“I’m a traveller who writes not a writer who travels.” -Bill Aitken. In conversation with the Scottish-born Himalayan Writer.

Bill Aitken

Heart of Conservation Podcast Ep#19 (Edited show notes)

Bill Aitken, at his home in Mussoorie, India.

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode 19 of Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep you connected with our natural world. Today I am speaking to a dear friend and hillside neighbour, who I have long admired for his travel writing, his wit, and his take on life. He is William McKay Aitken (Bill Aitken). Bill was born in Scotland, hitchhiked to India across Europe in the 1950s, and stayed on to become a naturalized Indian citizen. Drawn by his love for the Himalayan mountains and rivers, and the plateaus of India, Bill has written extensively about them. He’s authored over a dozen books including the Nanda Devi Affair, Seven Sacred Rivers, Footloose in the Himalaya, Divining the Deccan, Exploring Indian Railways, Riding the Ranges: Travels on My Motorcycle, to name a few.

Lalitha Krishnan: Bill thank you so much for being a guest on the Heart of Conservation Podcast. I just re-read Footloose in the Himalaya. I last read it when it was published in… 2003, right?

Bill Aitken: 2003, the last book I wrote.

Lalitha Krishnan: And now that I live in Landour, it sounds, you know, more familiar than it did when I read it back in Ranikhet. You have crisscrossed India on your feet, your bike, by Indian rail, and looking at some of your book titles each of these travels seemed like their own literary pilgrimage so to speak.

Bill Aitken:  Quiet, yeah.

Lalitha Krishnan: So, do you always know in advance what you going to write about the places you visit and does that somehow, you know, alter your experiences, does it make you more conscious?

Bill Aitken: Absolutely, unless you do your homework, you can bypass, you know, fabulous sites then when you get back home, to your chagrin you read about this place and if you haven’t read about it local people will always give you their own version of things. So, I remember in North Karnataka, I was looking for the village of this literary saint of Karnataka, Basaveshwara. I knew the village pretty well where he was reputed to have, you know, built up a following and I asked some villagers is this the place. They said, ”nahi hai”. They were of the opposite party, you know. He was a brahmin who had given up the sacred thread so he’s loathed by the Orthodox, so I mean, if I hadn’t done my homework but even then I’d stupidly believed them and I just sailed through. This is life, I think the most important thing for a traveler is to be distrustful of directions, just double check triple check.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sometimes asking for directions doesn’t help as I discovered today.

Bill Aitken: The most important thing for a traveller is to be distrustful of directions. Just double check, triple check.

Lalitha Krishnan: I am quoting you now from one your books, “the price you pay for living in the mountains is having to prefer your own two feet” so  90% of the time that I’ve met you by chance, is while you are going out on your walks. At 86, you walk and you walk twice a day. That’s despite, you know

Bill Aitken: Except for the last month whenI had an allergy of the leg.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Tell me about your love for walking and if it’s connected to nature.

Bill Aitken: Yeah absolutely, I think it’s the only place I mean ,the only place that you can really recollect nature, you know, when you’re walking under your feet every season different color of flowers, tiny flowers, and any speed more than walking, even jogging, you’re just going to miss these sort of unexpected beauties.

Lalitha Krishnan: I was looking at some of your old videos and in your interview with Ted Henry, I think, about your book ‘Sri Sathya Sai Baba – a Life’, you speak about the madness for the divine. You have done your share of, pardon my saying, the eat-pray-love sort of rite of passage before it was even fashionable. You spent time with Sarla Behn, previously Catherine Mary Heilman, in a Gandhian school and spent a few years in the Mirtola Ashram that is Guru Krishna Prem, previously Ronald Henry Nixon and his successor Shri Madhav Ashish, previously Alexander Phipps. What drew you to them and how did these experiences…

