Month: December 2008

Adrift: A Short Story

The grass that grows in my garden is quite green. And so are the weeds. They issue forth an incredible green energy. The fact that they are resplendent fills me with pride: I have a thing or two for flora. As I sit in my balcony overlooking the garden, I can see and hear them swinging and swishing against the wind even as I keep squatting in my chair or scooting around the house. I must confess I love the sound of grass. Not to mention its smell. But wait! Have you, by any chance, presumed that I just grow grass and weeds in my garden? Of course not. Grass and weeds are only the collateral produce. For my garden is an extraordinarily ordinary garden where flowers bloom — flowers of all kinds, all colours, all sizes, all fragrance. And I revel in the whiff that emanates from them — a mixed scent of myriad flowers. My garden is the melting pot of flowers of all hues, a mélange of petals, leaves and, yes, thorns. They are joined by the brotherhood of aroma. Sniffing this aroma has helped me keep my sanity amidst the putrid stench of insanity all around. And the grass and weed have also helped me stay afloat —kept me from going mad and kept my madness going — in their own ways. In ways you would not believe me if I tell you. You will, I am sure, laugh it off. Grass and weed helping us humans endowed with better faculties than any other species? Huh! How can that be?
But trust me. They have. In ways that have taken me, and everyone around, by surprise. In ways that no human being helps his own kind. Sometimes I feel I should have a separate garden for them. For it is not fair that they are reduced to be the mere collateral produce, overshadowed by the bunch of buds, losing their luster amidst the blooming, blossoming petals. I have a genuine concern for grass. As much as I have for my garden. Grass and garden. Garden and grass. A garden of grass. Grass of a garden.
My garden! It has a good array of choicest of flowers — handpicked over all these years — the kinds everyone would do anything to grow: lilacs, roses, daffodils, chrysanthemums. You name it and it grows in my garden. It is a rarity in my neighborhood, as hardly anyone has any time for flowers: My neighbours don’t see any point in wasting time on flowers, they are busy planting money. They are wiser: they grow wealth. Its dividends are real. And more consequential, productive and profitable. What do you get when you shower so much care and currency on flowers? They ask me. What concrete and tangible benefits you get? They argue. I have no answers. So I continue catering to my flowers.
It’s fascinating to see how flowers make you feel. It is fascinating to see how many emotions do they embody, how many worlds of fragrance they emit. They symbolize things full of beauty and joy, charm and grace. They win over hearts. They win over minds. Nature’s blessings, they add an aura to our otherwise lackluster lives. Imagine a life without flowers! A life without fragrance!
I have always loved flowers; this is that part of me having a thing or two for flora. And that also includes my proud green possession: Grass. As I sit and untangle grass roots on this cold, wintry night, in my barren world which crackles with the broken pieces of composure, its whiff lends warmth to my moments, tender touch to my breathings — I have not known such warmth, I’ve never seen such tenderness. They seem to soothe me, alleviate all my grief, assuage all my pain. How could grass have the power to heal? I wonder!
Tonight, like so many nights before, I am on my own, walking the line that has left me alone, entangling with the shadows of my previous selves that are freely floating around. Tired of the silence that fills my world, I take words out for a walk. And, somewhere along the way, try to leave the trace of a tale, leave behind the footprints of alphabets on the sands of troubled time. Everything around me seems to be blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of words, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night. Everything around me seems to be dancing to a rhythm divine; if it were bodies instead of shadows, there would be an incredible carnival in the dead of the night.
My world floats around, singing to the song of life, grooving to an unknown grief…
A little bit about my world. Barren, as I said earlier. Barren and bleak and bare. It’s a windswept shore. A bizarre beach. An oasis of ennui. A stark, austere terrain inhospitable for anyone remotely human. It’s an area of darkness no light ever engulfed. A piece of earth sodden with sorrow. A fragile fresco. A mutilated mural. A world revisited by fears and insecurities and nightmares. A world weighed by painful memories of a lost childhood, of devastating relationships, of broken marriage, of sweeping melancholy, of an uneasy child — memories of a luckless, loveless life. Of peace having been wrenched, of amity having been wrecked, of serenity having been ruined! Ah! the weight of my world! That reminds me of an Evanescence song my daughter Maria (who hates me; she never ever considered me her father and chose to stay with her mother who equally hates me now) used to listen to. It was called Weight of the World. I still remember it in bits and pieces:

Feels like the weight of the world
Like God in heaven gave me a turn
Don’t cling to me, I swear I can’t fix you
Still in the dark, can you fix me.
Free fall, free fall, all through life.

