees and running and cycling on dirt and gravel paths lined by majestic pine trees! Of Uncle Chips and Maggi and bun omelettes and leeches and spiders and Phantom cigarettes and Rola-Cola and Poppins and Gold Spot and Doordarshan and so much more!
What I miss, in particular, is walking in Landour. From our family home nestled away at one end of Landour to Sister’s Bazaar for a grocery run and chit chat with Anil Prakash, to collecting a coffee to go from Landour Bakehouse, walking around the chakkar to Kellogg’s Church and then the graveyard and Lal Tibba and onwards to Char Dukan and then back. Early morning walks and late afternoon strolls.
Those who have done this know the special feeling that is being able to walk through the shadows of oaks and pines and deodars and horse chestnuts, not disturbed by the honking of cars – though the cantonment has a lot more tourists than before – or crowds.
I miss meeting familiar faces along the way, and the salaams exchanged and the questions and answers about family and careers, sometimes a few back-slaps and jokes and memories from youth. It is a nice feeling to be able to return to Landour a few times a year and see friends with whom you played cricket and watched movies with, and though of course it is not the same – each of them have jobs and families, naturally – there is a certain pleasure seeing those faces and catching up, even if briefly.
As you walk, you spot certain corners and bends where you fell down while cycling or ran from a herd of cows or rhesus monkeys; you look up at trees you climbed and scan pushtas for signs of the crevasse you slipped from. As you stroll around the chakkar, you look down at dirt roads sloping into cement strips that lead up to old cast iron gates in front of centuries-old bungalows and cottages. You admire their old tin roofs and imagine the sound of rain during the monsoon, and the divine sleep that follows.
You sniff the air and smell the citrus fragrance of magnolias, you look at gardens with lawns and beds of hydrangeas and honeysuckles and damask roses. You feel the wind blow powerfully through the tops of banj trees, making the leaves hiss and cackle as if they were on fire. If you peer close enough, you can sometimes see clusters of big brown chestnuts hanging underneath the leaves.
And then, if the moment is right, you might find yourself stopping at the same spot from which you first saw the snow-capped Himalayan peaks from between two pine trees so many years ago. If you are lucky, the sun will just be beginning to set in the valley below and the cicadas will be winding down their chorus for the solemn hymns of the night.
Today, it is memories of such walks around the chakkar that offer a slice of happiness in these uncertain times. And for such memories, I consider myself very fortunate and blessed to have spent so many precious years in the cradle of Landour.
(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor).