Travel writer Bill Aitken, who turned 80 on May 31, talks about his everlasting affair with our mountains and rivers.
A Scot by birth and a naturalised Indian by choice, Mussoorie-based writer William ‘Bill’ McKay Aitken turned 80 on May 31. Arriving in India in September 1959, as a young man of 25, he taught for a year at a Kolkata school, joined Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan padayatra in Assam and lived in Sarala Devi’s Gandhian ashram in Kausani, overlooking the sacred mountain of Nanda Devi. Attending a village festival in honour of the Devi, he contracted typhoid and fasted for 40 days. This opened his eyes to the real nature of the universe and he moved to the Mirtola Ashram of Sri Krishna Prem near Almora. Here, he found both solace and a lifelong companion in Maharani Prithwi Bir Kaur of Jind. In between all this he has also written 14 books. No other Indian writer has written so extensively, passionately and lovingly on India’s mountains and her rivers. No other writer has explored the Indian Railways as expansively as Aitken. In this conversation, Aitken talks about his life’s philosophy, his wanderlust and his everlasting affair with India’s mighty mountains and rivers. Excerpts:
How does it feel to turn 80?
Exactly as I felt turning one, two, three, right up to 79. I was born with the understanding that the atman doesn’t age; only the body does. In my case, the only parts of my body that feel 80 are my knees.
What exactly motivated you to hitchhike your way to India?
Initially, I had registered to study History at Cardiff University but then wondered if I really wanted to spend the rest of my life confined to one subject. I registered instead at Leeds University, which taught Comparative Religion in its general BA course. There the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the Upanishads made sense to me. Immediately, after my post-graduation, I set off hitchhiking over land to India in order to have a first-hand feel of the world’s living religions.
How long was the journey? Did you have any scary or unusual experiences?
Mercifully, the six-week journey was, by and large, uneventful barring a bizarre incident. While passing through Anatolia in north-east Turkey — the site of the Biblical Eden — I entered a restricted area. I was fast asleep in a covered truck. I was arrested by the Turkish military police when I woke in the morning. The incident ended on a happy note with the military police giving me a generous breakfast and putting me on an Iranian bus to Teheran. I now share with Adam and Eve the unique distinction of having been expelled from the Garden of Eden (laughs).
Was meeting Maharani Prithwi at Mirtola Ashram and falling in love with her the end of your quest or its beginning?
In a way, it was both. The Mirtola teaching was, “Love is the guide” and love brought an end to my restlessness and wanderlust. I found a home in Oakless, her private residence in Mussoorie’s Bala Hissar neighbourhood. In her fearless and outgoing nature, I discovered a good deal of synergy that matched mine. Our Guru Sri Krishna Prem told me that Prithwi could teach me more than he could. In another way, it was the beginning of what turned out to be a journey of a literary kind.
The most extraordinary thing about our 38-year relationship was how quickly the time passed. I was able to take her to off-the-beaten track places where royals were unaccustomed to tread. We trekked to all the holy sites of Uttarakhand — Badri, Kedar, Gaumukh and Yamunotri, not once but twice. And she walked the whole way, never using ponies or palanquins. We also trekked twice to Shri Hemkund Sahib and the Valley of Flowers. The Maharani never approved of my writing and would refer to my literary products as “bromo paper”.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I turned to writing as a means to appear reasonably respectable and to convince Prithwi’s sophisticated friends and family that I wasn’t as dumb as I looked. It helped that our next-door neighbour in Mussoorie was Ruskin Bond who went out of his way to help new writers. After Prithwi’s death in 2010, I have little urge to write any more.
What about The Nanda Devi Affair?
The Goddess seems to have arranged my affairs from birth. Eric Shipton was the first mountaineer to have found a way into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary on May 31, 1934 — the day I was born. In 1960, I read the book of his expedition in the Asiatic Society Library, Kolkata, and made a vow to follow in his footsteps but wasn’t able to do so until 1980. A near-death experience in the sanctuary during my pilgrimage resulted in a moment of cosmic consciousness in which I distinctly heard the Goddess Nanda command me to write about her grace. In a sense, my books are all offerings of thanksgiving for the wonders India abounds in.
What did writing give you?
Essentially, I wrote to share my pleasure in discovering India’s amazing and diverse beauties and to suggest there’s more to life than pining to become prime minister. I never recovered the cost of my travels but received education of a priceless kind. At grammar school everyone laughed at me for studying Divinity but when I look around me I feel I have had the last laugh.
Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based writer.