Letter from Bill Aitken

Legend has it that once a lady journalist for an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez turned up at the appointed hour when the author was about to step out with his wife on some errands. The writer asked her to join them. When they got back, the interviewer approached him for the promised interview. The writer replied that he had already given it to her. He further said that journalism was probably not meant for her and that she would do well looking for some other job.

From the year 2007 till 2012 consecutively, I travelled to Mussoorie to be a part of the audience at the writers’ festival there, and quite by chance found author Bill Aitken by my side most of the times. In the late afternoons, when the fest would usually give over, we would climb up some lower ridge slopes, sit at out-of-the-way places by the hillside, sip tea, or have ice cream from a well-known store run by a friendly and amiable native called Prakash.

At such times, I could not play my tape recorder nor take any notes. But I hung on to every word he said and wrote an article based on our conversation in story format (published in the Sunday Statesman supplement) because I could remember only fragments of the exact words Bill used, and so decided against going for the Paris Review format. Since then, Bill, who usually keeps interviewers at arm’s length, granted me access a few times to his abode in the hills and elsewhere for heart-to-heart exchanges.

That distant day, from Woodstock, the venue of the fest, he took a shortcut, me accompanying, to Sisters’ Bazaar, and then on to Char Dukan, where we sat to gorge on dosa and honey lemon tea. When I asked him about his newest book, he kept quiet for a while and then said with a tinge of melancholy that it was to be his memoir which he wrote and worked on with his publisher. But just as it was ready to go out into the world, he had a change of mind and decided not to go ahead with it. I did not proceed further.

I first met Bill at his then New Delhi retreat. It was sheer madness on my part, for I had no appointment, nor did I know his exact address. It was one of the miracles of my life that the knock on his gates did not go unanswered. After that meeting, I kept seeking his company for no other reason than to listen to his effortless, charming, and magical way of talking. Conversing with him I got the impression that he could pin down any human experience in the most expressive way possible.

Almost a decade and a half have gone by since I met him last. He is now 88. Recently, responding to my mail enquiring about his health, he wrote: “Mussoorie’s oft-quoted claim of possessing more writers to the square meter than anywhere else may soon be dented. Ruskin Bond, Hugh Gantzer, and I are all in our eighties and approaching the shelf-life expiry date.”

I replied immediately: “Mussoorie is like Shangri-La – the mythical town in the Kunlun Mountains in Tibet – where realized souls can live up to a hundred and more. Some breathing technique does the trick. Hugh Conway is such a wondrous creation of James Hilton.”
But Bill, like always, had the last laugh: “I agree Hilton created a character in a million, but Hugh Conway is more of a literary wonder than respiratory.”

First published in The Statesman

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