Bonding With Ruskin
In a recent interview conducted by the writer Farukh Dhondy (Literary Review, April 2006), V.S. Naipaul holds forth on literature and art in his typically blunt manner. And surprisingly, Ruskin Bond is the only Indian author he singles out for praise. "I have read nothing like that from India or anywhere else," the Nobel laureate declares, referring to Bond's autobiography. "It's very simple. Everything is underplayed, and the truths of the book come rather slowly at you?I was very moved by his book."
��� It is high praise, indeed, given that as a renowned yet famously hard-to-please author, Naipaul is more commonly known for his scathing remarks on a variety of subjects. But this assessment won't come as a surprise to Bond's innumerable fans in India, where he is a beloved literary figure and his books are always popular. Not long ago, Ruskin Bond graciously agreed to a chat with this author at his home in the Himalayas.
��� The quiet road winds up the mountain. I leave the bustle of Mussoorie behind as I walk up into the clouds to Landour village. It is the land of pines and deodars, of hill ferns and rosy-cheeked schoolchildren. The mercurial monsoon fog rolls down the slopes. The path bifurcates, and a charming hill-cottage comes into view. This is the home of India's most prolific writer in English. In his fifty years of writing, Ruskin Bond has over a hundred books to his name. "There wasn't a year when I didn't get something out, except in those childhood days," says Bond. This vast collection includes novels, short story collections, children's books and anthologies.
��� We talk about his life and writing over steaming cups of tea. Bond looks back fondly on The Room on the Roof, his first book. Written when he was just seventeen years of age, it won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, awarded to a Commonwealth writer under thirty, for a "work of outstanding literary merit." "I was in England at that time, and I wrote it out of a longing for India," says Bond. "Rusty, the protagonist of the book, is very much like me. The first draft was actually a journal." It was published in 1956, and was serialized in The Illustrated Weekly, a popular magazine. The sequel Vagrants in the Valley followed soon afterwards.
��� Not only do many of his books sell widely in India, but he also gets admiring reviews in leading publications. The Hindu, referring to Bond's Tales of the Open Road, notes how "he has seen what others do not and more importantly been where others have not." Adds the reviewer, "This travelogue is wide-ranging, rich in humor and in understanding the Indian cities and villages, the people, the cars, the bullock carts, the lorries."���
��� Bond wanted to be writer since his childhood days. His parents separated when he was eight years old, and he went to live with his father, who was in the Air Force in those pre- Independence years. The young Ruskin was sent to Bishop's Cotton, Shimla, to study. His father died when he was ten years old. He went to live with his mother and stepfather in Dehradun. "It was a period of turmoil," remembers Bond. "Left to my own devices I used to read a lot. Books became my friends. In school, I became aware of the fact that I could write very well, and I couldn't do much else, besides playing football. It's just as well I didn't become a footballer." Laughing, he adds, "At 71, I'm still writing, but I don't think I'd be playing football." His first story was published in The Illustrated Weekly, just after he left school. It was a skit on one of his teachers. "They weren't very happy when they read it," he chuckles.
��� His mother packed him off to England for higher education. He spent four restless years in London and the Channel Islands, feeling very homesick for India. Then, he got an advance of fifty pounds for The Room on the Roof. "It was enough to get me back to India – the sea voyage cost 40 pounds and took three weeks," recalls Bond. He came back, determined to freelance. He chose Dehradun to live in, having spent many childhood days there with his maternal grandparents. "I was on my own. I bombarded every newspaper and magazine in the country," says Bond. "Some of them are long gone." It was a period of intense literary activity. Those were his short story days. "Perhaps some of my best stories were written in those three years – ‘Night Train to Deoli', ‘The Eyes Have It', ‘Time Stops at Shamli'," he notes, adding that the characters were often based on people he knew, even if the story was fictionalized.
��� He had to go to Delhi for a job, as freelancing was not paying very well. After three years on a desk job, all he wanted to do was to write. He decided a hill station would be an ideal place to live in. The rents were very nominal. There was the peace and quiet, too. In 1964, he came to Mussoorie. What followed was a long and lonely struggle, but Bond did not waver from his chosen path.
��� "It was a dream I'd had for some time; lack of money had made it difficult to realize," he writes in an introduction to one of his books. "But then, I knew that if I was going to wait for money to come, I might have to wait until I was old and grey and full of sleep. I was thirty-five – still young enough to take a few risks. If the dream was to become reality, this was the time to do something about it."