Bill Aitken: I had come across Sri Krishna Prem when in India House Library in London. I was doing this research for MA thesis on Mahatma Gandhi and this book by Krishna Prem, I’ve got it here, ‘Commentary on the Kathopnishad’ and he said, he started off by saying “procul este profani” that’s the Latin for ‘begone academics’ – bhago bhago – profane. He said you will never understand the meaning of life if you’re an academic, academics are overgrown schoolboys – afraid to face the world. So, I was hoping to be a budding academic so I threw this book aside in disgust. Then for my MA, the external examiner happened to be someone who knew Krishna Prem, a Bengali visiting fellow Durham(?) University and thanks to him I passed otherwise if it had been Angrez, he would have failed me because they were all missionaries who had no time for anything Hinduism. So then, this Bengali guy, he said, “if you ever go to India you must meet this Sri Krishna Prem, he lives in an ice cave”. Ha, Ha!… I thought 7000 feet, you know, sounds a bit unlikely. Anyway, I did meet Krishna Prem and he guided me to Sarla Devi’s Ashram in Kausani where I stayed for four years, sort of toughening up on the village life, bathing in cold water.

Lalitha Krishnan: Better than an ice cave, perhaps not warmer than a library haha.

Lalitha Krishnan: How did it influence you? Do you want to talk about these experiences, Mirtola, Kausani, these three people.

Bill Aitken: What happened was, you know, what really, I mean, turned my life around was I had hitchhiked to India and spent the 50 pounds I had started with. Reached Calcutta so I had to get a job teaching to pay for the onward fare, there was no road beyond Calcutta. I had to get a boat to Penang so I had to get a job teaching. When I was teaching I joined the Asiatic Society and I went in there one day and just happened casually looking at some books and I came across this particular book Nanda Devi by Eric Shipton and this book totally stunned me, knocked me over and I came out of that library no longer wanting to go around the world, just to see this mountain.

Lalitha Krishnan: So a lot of writers are disciplined, they say they are disciplined and have a routine but, you know, for your book, ‘Travels by a Lesser Line’ published in 1993, you travel to 14 states by train by for about two months or so and you reached the four corners, if you can call it that, of India and for your book ‘Nanda Devi Affair’ you rode long days on your bike carrying your typewriter along. I mean, I just can’t imagine, I mean, it sounds like a write-on-the-go adventure – people pay for those sort of things – sounds so exhausting. So why not a pen and a diary, I am just curious what you were thinking- about your writing process.

Bill Aitken: I had a travel column for the Delhi Statesman, so I reckon that the only way that I enjoy travel columns is if the remarks were sort of fresh, hot, you know, on the hoof. So every day… I would only do 200 km in a day, that was my maximum, otherwise, you get too pooped, you know, and if you have a drink at night to recover then you are totally gaga, you’re knocked out, so I had to keep this balance, you know, stay sober but also recollect and so the day’s journeys I would type out every evening, to get the fresh impressions.

Lalitha Krishnan: Why did you carry your typewriter along?

Bill Aitken: How else to record it? I mean, if you write a thing longhand and then write it up three weeks later when you get back, all the impressions have gone, the lively impression are what you actually felt on that ride nah, you have to get it down, fresh from the oven – garam garam.

Lalitha Krishnan: Writing is not easy, I think you made it harder for yourself.

Bill Aitken: No! I’ve always had the opposite, you know because if I correct anything, I will always write something entirely new, and then when I correct that I will revert it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Edit, edit, edit.

Bill Aitken: No, totally different, you know, I just have this sort of, you know, writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s cramp.

Lalitha Krishnan: So, you would type it all and then he would take it back and post it.

Bill Aitken: Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: I know this is a question you get asked a lot but for aspiring writers of nature travel – what will you tell them to do or not do?

Bill Aitken: It depends entirely on your relationship with nature. If you really have the passion – woh apnay aap – you know, things will happen and it will work out for you, but if you’re sort of, you know, borrowing others wisdom, you probably won’t find it, you’ll find it uphill. I also find, you know, the whole vocabulary of this ‘Back to nature movement’, I mean – environment – what a stupid word, you know? I mean there is nothing real about ‘forest conservator’. What does it mean, you know? You should be guardian, you know. You guard the trees with your life. Who gives a hoot for trees? In Mirtola, we had a gurubhai called Jagdish Nautiyal. Brilliant guy. He went to America, he went to Canada rather, he won the gold medal and they said “please stay, we will appoint you professor”. And he said, “no, I’m a desh bhakt. I’m going back to the Forest Department”. He was as a junior in Almora district when he got back his fellow officers were so jealous, they sent him back to the old posting and he said “FU! I’m going back to Canada” and he’s a professor. I mean Hindustan mein, you know, the crab syndrome.