I haven’t listened to that song for a long time. And I don’t want to. It further aches me, bringing back memories, both happy and sad. Talking of music, I’ve of late taken shine to Elvis Costello’s Green Song and Annihilator’s Snake in the Grass. And, mind you, the words green and grass are coincidental. May be they have something to do with my love for grass. I don’t know. And, in any case, that doesn’t matter. But yes, I remember when my wife left me the first song that I listened to was Snake in…before uncorking endless bottles of wine and drowning the memories of my married life in fizz and froth, and, much later, by devouring volumes of books — novels and poetry, memoirs and biographies, history and philosophy:

You were the world to me,
I thought that I would always be there for you
I was too blind to see,
I would have climbed the highest mountain for you
You gave me something to hope for,
You made me feel like new
But tonight it’s over and we’re through,
And we’re through!

And then it was Linkin Park’s In the end:

I kept everything inside
And even though I tried
It all fell apart
What it meant to me
Will eventually
Be a memory
Of a time when I tried so hard
And got so far
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter
I had to fall
To lose it all
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter.

Yes, in the end it doesn’t even matter. Nothing matters, actually. Everything goes. Everything passes. In the end, it doesn’t even matter.
Costello is a late entrant into my world, but I love listening to Green Song (If only everything could be as green as my grass!):

Fine rain was falling on the gravel and glades.
The last rays of September bejeweled broken blades.
But there’s someone that I long for.
Oh, where have you been?
As the red earth lies under a covering of green.
Do you trip on the city’s golden gutters and kerbs?
As the seasons grow wild and the ground undisturbed.
`Till you find what you are now
Is less than you’ve been;
As the red earth lies under a covering of green.

Songs have their own smell. Like grass, they have their own ways to ensnare you, even intoxicate you. Each song smells of some emotion. Each song is enmeshed in a particular memory/reminiscence. Each song has its own way of allaying your pain, its own way of growing on you. Much like books or films. Over all these years (don’t ask me how many; I have lost count of days) that I have been away from Sienna — my wife, my life — verses have found their way into my veins, fiction has begun to sprout on my tongue and biographies have been bubbling forth in my head… stories spill out of my mind, narratives slip out of my heart… So many tales get in the way of my tale; I don’t know how to extricate them all. Sometimes, they get mingled and become one. And my individual story becomes universal. I become all. My yarn begins to incorporate all there is, all that exists. And, may be, all that ails.

The verses, as I mentioned, course through my veins: words mix in my blood corpuscles and my hemoglobin becomes a hymn to humanity. My being becomes the very life-blood of human quests, the epicentre of all that the we aim for, collectively.
As I walk along, looking back and forth in time, memory blooms and from out of the silent crevices of my past, an unknowing weed emerges singing into existence. And yet, and yet, memory is what I forget.
Trailing me along are POT and CANNAB, my two pets — a Labrador and a German Shepherd. They are quiet as they are quite used to my wanderings, aimless, endless. They just tag along. They know even I don’t know where am I headed, where would I land up, where would I come ashore. I keep walking with words trailing along. I don’t know if they add up to anything or not, but words are all I have. They are all that entrails me. (Remember words form my very blood).
As I trek along the torpid pathways, a clutch of words hang on to my mindscape, sticking in the sieve of memory. They come from one of the silent crevices of my past. It is imbued with an image. The image of Sienna whose memory comes in the way of my history.
I read her out a Walt Whitman poem (from Leaves of Grass; Grass, mind you, is coincidental), replacing Camerado with her name:

As I lay with my head in your lap, Sienna,
The confession I made I resume —
What I said to you in the open air I resume:
I know I am restless, and make others so;
I know my words are full of weapon, full of danger, full of death;…
I am more resolute because all have denied me,
Than I could ever have been had all accepted me;
I heed not, and have never heeded, either experience, cautions, majorities, nor ridicule;
And the threat of what’s called hell is little or nothing to me;
And the lure of what is called heaven is little or nothing to me;
Dear Sienna! I confess I have urged you onward with me,
and still urge you,
Without the least idea what is our destination….

