Over the years, Mussoorie has played host to many authors, from Rudyard Kipling to Pearl S. Buck, Jawaharlal Nehru to Arvind Adiga and Pankaj Mishra. The mountain air and Himalayan vistas continue to inspire an annual influx of visiting literati. A number of authors are permanent residents of Mussoorie and it is often said that for every reader in the town, there are at least three writers, disproving all theories of supply and demand.
One the most prominent landmarks in Mussoorie is the town’s library, which was established soon after the first houses were built. With an imposing facade of ornate steel columns, gabled roofs and chequered windows, this reliquary of words overlooks Gandhi Chowk. The Library gives its name to one of the two bus stands in Mussoorie, which lie at either end of the town. Ironically, the other bus stand is named for The Picture Palace, Mussoorie’s first cinema. Sadly, the Picture Palace has shut its doors and fallen into ruin, while the Library continues as a venerable institution. For many years, the library suffered neglect but it survives under the custodianship of a small, exclusive circle of members.
A few vignettes of literary lore:
When Mussoorie was first settled as a hill-station by the British, in the 1830s and ‘40s, the novels and poems of Sir Walter Scott were bestsellers. Many of the houses in Mussoorie and Landour, which date from this period, were given names that invoked the titles and settings of Scott’s work. Waverley Convent and Woodstock, two of the oldest schools in Mussoorie, took their names from Scott’s romantic novels. Rokeby Manor, one of Landour’s landmarks, is named after a book length poem written at the end of Scott’s career. The swirling mist and rocky terrain of the lower Himalaya must have reminded many colonials of the rugged highlands of Scotland, eliciting nostalgic names such as Alyn Dale, Kilmarnock, Ellengowan and Wolfsburn.
Today, Indo-Scots writer, Bill Aitken, keeps the tartan flying in Mussoorie, where he lives and writes at a house he named “Oakless,” in protest of deforestation.
Though England’s most famous crime novelist never visited Mussoorie, Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was based on a sensational murder that occurred at the Savoy Hotel in 1911. Miss Frances Garnett-Orne, a spinster spiritualist, spent a summer season at the Savoy, conducting séances and gazing into crystal balls, with her clairvoyant companion Miss Eva Mountstephen. After Miss Eva departed suddenly for Calcutta, Miss Frances was found dead in her room. A bottle of bicarbonate of soda, prescribed for indigestion, was laced with cyanide. Though suspicion was directed toward Miss Eva, she was eventually acquitted and the case was never solved. Agatha Christie learned of the murder through reports in the British papers. After she wrote the novel, her publishers in London insisted that the setting be changed from Mussoorie to the English countryside, yet another example of editorial crimes that have gone unpunished.
One of India’s finest fiction writers, Anita Desai was born in Mussoorie. Her novels, including Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day, In Custody, and Fasting Feasting, have received numerous awards. Professor emeritus at MIT, Desai now lives in New York, though she has visited Mussoorie on several occasions. Her most recent book, The Artist of Disappearance, contains a novella set in Mussoorie.
The 21st Century’s answer to Sir Walter Scott, Ruskin Bond is India’s bestselling author, with more than fifty titles to his credit, and a wide and loyal readership both here and abroad. Born in Kasauli and raised in Dehradun, Bond has made his home in Mussoorie since the 1960s. He writes poetry, fiction and non-fiction for readers of all ages. His first novel, Room on the Roof, has remained in print for more than half a century. Several of his books have been made into films, including A Flight of Pigeons (Junoon) directed by Shyam Benegal and The Blue Umbrella and Saat Khoon Maaf (based on Bond’s story “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”) both directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. Ruskin Bond has received many awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award and a Padma Shri. He continues to live and write in Mussoorie. On most Saturdays, between 4-6 pm, he can be found signing his books at the Cambridge Book Depot.