A place of one’s own

Aligning my words: Mussoorie changes with the seasons, from winter snowfall to monsoon mist, yet the landscape has a constancy

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For Stephen Alter the mountains of Mussoorie remain his compass — the needle that points to where he belongs

If my hometown of Mussoorie didn’t exist, I would have been forced to invent it. Most writers tend to locate themselves in a specific setting, whether it’s Mysore, Malgudi or Manhattan. It’s where an author writes from, and where he or she establishes a perspective on the rest of the world. For me, Mussoorie is as much a point of view, as it is my birthplace. Through the windowpanes of my study, I look eastward across the Tehri Hills, where the sun rises each morning when I sit at my desk. This familiar vista changes with the seasons, from winter snowfall to monsoon mist, yet the landscape has a constancy that anchors and aligns my words — the inalienable syntax and grammar of place.

Being in the foothills of the Himalayas, overlooking the Gangetic plain and the Mahabharata range of snow peaks toward Tibet, my mind can travel in either direction. Or remain where it is. Writing is a lonely business; the companionship of readers occurs only after the hard work is done. The point of departure for a story is often ‘a room of one’s own,’ as Virginia Woolf pointed out, yet what lies beyond the doors and windows is equally important. The trees at the edge of the yard, a silver langur looking down from a branch, or the alarm call of a barking deer somewhere in the valley below. Every book I’ve written started in Mussoorie, even when I was away from home. These mountains remain my compass — the needle that points me back where I belong.

Hill-station novels, of which I’ve written a few, always face in two directions: toward the higher mountains to the north and the spreading plains to the south. This is the topography that gives our fiction its expansive panoramas, as well as the sheltering insularity of being perched on top of a ridge. Mountains tend to be first-person places, though they encourage omniscience as well.

For any writer, the cartography of the printed page is like a map surveyed with instruments calibrated by memory and imagination — those inner theodolites and spirit levels that measure altitude and distance, as well as our most secret fears and desires. Long before he was declared a blasphemer, Salman Rushdie wrote about ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ lost places where we seek refuge or exile from the uncertain realities of a post-modern world. Through the narratives we write, each of us traces our existence to an elusive point of origin that lies beyond here and now. When I write of Mussoorie, it’s often a town that doesn’t exist on a map, but a fictional place nestled somewhere in the folds of my brain.

Even non-fiction, which primarily depends on observation and experience, owes as much to these fictional places of departure and return. Writing is a form of literary trigonometry, which charts a landscape through the triangulation of words, ideas and emotions. In my most recent book, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime, I set out from Mussoorie and travel into the mountains, seeking paths to high places like Nanda Devi and Kailash. But each of these circuitous journeys eventually brings me back home.

If I imagined Mussoorie, rather than living here for most of my life, I would have made up the same paths I walk every day, the same shapes of the ridges around me, and the same cliffs that fall away beneath my feet. It’s a place more vertical than horizontal. Everything is either up or down. Mullingar Hill, named after another hometown in Ireland (from where Captain Young, the original European settler, departed for India) marks the site of the first permanent building in Mussoorie. Today, this steep hill is an extension of the Mall Road, at the eastern end of town. The twisting incline, which follows precipitous contours of the ridge, is lined with shops. Each contains eccentric characters and stories. Mullingar is delineated by personalities as much as landmarks — the tailor who stitches clothes in the nick of time; the mechanic who can fix anything, even the most derelict of vehicles; the DVD vendor whose video parlour is an old paan shop, with a selection of films that rivals the Oscars. Each of these characters is part of an ongoing story that defines this place. Like a narrative that detours and digresses, the road up Mullingar Hill takes sharp bends and climbs out of sight, even as it promises to lead us home.

From the time my grandparents first came to Mussoorie in 1916, our family has lived here, off and on, for nearly a century. Yet, as an itinerant writer, I lay no ancestral claims on this town. Though, I’d like to think the place claims me.

(Stephen Alter, author of 15 books is now out with Becoming a Mountain. He is also the founding director of the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival)

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)



Published on March 13, 2015

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