Minha stood in front of me. Surrounded by her parents, and standing close to her baby brother’s pram, she waited in anticipation for the writer who had written her favourite story. In her arms was a colourful hard-bound book, eagerly waiting for Mussourie’s most famous resident to sign it for her. She held it close to her, as if she wanted to hug every word within its pages.
She wasn’t alone.
When we arrived at the book shop, an hour ahead of scheduled time, the queue was already 15 people long. It was the Saturday before Easter, and the hill-town was brimming with tourists from all over the country, and the world.
“We were planning to return to Delhi by 10 this morning,” said Minha’s mother. “But this little one was quite insistent upon meeting Ruskin Bond. And so, here we are.”
“If we wouldn’t have lingered on at the restaurant for the second parantha, we’d have been at the beginning of the queue,” Minha’s father playfully teased her.
“Minha read this story, The Cherry Tree. And in it, she read that Ruskin Bond lives in Mussourie. She’s been wanting to meet him ever since.”
Ruskin Bond planted his Cherry Tree several decades ago. As it grew, it delighted him. He shared his delight with his readers, and they loved every word of it. His words delighted me. And they continue to delight young readers like Minha.
In that little girl standing in front of me, I saw a reflection of myself. I must have been about her age too, when I harboured the dream of meeting Mr. Bond, because of those lines in every book I read, “He now lives with his adopted family in Landour, Mussourie.”
But my reflection ended at precisely 3:30 pm, just as a vehicle pulled up beside us. Even as Minha’s mother excitedly pulled out her phone to snap a close-up picture of the writer now amidst us, I stood dumbstruck.
He waved and acknowledged his fans and then disappeared into the bookshop. Minha had the biggest smile on her face, as she peered into her mother’s phone. Her mother, in turn looked at me with excitement, and then exclaimed, “Oh come on! Don’t cry, yaar!”
Tears rolling down my cheeks, I tried to hide my face from the young girl. “Keep it together, there’s a little girl in front of you – what will she think,” I repeatedly told myself. Minha smiled innocently, but something told me she wasn’t judging me. And I silently thanked her for it.
Within a few short minutes, my twenty-year old wait ended.
“I remember this… It’s one of the earlier covers.”
In Mr. Bond’s hands was my favourite book – which had been in our house ever since I can remember.
For over twenty years, it has been my dream to meet Mr. Ruskin Bond, to tell him how much his writing has meant to me; how I read and reread the stories in the book “The night train at Deoli”.
And yet, when the time came to express my sheer joy and excitement at meeting my hero, I struggled to contain my tears. I simultaneously smiled and choked. Eventually I stammered the words, “this book is as old as I am.”
Mr. Bond held the book; my book; my family’s book; his book. He recognised the old cover and said, “You have preserved it well.”
After he had signed the book, I meekly placed the other old book I had brought with me: The Children’s Omnibus. It was one of the first books I asked my parents to buy for me, when I was about 10 years old. And I remember the sequence of events surrounding that purchase: the Scholastic mail order form, choosing the books, the anticipation, and receiving the books in class.
Mr. Bond pointed to his portrait on the yellowing cover of the book and said, “I was much slimmer then!” And then we burst out laughing. I felt a little bit at ease.
There was a long queue of fans waiting to get their turn. I couldn’t hog his time for long. Mr. Bond returned the signed books and said, “I can’t initial or write messages…” I would like to believe he wanted to write me a comforting message. I’ll never know.
That night I cried my heart out. And continue to cry every time I think about it – even now. I cannot explain these fits of crying – except perhaps as an indication of immeasurable joy, that is too much to comprehend without being overwhelmed.
But I also wonder, are these tears of regret? The things I wish I had spoken about – how much I adored his stories; how much his style of writing influenced me; how, like him, I loved nature, and walking, and collecting feathers and stones and coins and seashells… instead I stammered and stuttered.
Today, as Mr. Bond turns eighty five years young, he is launching yet another book. The whole town will, no doubt, be there to wish him. I wonder, if I were there today, would I be able express my gratitude to him? Highly unlikely.