Mussoorie only had about three cars that year , all owned by doctors, and there may have been a taxi or two. There were rickshaws, but hand-drawn, and sometimes, on steep ascents, you needed three people to pull one. The rickshaw pullers were poor men from the villages of Tehri Garhwal, who continued to make a precarious living in this way till hand-drawn rickshaws were abolished in the 1970s and the men were given cycle rickshaws.
But you used rickshaws only if you were in a hurry, or had a medical emergency. Or if the distance to cover was considerable, or if you had a load too heavy to carry. Mostly you walked.
Two or three times a week I would walk into town, to visit the Allahabad Bank, the post office, and the bookshop, occasionally stopping at Kwality’s for a coffee or a snack. By mid-November the main town would be deserted. If it snowed, youngsters trudged up from Rajpur to revel in snow-fights on the Mall, but no one stayed overnight. The few people who had nowhere to go would ask me why I wasn’t going anywhere for the winter. Even old Miss Bean went away for a month, to the YWCA in Dehradun.
Winter or summer or rain, I was happy to write or laze in my rooms, or to step out and take a path, any path, and follow it till it led to a forest glade or stream or hilltop. I liked walking at night. There would be no one else about at that hour, except the odd drunk who usually needed guidance, and as I always had time on my hands, I would help him find his way home. But for that, my walks were solitary, quite peaceful and pleasant.
No one ever bothered me, neither man nor beast.
I was conscious all the time of the silent life in the surrounding trees and bushes, and on the road. I smelt a leopard on a couple of occasions, but did not see it. I felt the warmth of a body very close behind me, but when I turned there was no one.
Sometimes the silence was broken: jackals barked and howled in the distance; a nightjar announced itself with a loud grating sound, like a whiplash cutting the air. A little scops owl, which spoke only in monosyllables, said “Wow”, softly but with great deliberation. He would then continue to say “Wow” every other minute for several hours throughout the night.
Or there would be a rustling overhead and I would look up to see a flying squirrel glide from the top of one deodar tree to another. (On a moonlit night, it was a beautiful scene.)
And sometimes I stood and stared. Because far above the trees, streams of stars were overlapping in the sky. If I was lucky, I also caught the wash and glow of the Milky Way.
A solitary man, I met solitary people. Fleeting encounters.
One evening I wandered much further down the Tehri road than I had intended to, and by the time I returned, it was very late. Some lights still twinkled on the hills, but shopfronts in the old Landour Bazaar were shuttered and silent. The people living on either side of the narrow street could hear my footsteps, perhaps, or they might have been asleep, for it was a cold night; doors and windows were shut. A three-quarter moon was up, and the tin roofs of the bazaar, drenched with dew, glistened in the moonlight.
The rickshaw stand was deserted. A jackal slunk across the road like a thief or an adulterer. A field rat wriggled through a hole in a rotting plank, on its nightly foray among sacks of grain and pulses.
As I passed along the deserted street, under the shadow of the clock tower, I saw a boy huddled in a recess, a thin shawl wrapped around his shoulders. He was awake and shivering. He was aware of my presence, but he did not look up at me; he continued to shiver, and I passed by, my thoughts already on the warmth of the little cottage. Until something stopped me – it wasn’t anything I had seen in his face, there wasn’t light enough for that. I think it was the fact that he hadn’t looked up – he was resigned to his abandonment; he expected nothing at all from the world.
I walked back to the shadows where the boy was crouched. He didn’t say anything when I sat down next to him, but this time he did look up, puzzled and a little apprehensive, ready to shrink away or even to beg forgiveness for a crime he hadn’t committed. I could tell from his features that he had come from the hills beyond Tehri. He had come here looking for work and he was yet to find any.
“Have you somewhere to stay?” I asked. He shook his head; but something about my tone of voice gave him confidence, because now there was a glimmer of hope, a friendly appeal in his eyes.
“If you can walk some way,” I offered, “I can give you a bed and blanket.”
He got up immediately – a thin boy, wearing only a shirt and a pyjama. He wrapped his thin shawl around himself and followed me without any hesitation.
He had trusted me. I couldn’t now fail to trust him.
So now there were two in the sleeping moonlit bazaar. I glanced up at the tall, packed, haphazard houses. They seemed to lean towards each other for warmth and companionship.
The boy walked silently beside me. He was a quiet one. Soon we were out of the bazaar and on the footpath. The mountains loomed over us. And although no creature of the forest had ever harmed me, I was glad to have a companion walking next to me.
In the morning, I gave him hot water for a bath. He made us tea, I brought out some old buns, and we made a breakfast of these. Then he went away. It was only later that it occurred to me I could have offered to take him on as a cook or bearer. I didn’t have the income to pay him a respectable salary, but he wouldn’t have starved, and he would have had a place to stay, while he looked for something more suitable.
But something about him, and the circumstances of our meeting, prevented me from doing that. It seemed to me that an act of charity, or anything transactional, would have ruined whatever it was that had brought us briefly together. Perhaps he had felt the same, because I never saw him again.
Excerpted with permission from Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography, Ruskin Bond, Speaking Tiger.