Scenes from Ruskin Bond’s Life
One of India’s best-known authors is of British descent. His many books include novels like the award-winning Room on the Roof, short story collections, and the touching memoir Scenes from a Writer’s Life. His fiction has inspired films by Shyam Benegal and Vishal Bharadwaj. Ruskin Bond spoke to Khabar at his home in Mussoorie.
At the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival, the queue for Ruskin Bond’s autograph was way longer than the queues for all the other top authors’ autographs put together. Contrast this maddening popularity with the fact that Ruskin Bond has been congratulated as the author of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, occasionally been mistaken for Enid Blyton and has also been addressed as Jim Corbett! If you thought that was shocking enough, wait till you hear this: once, a man brought his little son to Bond’s house urging him to autograph their copy of “Bond’s book,” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Ruskin Bond signed as Mark Twain. It could rile a petty mind but Bond deals with all these crazy encounters with his characteristic good humor.
Another mild contradiction that marks this genteel author’s life is that while he has a detached attitude towards money (“I’d be writing even if I wasn’t making money. Writing to me is compulsion, money is secondary.”), he is very fussy about being paid.
The soft-spoken, unassuming writer won India’s Padma Bhushan in 2014, just months before celebrating his 80th birthday. Says Bond, “It is nice to know that powers that be acknowledge the work you are doing but life after Padma Bhushan hasn’t changed in any way. When I received the Padmashri in 1999 there was more excitement. As I grew older, I guess people got used to seeing me get the occasional honor. Yes, family and friends are happy but there was certainly more of a hullabaloo then than there is now.”
Ruskin was born in 1934 to British parents, Edith Clerke and Aubrey Bond, a Royal Air Force member, in a military hospital in Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh. When he was just four, Ruskin’s parents got divorced and he was raised by his grandmother. He had his schooling in Shimla, Jamnagar (Gujarat), and Dehradun and has been living in Mussoorie since 1963.
When I traveled to this hill station to meet Ruskin Bond, he explained to me in great detail, the way from my hotel to his residence, “Ivy Cottage” in Landour. He was just being polite, for everyone in Mussoorie—right from the receptionist to the cab driver to average city folk walking down the Mall—is well conversant with the place. A narrow staircase led me to an old world wooden door where the famous author stood with a welcoming smile. After a warm handshake, he led me into his book-lined living room. The room next to this is where he writes and sleeps. The simplicity of the man is reflected in his possessions: a wooden writing table and chair, a regular wooden almirah, a bed with his steel trunk tucked under it and a few flower pots on the two window sills. These two windows are Bond’s lifeline. He spends a lot of time gazing at the beautiful view outside, watching the world go by—the oak-tree-lined road winding its way through the hills to the holy town of Badrinath. At nights, the twinkling lights of Doon Valley provide an ethereal sight.
I ask Bond if he agrees with William Wordsworth who once said he wouldn’t have been a poet if he hadn’t lived in such serene surroundings. He shakes his head, “Not necessarily, because it’s something that comes out of one’s nature. If you have a poetic nature, you could be living in a barsaati in Delhi and writing great poetry. You don’t have to be living amidst natural beauty for that.”
Sharing memories of his childhood, he says he was “wicked” as a child, once tearing up his grandma’s curtains. He was a quiet student to begin with but then, “As I grew older and grew in confidence, I’d be quite rebellious at times and get into trouble. I was not really talkative but sometimes would come out with wrong things as far as the authority was concerned.” In academics, he was “okay.” “I was good in English and history but terrible in maths.”
Bond was very close to his father and it was he who introduced the “wicked” child to books and films. His father died in 1944 of severe hepatitis in Kolkata when Bond was ten years old. It was a traumatic experience for him and for two or three years thereafter he became reclusive. “Books were my favorite companions.” He had a lonely childhood. But in retrospect it helped him to understand children better. “Childhood memories are visual memories which we remember most vividly,” he says. It also had an impact on his writings. He cites the example of Dickens and other writers who had unsettled childhoods. “It leads to a certain sensitivity, which gets translated into their writings. My writings reflect my lonely childhood.”
Bond looked upon David Copperfield as a role model. He shares, “That was the first Dickens novel I read when I was twelve, and very impressionable. David’s life that he describes was almost parallel to my own. He had a stepfather and he runs away from home, which was similar to my taste, and I decided I’d run away from home, too. And then he grows up to be a writer, so I thought, “Why shouldn’t I be a writer?”
Bond didn’t go to college. One can say he was “self-taught.” The once “very attractive young person” didn’t marry either. Any heartbreak behind this? “I didn’t choose to stay a bachelor, it was quite accidental. I wanted to and got close to marriage on a couple of occasions but it wasn’t destined to be.” And then to drive home a point, he reminds me that he was then an author who didn’t make much money.
And what about that Vietnamese girl whom Bond proposed to in London? “Well, there was a fashion to tell fortunes from tea leaves as they settled in the bottom of the cup and the lady in question looked inside her cup and said, ‘The leaves say we can’t get married.’ That was her way of saying sorry.”
Bond’s last romance was in the 1960s with a “very sweet-natured woman.” While in his 40s, he realized he wasn’t really the marrying kind and has no regrets on that count. But Bond doesn’t “live like a single old man.” He now lives with his adopted family—the family of Prem, his one-time help in the early 1970s. Prem’s grandchildren call Bond Dadaji. “I guess I am lucky,” says Bond.
