Joys of Being Alive

Whenever in Mussoorie, Bill and I walk the talk, mostly. At the end of any lit-meet or get-together he usually lingers a while absorbing the ambiance before making the move, and I catch him on the trot.

Bill Aitken is an artist everybody wants to be with. Totally uncontroversial, he has no desire to out-do anyone. He does not hold any malice or grudge towards anyone. He has actually become a part of the Garhwal Mountains—serene, accessible yet distant. The only thing he can’t stand is ‘small talk’.

It’s fascinating to watch Bill in conversation with the native pahadi people. Every shopkeeper, big or small, takes him as one of their own. He has this gift in him to spread cheer in a quiet way wherever he is. And this anand, this divine bliss (which he attained by dint of meditation for years in an Almora ashram), has not left him even after a series of personal tragedy that struck him recently: His partner Rani-ma passed away; his Guru Satya Sai Baba too passed on; he broke his hip-bone which had to be replaced.

When I expressed my concern in a letter, Bill responded immediately: “One has been very blessed to be born in the lifetime of Sai Baba. His siddhi of arousing love was the greatest thing I have witnessed in life … Rani-Ma passed away from liver failure. It would have been terrible for her to have to live without her Guru Sai … I feel bad at losing such a firm ally in my hip bone and feel some form of mourning for a dear and valued if skeletal friend who contributed so much in my travels …” Bill is fully cured now, and able to walk normally.

I, however, got smitten with another god-given quality of Bill. Every word he utters touches me. They are often freshly coined, and they are always precise and sonorous, and not at all pedantic or ostentatious. It’s a quality that endears him to all.

Ruskin Bond and Bill Aitken, born in the same year, are very close to each other. Bill is always very enthusiastic talking about the achievements of Bond. “Ruskin Bond is an institution, a celebrity. People make great demands on his time. Ruskin, despite his gout problem, makes it a point every weekend to walk down to the Cambridge Book Depot to meet students and the passionate readers of his books. Way back to Ivy cottage (Bond’s residence at Lanour) he gets into his car. Ruskin is deservedly a rich man now. Owns a few cars. We don’t get to meet as often as we’d like to. The phone often goes dead. The weather fluctuates. Ruskin and I are terrible on the phone! So due to bad weather we can’t meet as often as we are inclined to.”

His guru Satya Saibaba is no more. It’s Saibaba who wanted Rani-Ma (Maharani of Jind) and Bill (Biographer of Saibaba) to live together.

“Saibaba’s greatness lies beyond the grave. Rumi said: ‘Follow the path of love. That’s the only way, the best way, the direct way to get to God.’ Look at the picture of Kali-Ma. She is standing on Shiva. She looks angry. But you look at the expression of Shiva’s face. It’s anand. He’s looking realised. You let the woman teach you things that nobody else can. To Rani-Ma, Saibaba was God. Saibaba told me: ‘If you love this lady, let her be your Guru’.

Rani-Ma had a wonderful equation with Saibaba. He also loved her because she was a free soul. To most of Saibaba’s devotees the Guru was essentially above them and far away. Rani-Ma had got some Romanian blood, some foreign blood. She was much more independent minded. So she had the courage to tell Saibaba: ‘Baba I love you. You’re my beloved.’ Most devotees would feel this very unconventional: talking to the divine in familiar terms. She loved him just as woman would a man. Saibaba used to be surrounded by what seemed to be sycophants. But she was refreshing, warmly human. That’s why I fell in love with her. She was a wonderfully feminine person, very free and non-intellectual.”

The cottage that Bill now lives in belonged to Rani-Ma. Presently it has three trustees. Bill is one of them. During his lifetime, Bill will have the right to live here. Then the ownership will automatically pass on to the hands of other trustees. Some people thought that he had made a mess of the deal. He could have had the cottage registered in his name, and then he could have made a couple of crores by selling it! But what’s the point, Bill wonders. Penniless you come into the world and penniless you must go out. You can’t take anything away with you when the call comes!

Bill has this exemplary habit of buying books of authors coming to Mussoorie. He then gets the books autographed. When he finishes reading these books, he gifts them away to others. He also reads my articles now and then. Here’s the note he sent me on the interview of David Davidar published in The Sunday Statesman on Nov’06, 2011:

“An excellent interview badly overdue to set the record straight regarding the unfair treatment meted out to David (Davidar) by those envious of his talents. As you say the support of those who knew him in India never wavered and I never doubted there was professional envy at work to try and undermine his success. The rebound from setting him up at Frankfurt has been the best thing that could happen for literature in India …”

Bill now finds it hard to remember names and faces. They sometime ring a distant bell, but that’s what happens to everyone as the age inexorably takes its toll. Bill, however, still continues to travel tricky mountain trails. Recently he had been to Kedarnath and Badrinath. At first he took the horse up but then got down and went on foot, although it was jarring to his knees. There was terrible jam at Badrinath.

Roads were being widened and levelled there. “Why do you need a car here”? He wondered.

Bill has been staying here at Mussoorie since decades now, but the magic and wonder of the place has never left him. It’s here he has found the joys of just being alive. The swathe of verdant green, the profusion of periwinkle, cosmos, iris and geranium draping the body of the mountains, the lingering stillness that caresses you as you trudge uphill, the lovely native people, and, of course, the writing fraternity here—they all lift his spirit as nothing else can. Although the ranges look somewhat ‘slummy’ because too many constructions have come up, his salvation, he deeply feels, lies here.

Bill did not start out to be a writer. In quest of his secret self, he explored the sacred mountaintops, the mysterious deserts, and, went on pilgrimage wherever the Indian branch line led him to. Writing came to him almost as a by-product.

First published in The Statesman

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