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Mountains are Kind to Writers

IT's hard to realize that I've been here all these years - 25 summers and monsoons and winters and Himalayan springs (there is no spring in the plains) - because, when I look back to the time of my first coming here, it does seem like yesterday. That probably sums it all up. Time passes, and yet it doesn't pass; people come and go, the mountains remain. Mountains are permanent things. They are stubborn, they refuse to move. You can blast holes out of them for their mineral wealth; or strip them of their trees and foliage; or dam their streams and divert their torrents; or make tunnels and roads and bridges; but no matter how hard they try, humans cannot actually get rid of their mountains. That's what I like about them; they are here to stay.

I like to think that I have become a part of this mountain, this particular range, and that by living here for so long, I am able to claim a relationship to the trees, wild flowers, even the rocks that are an integral part of it. Yesterday, at twilight, when I passed beneath a canopy of oak leaves, I felt that I was a part of the forest. I put out my hand and touched the bark of an old tree, and as I turned away, its leaves brushed against my face as if to acknowledge me.

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One day, I thought, if we trouble these great creatures too much, and hack away at them and destroy their young, they will simply uproot themselves and march away - whole forests on the move - over the next range and the next, far from the haunts of man. I have seen many forests and green places dwindle and disappear. Now there is an outcry. It is suddenly fashionable to be an environmentalist. That's all right. Perhaps it isn't too late to save the little that's left. They could start by curbing the property developers who have been spreading their tentacles far and wide.

The sea has been celebrated by many great writers - Conrad, Melville, Stevenson, Masefield - but I cannot think of anyone comparable for whom the mountains have been a recurring theme. I must turn to the Taoist poets from old China to find a true feeling for mountains. Kipling does occasionally look to the hills, but the Himalayas do not appear to have given rise to any memorable Indian literature, at least not in modern times. By and large, I suppose, writers have to stay in the plains to make a living. Hill people have their work cut out just trying to wrest a livelihood from their thin, calcinated soil. And as for mountaineers, they climb their peaks and move on, in search of other peaks; they do not take up residence in the mountains.

But to me, as a writer, the mountains have been kind.

They were kind from the beginning, when I left a job in Delhi and rented a small cottage on the outskirts of the hill-station. Today, most hill-stations are rich men's playgrounds, but 25 years ago they were places where people of modest means would live quite cheaply. There were few cars and everyone walked about. The cottage was on the edge of oak and maple forest and I spent eight or nine years in it, most of them happy, writing stories, essays, poems, books for children. It was only after I came to live in the hills that I began writing for children.

I think this had something to do with Prem's children. He and his wife had taken on the job of looking after the house and all practical matters (I remain helpless with fuses, clogged cisterns, leaking gas cylinders, ruptured water pipes, tin roofs that blow away when there's a storm, and the do-it-yourself world of small-town India); they made it possible for me to write. Their sons Rakesh and Mukesh, and daughter Savitri, grew up in Maplewood Cottage and then in other houses when we moved.

Naturally I grew attached to them and became a part of the family, an adopted grandfather. For Rakesh I wrote a story about a cherry tree that had difficulty in growing up; for Mukesh, who liked upheavals, I wrote a story about an earthquake and put him in it; and for Savitri I wrote rhymes and poems.

One seldom ran short of material. There was a stream at the bottom of the hill and this gave me many subjects in the way of small (occasionally large) animals, wild flowers, birds, insects, ferns. The nearby villages and their good-natured people were of absorbing interest. So were the old houses and old families of the Landour and Mussoorie hill-stations. There were walks into the mountains and along the pilgrim trails and sometimes I slept at a roadside tea shop or a village school.

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``Who goes to the Hills, goes to his Mother.'' So wrote Kipling, and he seldom wrote truer words. For living in the hills was like living in the bosom of a strong, sometimes proud, but always comforting mother. And every time I went away, the homecoming could be more tender and precious. It became increasingly difficult for me to go away.

It has not always been happiness and light. There were times when money ran out. Freelancing can be daunting at times, and I never could make enough to buy a house like almost everyone else I know. Editorial doors sometimes close; but when one door closes, another has, for me, almost immediately, miraculously opened. I could perhaps have done a little better living in London, or in Canada like my brother, or even in a city like Bombay. But given the choice, I would not have done differently. When you have received love from people, and the freedom that only the mountains can give, then you have come very near the borders of heaven.

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