So, it is very hard to give advice because we’re all different, you know, some enter with their soul, others enter with their mind. For me, as I say it was a religious experience at Nanda Devi totally, you know, altered my destiny. Otherwise, I was going around the world, thinking I go back to England and, you know, lecture. Didn’t happen because if I was just, you know, hooked by this mountain. (Pointing to photograph of Nanda Devi). Here she is. And not everyone is going to be hooked.

Lalitha Krishnan: Not everyone is going to be hooked. I also wonder if, you know, for people who want to be writers, whether there are the habits to cultivate….

Bill Aitken: Look I have to plead of being a phony writer, I’m not like Ruskin, you know? Every day I was born to write, you know? Or Hugh and Colleen, you know? Or Steve, you know? They are writers I’m not you know? I’m basically someone who enjoys traveling and writing about it.

Lalitha Krishnan: You write when you are inspired.

Bill Aitken: I’m a traveler who writes not a writer who travels.

Lalitha Krishnan: I get it.

Bill Aitken: Since Prithvi passed away, I haven’t written, you know.

Lalitha Krishnan: You haven’t travelled either, have you travelled?

Bill Aitken: Exactly, but also, you know, I sort of… because I was a partner to this very exalted Maharani, I had to, you know, everyone just assumed I was a toy boy and I had to as it were do something so I started writing but I don’t have that – as I say like Ruskin is. I’m a bhakt of Nanda Devi, he’s a bhakt of the muse of literature, you know, he must write, it is his dharam.

Lalitha Krishnan: To each his own…

Bill Aitken: Absolutely, that’s why I say I can’t give advice to writers because I wouldn’t know where to begin. If you enjoy it, do it. I enjoy writing also and like many writers for example Sir V. S. Naipaul, he says “I have never read anything I have written”. I love my writing, I go back to it every day, I laugh, you know haha…

Lalitha Krishnan: I was going to ask you about your friendship with Ruskin Bond, both being here a long time, I know you are really good friends.

Bill Aitken: Ruskin was my neighbor here. So, I when I first came to Mussoorie he was very helpful and he appointed – he was an editor for ‘Imprint’ sort of like ‘Reader’s Digest’ sort of stuff and he appointed me his Assistant Rejections Editor because he was so kind-hearted he couldn’t find it in himself to reject. Even if the English were bad, if it had feeling he’d say “chalne dho”. So, I was an Assistant Rejections Editor. I also couldn’t reject because when people write with feeling who gives a hoot about the grammar? We had this Superintendent of police who was going to write a book called ‘India Good Everybody King’ which when you think of it is brilliant – how true. Everybody’s an archaic king, do your thing brother, yeh Hindustan hai. Anyway, I was always rejecting these and Ruskin said “no, no, no, he is the Superintendent of police”.

Lalitha Krishnan: We have so many writers on the hillside Hugh & Colleen Gantzer, Stephen Alter, Ganesh Saili. Why do you think – is it just a coincidence?

Bill Aitken: I’ve no idea, I have no idea. I can’t – I think partly Mussoorie is near to Delhi, halfway between Badrinath and Delhi, you know, and it’s also got, you know, quite a good educational crowd so I suppose it’s…. but I don’t really know but what I do know is everybody I speak to who comes to Landour is hooked: “I want to come again”. Why?

Lalitha Krishnan: I think it’s the air. Seeing a blue sky…

Bill Aitken: An actual forest of deodar and the and the peace and quiet…

Lalitha Krishnan: You were fortunate to meet Dr. Salim Ali and E R Hawkins. what was he like, I’m just curious, you know, and…

Bill Aitken: (Commenting on the book) Bombay centenary seminar 1983…

Lalitha Krishnan: Amazing signature….

