I had always contemplated taking whomsoever he would be – to that serenity. To let him know me better. And to let that place temper me down enough to let me try and understand the person in return. So I led him by the hand – to Landour, a little hill town from the colonial past – a walk beyond Mussoorie.
Alighting from the overnight train, I soaked in the encompassing familiarity. The Dehradun railway station hadn’t changed a bit since the first time I’d ever visited it – a distant first visit I don’t recall now. That little station whose first platform wasn’t across the entrance like most, but started a little ahead of where the station offices ended. That station where the 1st and 2nd platforms sufficed almost always. The one which was a dead-end. The one which was heralded on approaching trains in those misty mornings by the passing of other tiny stations bearing such welcoming names as Doiwala! I stepped out of the station as the morning mist of the Doon enveloped us. As our cab taxied through the roads of the sleeping town-turned-city, I looked at those familiar roads and cafes in a new light. Crossing out from the city to the green Rajpur Road, the chill took a swipe at me. It seemed to whisper a welcome – “You’re back”. I felt safe!
The road meandered up the mountains through those too-familiar bends – the ones negotiated on impromptu bike rides so many times earlier with a friend, a brother – experiences that had a hand in shaping my psyche today. Up and up, till I reached the Library Chowk, awash in all its morning glory – deserted. That was new. I had booked us into what promised to be a lush experience in woody British charm – Ilbert Manor. But standing at the Library Chowk end, beside a narrow alley, we just couldn’t locate any pointers. They came to usher us in to our stay – to our utter surprise, through that very alley – a steep decline with sharp bends; they made us wonder if we’d have believed a car could be negotiated on those bends had we not seen it ourselves.
Ilbert Manor has a history of its own. The manor, built in 1840 by a Britisher, passed down to Lord Ilbert, the law member in whose name the controversial Ilbert Bill, 1883 had been passed. Precisely what drew us here – some history. Some hills. And a few walks.
The rich Oriental interiors, with its high ceilings and antique lanterns and massive murals spoke grandeur. I threw open the massive windows that looked out onto the valley below, as a cold mist entered the room. Each room has a special trait – each’s been named after some known British personality. I found mine to be named after Edinburgh Alfred Earnest Albert – the man who “planted a cypress tree in the Landour cemetery in February 1870, and took back Mussoorie’s famous walking sticks too!”
We began our ascent. The sun beat down more than we’d expected. But we pushed on. Past the street-side confectionery shops of Mall Road, past the boiled egg wallahs, and the innumerable stalls hawking overcoats alongside the very arrogant-looking showrooms. We wound our way towards what we sought.
Leaving behind the clamour and cacophony of the Mall Road of Mussoorie, we came upon this road that nudged us over an increasing incline gradually. It ushered us through a little market that had mushroomed around the road and beyond. The houses peering over onto that street tantalised my senses. They had seen the generations here, the development, or the lack of it, the plight of the Landour Market abutting the stylish Mussoorie, like a sibling ignored into penury, a constant state of struggle. Leaving behind the genuine Landour Market, we walked past until we came upon this antique shop. I had never been able to drag myself past that shop. Not even this time. That would be blasphemy. So I stopped. For that was the only option.
There was so much I remembered from my visits in the past, and yet things new as well had taken up their coveted spaces on rusty shelves. There was so much I yearned to own – but just so much I could afford! Promising to step in on my hike back, I left, with a word under my breath.
We almost crossed another joint – the Clock Tower Cafe. Its shady front almost drives us away but my parched throat forced us to enter for a drink. I’d have rued had I missed it. A delightfully done up cafe with a vibrance that’s infectious, the cafe warms you – soul up! Graffitti on all the walls draws your attention as much as the decor and the customer profile. The energy literally bounces off the wall. We settled in for a scrumptious and yet light salad and a drink. Taking up the only corner by the window overlooking the Silver Oak forest, and a meandering road below through the lush misty mountainside, we lapped up each moment in that cafe. That was when I saw dried brown leaves floating up from the valley below towards the sky right across the window through which I stared. A magical vision. As I turned to check, I found myself to be the only one witnessing the phenomenon. For a moment I almost rushed to point it out to him. But then I simply settled back and soaked it in.
Soon, the quaint little square – more like a triangle – Char Dukan was upon us. A piping hot cinnamon pancake with maple syrup poured lusciously all over it – that was my ritualistic sin whenever I came visiting here at the Tip Top Tea Shop.
Who could hike past those tempting wafts? A wooden garden table set and a friendly dog completed the experience. Abutted by the St. Pauls’ Church (that I disappointingly found closed yet again as the Reverend had apparently gone off to officiate the wedding of some villager close by!) on one side, and a peaceful trail towards Lal Tibba on the other, the place has a youthful charm.
The sky turned a darker hue of orange and I became aware of a sudden dip in temperature. In the hills, it becomes windy without warning. A hot day had ensured we carried nothing warm to shield ourselves. Good.
The walk downhill in the waning sun made for a sensuous experience that gave me goosebumps all the way down to my warm hotel room at Ilbert Manor.