In Landour’s literary lap

The Mussoorie Writers’ Literary Festival is another feather in the town's very Victorian hat

October 31, 2015 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Peaks from a Landour rooftop. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

Peaks from a Landour rooftop. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

Landour, sedentary on a hillside near Dehradun in Uttarakhand, long gave up its status as a ‘hidden gem’. Born as a cantonment town post 1924 for the specific purpose of being a convalescence home for British soldiers, it got its name from a tiny Welsh village, Llanddowror. Ever since, Landour has carved its own identity as Mussoorie’s ‘twin town’ and regulars to the place no more refer to it as a part of the latter.

The quietude of its winding paths and the scent of wild flowers drew plenty of people to Landour, and some of them chose to stay back and make it their home. One of them happens to be Landour’s most famous resident, Ruskin Bond, who drew other writers and literary figures into Landour’s comforting fold. And I can understand why, for how often does one find oneself alone in a forest and stumble upon, not humanity, but interestingly written sign boards, or a poem on the virtues of walking? Today, Landour is a haven to mountain writer Bill Aitken, travel writers Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, actor Tom Alter, writer Ganesh Saili and others.

Landour is also home to writer Stephen Alter, who founded the annual Mussoorie Writers’ Literary Festival, another feather in Landour’s very Victorian hat. The seventh edition recently held at the historic Woodstock school saw writers from across the country, including the wonderful orator Paro Anand and the sprightly Amrita Tripathi, who both released their latest titles, Like Smoke and The Sibius Knot , respectively. A much awaited book that was released as well was Butterflies of India by Peter Smetacek, known butterfly expert based in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand, who has relentlessly worked on this project, documenting butterflies for years. Alpinist Silvo Karo spoke of first ascents, and Patrick French fluently discussed eccentric explorer and the subject of his biography, Francis Younghusband, the ‘last imperial adventurer’. This year’s focus was ‘Women and Mountains’, and the talks also featured alpinists such as Austrian braveheart Gerlinde Kaltenbruner whose K2 ascent is an often talked about feat in mountaineering, climber and writer Bernadette McDonald and her ode to the revolutionary climbers of Slovenia in her book Alpine Warriors : Slovenian Climbers , and Polish photographer Martushka Fromeast’s series Himalayan Stories .

It was my first time at the festival, and the close-knit atmosphere of the festival added to its appeal. While it still has a long way to go, it is definitely a more intimate affair than some of the bigger lit fests across the country, and that makes it a winner for me. It was a relief to be part of a small community that seemed truly taken in by mountains and mountain literature, and to not be swamped by a sea of heavily made-up celebrities who visit lit fests purely to be spotted by the paparazzi. At the Mussoorie Mountain Lit Fest, oversized sunglasses and giant tote bags give way to winter boots, intelligent talk and snug overcoats, as the relative staleness of city fashion is washed away by the fresh air of theLandour forests.

Other than resident writers, Landour regularly draws writers who come and stay here to find inspiration to write; significant parts of novels, novellas, short stories and biographies have been written in its environs. Many of the homes that are part of the original 110 homes built in Landour now play host to these writers. Sunita Kudle who is originally from Maharashtra but who has now made Landour her home, is a mine of information on Landour’s history and an inherent part of the ‘local’ community. She, along with her husband, runs La Villa Betheny, which like many other buildings of Landour such as the Kellogg Church that also doubles as a famous language school, was established by the missionaries. An erstwhile home for ousted leprosy patients , La Villa Betheny’s name, which means ‘healing home’, has been retained. Today, it is chosen by nature lovers, seekers of quietude, small families, and foreign students of the Landour language school. Among the guests are illustrious writers and poets like Virginia Jealous, Ada Aharoni, Nazia Mallick, Ashok Mitra (of Shifting Clouds fame), and popular writer Advaita Kala who have stayed here and shaped their ideas into words. The homestay has also hosted Sarah Monk, when she was in Landour to research and pen a book on her great grandfather Mauger Fitzhugh Monk, who established the renowned Landour Academy here. Another place full of literary history is Woodside, a charming homestay run by former professor and sociologist Zarina Bhatty, or Zarina Aunty as she is fondly known. The wife of famed Urdu writer Idrak Bhatty who passed away two years ago, her homestay is a favourite of author Vikram Seth’s family. Staying there is a pleasure, for who would not be delighted to listen to a nazm or two read aloud from Idrak Sahab’Sahib’ s volume Sarchashma-e-abadi or Eternal Spring , by the glow of a lamp in the evenings!  

 On a walk through Landour, up the idyllic Char Dukan and St. Paul’s church crossing, past Lal Tibba and the serene woods parallel to the Christian cemetery (also the oldest, with graves dating back to the 1830s), and beyond the iconic Prakash’s store over a 100-years-old that’s been selling homemade peanut butter and jams forever, Landour comes alive in its startlingly pristine glory. On a clear day, a view of the Banderpoonch and Swarg Rohini peaks makes the walk all the more rewarding for a nature-lover, and all the more inspiring for a writer.

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