Review of Between Heaven & Earth — Writings on the Indian Hills: Call of the mountains

An anthology provides a glimpse of life in hill stations in the north, south, east and west of India

Updated - October 07, 2022 08:26 pm IST

Published - October 07, 2022 09:01 am IST

While the book primarily focuses on the western Himalayas, Matheran, Darjeeling, Kotagiri and Hazaribagh too find representation.

While the book primarily focuses on the western Himalayas, Matheran, Darjeeling, Kotagiri and Hazaribagh too find representation.

If you are tuned to the news, the hills today are about traffic, water shortage, landslides, cloudbursts, work-from-home, tourist-hostels, drugs, over-populated towns, empty villages and so forth. Long before the pretty mountains were ‘colonised’ with the British perching ‘English townships’ on hilltops to escape from the ‘heat of the plains’, they were home to the ‘devis or goddesses’, tribal communities and Mother Nature. Between Heaven & Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma, is an anthology which provides a glimpse of life in hill stations, warts and all.

Quaint resorts

Bond, who lives in Landour, and has been a prolific writer on the hills, says in the Preface that the book includes pieces, written by British diarists and writers of the 19th century and early 20th century, which paint a vivid picture of the social life in these quaint resorts — Shimla, Mussoorie, Nainital, Kasauli, Ooty, Darjeeling and so forth. Contemporary Indian writers look at life outside the British playgrounds. However, Bond rues the lack of Indian writing on the hills today, “they come and go in a rush, driving up in their cars and air-conditioned coaches.”

In the Introduction, Sharma, who has also profiled the hills in her books, contends that “all writers discover a hidden aspect of themselves in the hills and mountains.” Rabindranath Tagore returned to life and art in Ramgarh, “a healing that he describes in his letters to C.F. Andrews”.

Rumer Godden found peace and strength at a tea garden bungalow on a hill near Darjeeling where she was “soothed by the stillness; by the mist and the snow-views and the flowers and trees.” Mihir Vatsa rediscovered his hometown, Hazaribagh, and himself while driving around; Dervla Murphy travelled south to Coorg. The anthology, with 37 essays and extracts, brings out many facets of the hills.

While the book primarily focuses on the western Himalayas, Matheran, Darjeeling, Kotagiri and Hazaribagh too find representation. Some of the earlier writings tell us how even more than a century ago an author found one of the places in the hills to be “spoilt” while another was unhappy about the “modern architecture”. Several of the newer pieces highlight the tremendous changes man has inflicted on the hills in recent years.

The personal narratives are evocative. They talk of lazy men and hard-working women, of science as also the supernatural and ghosts, of the carefree attitude of the hill people and their rituals, of the acceptance of foreigners and adherence to caste, of boarding schools driving economies of hill towns and a lot more. And, above all, in a language filled with grace and bereft of clichés, the writers describe the hills majestically.

Bond and Sharma bring their vast knowledge and love for the hills into the anthology. The author introductions are brief and this works well. However, neither the photographs nor the section on vignettes appears to add any value to the book.

Some lines from the book resonate, like when Bill Aitken writes, “Villagers were liberated from the rushed concerns of townspeople”, or when Godden says, “The emptiness is of the Buddhist kind, an emptiness of space and not of blankness.” The book raises some pertinent questions as well: Has hill travel always been an elite activity? Should there have been some pieces on spirituality, religion and the spaces they overlap from an Indian perspective? Do people slow down when they are in the hills? Can mountains actually influence someone to write better?

The anthology will prompt readers to look up the places and people mentioned, if not urge the traveller to head up the mountains, with Tagore’s words in mind: “The hills all round seem to me like an emerald vessel brimming over with peace and sunshine.”

Between Heaven & Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills; Edited by Ruskin Bond, Bulbul Sharma, Speaking Tiger Books, ₹699.

The writer enjoys walking and cycling. He blogs at https://nimesh-ved.blogspot.com

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