“Have a cup of tea,” insists Bond as our conversation is interrupted by a call from one Col. Rathore. “Oh, he’s a fan who calls once in a while to say hello.”
Recalling his early days and struggles, Bond avers, “After my father’s death, my mother sent me to the U.K. for better prospects in 1951. I was 17 then. I took up various jobs while living in Jersey in the Channel Islands…. I worked with a travel agency, a grocery store, and the public health department.” It was while he was in the U.K. that Bond started writing The Room on the Roof, his autobiographical story about Rusty, an orphaned Anglo-Indian boy. It fetched him the 1957 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which is awarded to British Commonwealth writers under 30. “It was based on a journey in my last year in India before leaving—but then I fictionalized it.”
He continues, “I would work in the day and write at night. But those four years were not easy. I had grown up in Dehradun and missed my friends, my simple life back home. The 50 pounds prize money and another 50 pounds as advance that I got from my publisher Andrej Deutsch funded my passage back to India.” Bond returned to India purely for emotional reasons and not to become a famous writer. “People who wanted to become famous writers were leaving India and going to England.”
“Writing wasn’t a fashionable profession as it is today,” says Bond, adding, “Now the writers are becoming celebrities. You were practically anonymous then. You might be known by your name as a writer but not as a recognizable figure. Nobody took me seriously. My mother would say, ‘Why are you wasting your time Ruskin, join the army.’ If I joined the army, they would have had one more Beetle Bailey! Good for the army that I didn’t join them.”
The modest earnings from freelancing (“The most you got was 50 rupees from the Illustrated Weekly of India.”) made Bond take up jobs briefly like a three-year stint with CARE, the relief organization. He was “a sort of literary editor” of Bombay-based Imprint magazine for a few years. Then it got a little monotonous so he gave it up. Bond wanted to just concentrate on his writing.
“I guess I just trudged along. Fortune and name came much later. I also wrote for children and three of my books were published in London so that lifted my income to some extent.”
In the summer of 1963, Bond decided to move to Mussoorie which had always been close to his heart. “Also, it was the closest to Delhi and I wanted to be in touch with all the editors and publishers.” Besides, it was cheap and quiet. “I lived on the outskirts, near the forest, where I could write without interruption.” But Bond feels that here, too, it gets quite chaotic at times. “You can’t avoid the urban sprawl—villages have become towns, towns have become cities, and cities, mega-cities. You can still find a quiet corner here and there, but you have to go a little further for it than you used to.”
Bond’s struggle wasn’t easy. “There were no books being published in India then except school books. But not literature. So you had to look abroad for a publisher. But here I was, writing practically for every paper and magazine in the country. And over the years all those stories accumulated. So finally, when publishers here did start bringing out books in the ’80s, like Penguin, Rupa, etc., I had a backlog of hundreds of stories which I could put into collections—My Train at Deoli, Shamli, and others... all these stories written in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.”
Bond’s lonely childhood had a lot to do with his writing for children, which he started doing in his 40s. Before that he was writing more or less about adults. But because a whole generation has grown up reading his children’s stories, which have also been more popular than his other stories, he earned the tag of ‘children’s writer.’ What is easily forgotten is that the same Bond faced ‘obscenity charges’ for his novel The Sensualist. But whether he wants to write for adults or for kids depends totally on his mood. “It might perhaps turn out to be suitable for kids and on the other hand it might develop into a more adult theme or something in-between. Very often my stories cross the line,” says the writer.
Ruskin Bond’s tryst with Bollywood began quite by accident when the feisty feminist author Ismat Chughtai recommended his novella A Flight of Pigeons to film director Shyam Benegal. Based on it, Benegal made the Shashi Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah starrer Junoon in 1978. Thereafter, Vishal Bhardwaj made The Blue Umbrella into a film of the same name and later turned Bond’s story Susanna’s Seven Husbands into the Priyanka Chopra starrer Saath Khoon Maaf. In the film, Bond, too, played a small role. Good at playing a drunkard during his school days, Bond could hardly show his “drunken” skills in this cameo, as “Vishal made me a bishop; you can hardly get drunk as that. I’d love to play a drunkard someday, though!”
An ardent fan of Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray films, Bond, who as a boy was a great moviegoer, misses the cinema halls in Mussoorie. Earlier there were six cinema halls, today there are none.
As the time comes to take his leave, I try to draw Bond into an introspective mood. “I’m a little more successful than I thought I would be. If not a writer, I could have ended up becoming a babu in a school or something like that. As you get older your views about life change your perception. At 80 now, I find life funny and that’s why I write more humorous stories. I have become more philosophical. It makes one understand life better, take the ups and downs of life more easily.”
“See, life is fleeting,” Bond says. “The important thing to realize is that it is just for today. Don’t take it for granted. Seize the moment and get as much true enjoyment out of living, out of friendships, loving relationships, out of things that give you pleasure. Be good to everyone.”
Will Bond ever retire? “Writers don’t get provident funds or pensions,” he says, “so we can’t afford to retire.”
We won’t let him, either!
Rajnish Sharma is the author of a novel, Flickering Flames, and the editor of TES Orbit, an India-based educational magazine.
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