Bill Aitken: Yeah!And his notebooks are beautiful, works of art.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lovely. What was they like, Bill?

Bill Aitken: I was at this seminar probably the only layman there, in the old days Bombay Natural History Society was all laymen and these are all international experts and specialists so I was really a sore thumb there but of course with a surname like Aitken, you know, you’re considered some descendant of the Edward Hamilton.

Lalitha Krishnan: Are you still connected with the Himalayan Club?

Bill Aitken: Well, you know, I’m an honorary member but I was a little upset that they started the preparations for the centenary, which is some time off, few years ahead, by having a – getting the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And I have a thing about the Dalai Lama, I sympathize with his plight because he is not just an individual, he is head of a very, you know, distressed community, Tibetan refugee community, so he has to have this respect. But I’m also a Himalayan writer and it just so happens that the best-selling book on the Himalaya was written by the Dalai Lama’s tutor – Heinrich Harrer, who was a thoroughly nasty bit of work. Harrer had been, anyway I don’t know if you want to go into because of this, Harrer had been chosen by Gestapo for the mass extermination. He was in charge, he was called ski instructor. The word Nazi code for extermination was resettlement. Ski instructor meant in-charge of the training troops for the gas chamber. So that’s why the Dalai Lama has …when he was asked don’t you know this about Heinrich Harrer…

Lalitha Krishnan: He was a child…he wasn’t very old then.

Bill Aitken: I mean, he was young but the point is the publisher people in the Himalayan circle, they all know this to be true about Harrer but they won’t blow his cover. They won’t say ‘yes he was a nasty bit of war.

Lalitha Krishnan: Why is that you think?

Bill Aitken: People are indifferent, Chalne dho you know, the past is past. I don’t know if you’ve read this book by Bill Bryson ‘Here and There’.  He did the trip around Europe, one of his many travel books and he says the most shocking thing is that the president of Austria Kurt Waldheim, who got the job after being United Nations secretary-general; and he was in Greece as a German army officer and a piece of paper came on his desk saying 40,000 Jews are going to be sent to the gas chambers, please sign it. He signed it. President of Austria and then he said I thought they were going on holiday – sheer indifference – so this is why I objected. I’ve got nothing against the Dalai Lama but the fact was he was a child, his Regent invited 30 Nazi anthropologist to Lhasa, did you ever hear about this? No! It is a huge conspiracy of silence, so because I’m very upset that the best-selling book in the Himalaya was writte by such a nasty bit of work. Come on, publishers are making money, readers are being taken for a ride. He didn’t escape from Dehradun camp, the British offered him his freedom. He refused it. I mean…

Lalitha Krishnan: I guess it’s just business in the end… it’s all about the money in the end.

Bill Aitken: Anyways the Himalayan Club, I…Ha, hah, hah!!…

Lalitha Krishnan: OK. Do you have any regrets Bill.. about Mirtola.

Bill Aitken: About?

Lalitha Krishnan: Say Mirtola…?

Bill Aitken: No! because Sri Krishna Prem, when I joined Mirtola, said, “what I will teach you I can give you no other guarantee that you’ll never regret it”. I never have.

Lalitha Krishnan: I usually request my guest to, you know, share a word, I don’t know….

Bill Aitken: I thought you were going to say play the bagpipes…

Lalitha Krishnan: I usually request my guest to share a word that means something to them this is just adding to our vocabulary as a nature writer. A word or a concept or maybe a quote – your own quote, something you like that you said.

Bill Aitken: Alright I give you that quote from Salim Ali, I thought I’d written it down I haven’t, anyway it’s to the effect that, you know, there are so many problems for a wildlifer that you just look on the bright side and just get on with what you love doing, don’t be weighed down by all the problems.

