Ruskin Bond on Tom Alter: ‘Athletic, agile and full of energy’

The writer and the actor shared a long association, fuelled by their love for Mussoorie, movies and books.

I first met Tom Alter sometime in the late ’70s when he had already joined the Hindi film industry. He was younger than I by about 18 years. I met him late in life because when he was growing up in Dehradun, I was trying to eke out a living first in England and then in Delhi.

I was instantly struck by his varied interests. He was a cricketer, a writer, a teacher, an actor, and despite his American background, spoke impeccable Hindi and Urdu. Before moving to Mussoorie, both of us had spent our formative years in Dehradun. Also, both of us felt so much at home in India that we returned to it after living abroad.

What impressed me most about Tom was his loyalty to his friends. He went out of his way to help them. He even obliged absolute strangers with whatever he could do for them. I remember how distressed he once was when he learnt that one of his close friends had accidentally found himself on the wrong side of the law. Tom spared no effort to help him disentangle from a complicated situation.

Another of Tom’s sterling qualities was his focus on fitness. Whenever he visited Mussoorie, I often saw him jogging around the hills. He could easily cover 10 kilometers in one go. He told me that he had participated in marathons when he was young. He didn’t smoke, drink or indulge in any vices.Till the very end of his life, he remained athletic, agile and full of energy.

Memories of Mussoorie

As an actor, Tom was extremely talented. What surprised me was that he didn’t get as many meaty roles as his skills warranted. It was in theatre that he did justice to his enormous passion for different roles. Once, he played the role of a shikari in a film based on my story, The Last Tiger. The film remains unreleased till date.

Tom told me that the tame tiger, which was taken from the Bombay zoo for the film, had given the crew a hard time. It would slip away to the zoo for lunch unnoticed. The director and its team had a tough time cajoling the tiger out of the zoo to come to the shoot.

A few months back, Tom was playing me in a short film based on one of my stories, The Black Cat. To understand my character better, he called me a couple of times over the phone. He even requested me to tell him the names of my favourite Nelson Eddy songs. He wanted to include one of them in the film. However, it was dropped later.

Throughout our long association, I played the role of a well-meaning older friend. He was always on the move and visited Mussoorie twice or thrice a year. He was quite sentimental about old things and our cultural heritage. In 2010, he was anguished when the local municipality demolished the British-era clock tower in Mussoorie that dated back to the 1930s. To protest, he undertook a sit-in and observed a maun vrat for 12 hours. Though the authorities are now rebuilding the clock tower, I doubt if he would have liked its architectural style.

Apart from writing on cricket, he also wrote three books. When he visited me, we discussed films, books and the sweeping changes taking place in Mussoorie. He would often ask me questions about our publishing industry. To commemorate the 60th year of my first novel, The Room on the Roof, he wrote an introduction for it. Having spent his early years in Dehradun, he could identify a lot with the protagonist and milieu of the story. Tom was very fond of nature and he was appointed as an ambassador of the Corbett National Park.

Tom had so much more to offer us. With his passing away, I have lost a very special friend, the one in whose heart lay that special Indian sentiment of being kind to others.

(As told to Aditya Sharma.)

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