��� Over the years, Bond's books and stories have reflected the changes in Indian society. He feels that people have become more materialistic now. "The middle class hadn't emerged in those days, as it has now," says Bond. "It is interesting to see that the villages that border the highway have developed faster. As you go off the beaten track, the change isn't that dramatic. If you go into the rural interiors, you are suddenly in the past. There are the men with the hukka, and the women in the fields and the children playing gulli-danda." He remarks that writing styles have also changed with the times. "Early writing was more descriptive and spun out. Now it's more staccato and sharper." He feels that, previously, people didn't have any other form of entertainment. Today there is so much to see and do – television, movies and Internet – that the attention span has decreased. People tend to pick up books that are not too demanding, he points out.
��� However, Bond also says the reading habit hasn't disappeared, as many people are wont to think. "I keep meeting more and more people, young ones specially, who do read. It has always been a minority pastime, but the minority is growing. There is a greater demand for books. This is why publishing has also come of age." He remembers how thirty years ago not much was being published apart from textbooks. "Now we have children's books, novels and specialized books on all kinds of subjects," he adds.
��� Bond confesses to a fondness for writing supernatural and ghost stories. But how many of them are true? Not one, he chuckles. "I haven't seen a ghost – I'd be very scared if I saw one!" He mentions how when he went for a book reading to a school recently, a little girl stood up and said, "I like your ghost stories but they're not scary enough. Can't you make them more frightening?" Says Bond, "Then I realized that with all the horror serials that you see on television, I have to shut my eyes when I see them, but the children are not scared so easily!"
��� The characters closest to his heart are the ones he has written for children. He looks back most fondly upon Binya from ‘The Blue Umbrella' and ‘Uncle Ken'. His rather eccentric Uncle Ken was a clumsy man who never did anything right, but got away with it because he had four sisters who were comfortably married. "He simply divided his time between them," laughs Bond. "Children seem to like him because they are normally being lectured to, and here is an adult character that comes bumbling along."
��� Bond started writing specifically for children only when he turned 40 years old. "I took myself very seriously before that, and was writing only for adults or the general reader," he asserts. He finds it harder to write for children because of the discipline required. "With adults, you can get away with 2-3 chapters before you start the story. Children want action and a definite storyline," he adds. He is very fond of children and understands them well. The feeling seems to be mutual, because half his fan mail is from children. Yes, he does reply to some of the more interesting letters.
��� What makes Bond write stories with such a witty edge? "I find that life gets funnier as I get older," says Bond. "My next book is called Funny Side Up (it's now a fiction bestseller in India), which will look back at all the amusing things that have happened to me over the years. Humor is a more recent attribute to my style of writing. My early writing in very intense because I was an adolescent at that time."
��� One such intense story was ‘The Flight of Pigeons', which was filmed as Junoon in 1980. This story was first published in a now-defunct magazine called Imprint. Ismat Chugtai, the famous Urdu writer, recommended it to Shyam Benegal and even played a small role as the grandmother. Shashi Kapoor, who produced the film, starred as the protagonist Javed Khan. "The acting was very good," says Bond. "My only comment was that, perhaps, the setting was too opulent. My story was set in the humble by lanes of Shahjahanpur. This story was based on actual events."
��� Vishal Bharadwaj, the critically acclaimed director of Maqbool, has adapted another story (‘The Blue Umbrella') and his 90-minute film will be released at a film festival. Bond has sold a couple more stories to Bollywood and some of his other works are being televised.
��� When did Bond realize he was a celebrity? He recalls the days when his first book Room on the Roof was serialized in the The Illustrated Weekly. Since his photograph was also published in the magazine, he became very well known. "Of course, I didn't get recognized on the streets because we didn't have television or this kind of exposure. The requests for autographs started in the last ten years," he says. Now he has people coming up to his cottage, even hammering on the door sometimes. Smiling, he adds, "I enjoy talking to people who are interested in reading, but give me a warning before you come."
��� Bond enjoys lazing around, reading, writing and taking a walk. "Walking helps the thought process," he says. "I like looking at the changing vegetation. Nature appeals to me, more so, since I've come to live here." He writes for a couple of hours every day. In the offing is a memoir of his father, and the few formative years that Bond spent with him. As he notes, "My father would have been happy with it (his being a writer) because he was quite a bookish man."
��� What is the nicest thing that a reader has ever said to him? "I am very used to people coming up and telling me that they enjoy my books and I write nice stories. What touched me more was when a schoolgirl came and said, ‘You are such a nice man,'" says this gentle writer, with a twinkle in his blue eyes.
��� And that, in a nutshell, is a neat and accurate way of describing Ruskin Bond.
BY PAYAL KHURANA
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