(The actual Salim Ali quote: ” Be more realistic. Accept that we are all currently sailing through turbulent waters and should therefore avoid frittering our efforts on inconsequentials. In other words, be constructive and revel in the simple joy of life”-Salim Ali)

Mrs. Gandhi was a great wildlifer and he regretted that he hadn’t sort of pushed her to do more, but the main thing is, you know, stay positive because the worst thing is if you give up then nothing is going to happen. You have to see the bright side, just look on the bright side.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s exactly what I think about you. In your book ‘Riding the Ranges’ you say ‘mountains don’t block your way, they invite closer inspection by making you slow down and find a way around’. I feel you tackle all the obstacles in your life that way and also I haven’t read all of your books but the ones I have are so delightful and regardless of how hard your journeys have been the thread that binds them is your sense of joy, I feel, and wit and humour. It’s very uplifting.

Bill Aitken: If you love nature, it is divine. Unfortunately, the word divine is politically incorrect, but I’ve always been fascinated by divinity, you know? I mean to me the divine is real and nature – prakriti – is the most divine thing but I was brought up you know, with this Semitic, you know, man is worthless, come on, you know, man is divine. This is Mirtola teaching ‘man is the measure of all things’.

Lalitha Krishnan: Devine is nice without religion.

Bill Aitken: Exactly, religion is just a racket to try and reduce it to an infant, so you will pay the priest’s salary. Look at the church’s record now this Cardinal Pell, I mean, what a disaster nah? The thing is, I was born in front of this, it’s called Dumyat, and so this to me was, it stood in utter contrast to the church, you know? It stood in contrast to the church, you know, because they church is cold and, you know, like going to church is like Churchill wrote when he went to meet Stalin he said, “it’s like taking a lump of ice to the North Pole” and so the Dumyat was my touchstone for the divine, you see… and as a child, I used to love to sit on top listen to the music of the spheres and my dream was, you know, there you couldn’t settle on a mountain, you’d die of cold, you know. The only thing that could survive was sheep but I always… my aim in life was to dwell on a mountain and here I am on this beautiful mountain. So, to realize your dream, I think is the very most satisfying thing in the world.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s important to have a dream, so…

Bill Aitken: Absolutely, and also to trust your dreams, you know, your actually dreams because they can really change your life. In Mirtola, you know, we had a big thing on dream interpretation….

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, I’d heard about it. But was it…?

Bill Aitken: It could totally change your life and……

Lalitha Krishnan: No, but the interpretations, were they correct?

Bill Aitken: Well obviously in the scheme of things it could go horribly wrong but I remember one story…

Lalitha Krishnan: Did you interpret your own dreams?

Bill Aitken: Very badly because usually they’re very critical and nobody likes to criticize… so I was a very bad that interpreter. But, I had this dream I once had a girlfriend who I wanted – we’re going to hitchhike around Europe another student and I when we set off I spent the night in a home and on the mantlepiece was a photograph of a friend of mine in the University—Sandy, his name was Sandy, Scottish for Alexanderand suddenly I froze unconsciously and on that trip, poor girl, I never even held her hand because all my life I had been suppressed by my Big Brother Sandy. I mean, it suddenly came to me, you know, and poor gal, what had she done to suffer me? So dreams are…  when I saw this photograph I never associated it, you know, Sandy but then the dream said Sandy is, you know, your sort of why you came to India, was to get away from – your mother likes Sandy, your father likes Sandy, everybody likes Sandy, nobody liked me – and Sandy got a pair of skates or speed skates when I got, it was figure skates. I mean, these resentments were real and only a dream can objectify them and say “you stupid fool. All your life you felt you loved Sandy and you all the time you wanted to kick his ass”.

Lalitha Krishnan: Did you tell him?

Bill Aitken: No, no, I mean, how will it help?

Lalitha Krishnan: Just to get it off your chest.

Bill Aitken: No, no, once again I’m the fool not him.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much Bill. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation; I am Lalitha Krishnan. Do check out Bill Aitkens books and you can listen to Heart of Conservation on Spotify, Apple podcast, SoundCloud or any other platform of your choice. Stay safe and keep listening.

Photo: Lalitha Krishnan. Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

Birdsong by hillside residents.

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