GG News Bureau
Mussoorie, 30th May. Scholars, historians, and people from all walks of life have begun extending birthday wishes not in person but through social media and other electronic means to wish Bill Aitken, Mussoorie’s own author and columnist of Scottish descent Bill Aitken who will turn 87 on Monday.
Santanu Sarkar, the trustee of Winterline trust a wildlife enthusiast and publisher who divides his time between Mussoorie and Delhi, extending his birthday wishes said that the denizens are gearing up to celebrate the birthday of William McKay Aitken, the pride of Mussoorie, known to one and all as Bill Sahib. His 87th birthday, just 12 days after his decades-long friend Ruskin Bond also turned 87.
The amazing life journey of Bill Sahib (as so many in Mussoorie call him) is quite well documented, especially after his 1972 arrival in Mussoorie, in a time when Tehri Road was (mostly) just a gravel bridle path. Having put down permanent roots in Mussoorie, he has since been a pillar of the literary and cultural life of Uttarakhand, even as his fans can be found across India, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and from Gujarat to Arunachal. And indeed, among the vast Indian and Anglo-Indian diasporas, not to mention among the countless who attended Woodstock School in Landour, said Sarkar.
Bill Aitken who still lives in “Oakless”, has worn many hats, each with aplomb (though his favourite hat remains his handmade felt-rimmed Pahari topi, worn by so many in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Nepal. The polymathic Aitken can be accurately described as many things – writer, diarist, explorer, adventurer, trekker, mountaineer, wanderer, motorcyclist, historian, spiritual seeker and even an early conservationist, in that he warned presciently in the 1970s about the dangers of over-development in the fragile Himalaya. Those blessed to have known Aitken in person also know him as a witty raconteur, walking encyclopedia, gracious host and connoisseur of tea (especially the native teas of Garhwal and Kumaon), and of certain much stronger fluids as well (not surprising for a Scot). Firmly rooted in Mussoorie, he has not visited Scotland since 1997 though he remains close to his beloved sisters via regular voice calls over the Internet.
Bill was born on a late spring day in 1934 in faraway Scotland, into a solid Presbyterian Christian family in the sleepy small town of Tullibody in the county of Clackmannanshire on the eastern Scottish coast, facing the North Sea. He came into this world on the 31st of May, just after the full moon of Buddha Purnima. As the sweep of his adult life would show, that may have been a sign of things to come. Growing up in a contented middle-class home with three siblings, two younger sisters and an older brother, the boy did not show any early signs of leaving Scottish shores. Few of his immediate relatives had done so, even though as a people Scots have emigrated far and wide and contributed tremendously to the world. (Indeed, many sociologists say that Scots are perhaps the most successful emigré community in the world over the past three centuries.)
As a boy, he had a normal childhood, as much as any child could have in Great Britain during World War II, which broke out when he was 5 and ended when he was 11. Certain foodstuffs and household essentials were in short supply due to wartime rationing, but the lethal German Luftwaffe spared the bucolic county of Clackmannanshire, where the boy was raised since there was nothing worth bombing in the area. Indeed, the local children avoided most of the horrors of the war, though they did notice that most of the menfolk had gone away — to fight in the war. Some did not return. But most local schools remained open and even sport continued, to some extent. Some locals even continued to play golf, which in Scotland (unlike in England or India) was very much a game of the working man. The boy’s older brother was indeed brilliant at sports, going on to represent Scotland in athletics.
But by the time he was a teenager, after the war, being intellectually curious he began to feel some stirrings and the pull within himself of the mystical Orient. More to the point, the restless teenager felt the pull of Eastern spirituality, especially of both Hinduism and Buddhism. For one thing, he announced to his surprised family that he was becoming a vegetarian when still in his mid-teens. (This, in a land where red meat is a key element in the cuisine — be it beef, lamb or mutton, with much seafood as well, given that the family lived on the coast.) This made him the only vegetarian in his town.
A few years later, as his restlessness and his interest in Eastern spirituality both grew (he had already read all the books on Hinduism and Buddhism most of the county’s libraries), he would go on to formally study Comparative Religion at the University of Leeds in England’s grimy industrial North East, having earlier attended high school in Birmingham. He was the first student from his county to study Comparative Religion at the university level. Ultimately, his life journey would quite naturally pull him, in 1959, to India. His overland journey by bus (with some tense if not dangerous moments on the way) took him to Calcutta, the erstwhile capital of both British India and British Asia. He arrived via Istanbul, Damascus, Baghdad and Lahore, along the fabled “hippie trail”.
None too long after arriving in India, he unselfconsciously embraced Hinduism, or perhaps Hinduism embraced him. After a year-long sojourn teaching English in Calcutta (which then still had over 30,000 Europeans, mostly Britons), his spiritual quest and his wanderlust took him on a first to Assam on a satyagraha, and later to Uttarakhand. Back then, of course, these were the hill districts of Garhwal and Kumaon, within U.P. After many years in an ashram in Mirtola near Almora in Kumaon, where he met his spiritual guru. Bill AITKEN first visited Mussoorie in 1969. He came in the company of the love of his life, a gracious, singularly dignified lady of royal birth who owned stately home in the hill station.
The lady’s elegant home, known as “Oakless”, enjoyed a sweeping view of the majestic Doon Valley and the Shivalik Hills, and – on a clear day – a bonus view of the glistening Yamuna as well, far away on the Western horizon. The lady had been a disciple of the same guru, in the same ashram near Almora, and indeed she was verily a widowed dowager Maharani. Further, she was an equestrienne of repute, among her many talents and gifts. The Maharani would invite him to live permanently in Mussoorie in 1972, appointing him as her private secretary. Their loving bond with one another would span over four decades until her 2010 passing.
As to his many books, of which quite a few remain in print, they are truly treasured by his readers. Out-of-print editions are still sold online by collectors. Moreover, he has trod his own literary path too, as he has done in every aspect of his life. His motorcycling books “Riding the Ranges (1997) and “Divining the Deccan” (1999) have fired the imaginations of bikers the nation over. They were India’s first-ever “biking books”. Royal Enfield may not admit it, but Aitken’s writings may well have sold lakhs of “Bullet” bikes. Aitken himself continued to ride his cherished pair of Enfield bikes well into his 70s until his knees could not take it anymore. Equally, Aitken’s books on India’s railways including “Travels by a Lesser Line” (1993) and “Branch Line to Eternity” (2001) have provoked countless readers into riding the rails across India, even tourists who can easily afford to take flights instead. These were India’s first-ever modern-era books on railway adventures, and surely influenced the BBC, Discovery, and other TV channels to make their various much-watched series on India’s railways. Would the Rail Ministry admit their debt to Aitken? Moreover, would the hoteliers and innkeepers of both Kumaon and Garhwal acknowledge their debts to Aitken, whose many writings have surely drawn lakhs of tourists to Uttarakhand, or perhaps even more.
Gopal Bharadwaj, a writer and historian says who met Bill Aitken three months ago extending birthday wishes to Bill said that he is the most humble man in the town and is an inspiration to the young and old alike.
“Most writers like to measure ‘success’ by the number of copies sold, but Aitken’s influence goes well beyond that. He has changed the behaviours and beliefs of his legion of fans. Any writer who does less than that is purveying cheap infotainment and ‘timepass’ pulp, not literature. I see such lesser authors as self-promoting businessfolk, not as real Writers. Bill Sahib is, without exaggeration, a living legend.” Said Bhardwaj.
The only thing that comes to mind that I can say to Bill Sahib, with much pride and affection, on his 87th birthday is “What an innings, Sir Ji! Says Santanu Sarkar.