My voice is adrift. I can’t and shouldn’t expect it to sing to Sienna as if she is the only one. And yet…And yet…

Bond Voyage

I love Ruskin Bond. Who doesn’t? I’ve grown up on his stories, besides hordes of MBs, Archies, countless other comics, Enid Blytons and what have you. Even as I was falling in and out of love in school and college, I retained my bond with Bond. A bond that has sustained itself, in spite of the influx of other writers into my world (And that influx has made me richer. I don’t know what would I have made of myself if I didn’t mould myself to tread the vast, ever-expanding written world). So, even as Marquez and Murakami, Orwell and Ishiguro, Gorky and Goethe, Faulkner and Flaubert rub shoulders (or covers?) on my shelf, the bespectacled good ol’ man keeps looking at me lovingly, forever waiting to be cuddled up with…which I do…more often than not…when I tire of the maze of mysteries and suspense, magical realism and stream of consciousness, allegories and aphorisms, hyperbole and periphrasis/circumlocution….in short whenever I see words getting entangled in a web of devices and yearn for sheer simplicity, I pick up Bond…and revive the old connection all over again…
Writing in a simple language, you would agree, ain’t that easy…I would say it takes a Bond to do that…If you are Ruskin Bond, simplicity is your second nature. You accept what you are, who you are. You are grounded and have no delusions of grandeur. You don’t feign anything, you don’t pretend. You say what you think. You write what you feel.
And you write rigorously, religiously.P.G. Wodehouse famously said: “I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I sup-pose.” Ruskin Bond may not have started writing that early, but he had stories to tell even when he was not writing.
At 74, the author has come out with yet another anthology for children, The Parrot Who Wouldn’t Talk And Other Stories, published by Penguin’s Puffin Books. He is now working on a collection of essays – reflective, personal and philosophical – which is due for publication early 2009.
With over five decades of writing behind him, he has not taken to technology, is still a bachelor and retains his deep love for nature. After writing Blue Umbrella for Vishal Bhardwaj, Padma Shri Bond has also written a suspense thriller for the filmmaker. Based in Lucknow, the story, he assures, is not a “typical Ruskin Bond”.
There is never a dull moment with the septuagenarian. He regales you with anecdotes.
And talks about himself and his craft — his passion for writing, his “nightnmares” and his adopted family and relatives — with childlike candour.

Excerpts from an interview that I recently did with the best-known, best-loved writer. I hope I do justice to the legendary writer in the piece that I post here for those, who, like me, have always loved Ruskin Bond…

At the outset, let’s go a little back in time. What are the abiding memories of your growing-up years in India and England?
I have memories of Dehradun where my maternal grandparents lived, memories of the
boarding school in Shimla and, before that, of the early years in Jamnagar (Gujarat). I lived in Delhi too during the World War II, just before the Independence. My father was in the Air Force and he was posted in Delhi. At that time, there was a lot of jungle around Delhi.
In the 1960s, all you had was the wilds of Rajouri Garden, surrounded by fields. There was nothing to do in the city. You had to take a bus and come to Connaught Place and watch a film or go to a restaurant or a bookshop. There were no 5-star hotels. The first to come up was the Ashok Hotel.
While today there are a lot of eateries and art galleries and something or the other
always keeps happening, nothing happened here in the ’60s or ’70s.
People often ask me why did I choose to live in small towns. I tell them that Delhi was also a small town once. It’s only now, during the last 20-30 years, that it’s sprawled as a city.
I’ve spent most of my life in smaller places so that hill stations too come into it a great deal. People ask me why Mussorie? I tell them there was nothing special about it, it’s just a homeground. I grew up in Dehradun and Mussorie. After I left Delhi in the 1960s, I lived in the hills.
I started writing when I finished school. I did go off to England for three or four years. And wrote my first book there. I came back and then freelanced for many many years, first from Dehradun and then from Mussorie, which I am still doing.
There was not any strong literary atmosphere around then. You didn’t have literary
groups or other writers you could sit down and discuss things with. You were on your
own in small towns. In the Dehradun of ’50s or early ’60s, there might have been one or two other writer, but there wasn’t any interface. It was inside you. Delhi perhaps had writers in the ’60s and ’70s. There was Khushwant Singh here. In those days, he edited Yojna, the five year plan magazine. I once sent him a love story. And he published in Yojna. He would do things like that. (laughs)
In the ’50s or ’60s, the book publishing hadn’t really come of age in India. You had to write for magazines and newspapers to get some income coming in. And that’s what I did. Though things that I wrote over those 20-30 years are now part of books and
collections. So I have that backlog of material. Many of these stories of recent
anthologies were written during that period.

And the publication of the two novellas – Room on the Roof and Vagrants in the Valley – must have helped you establish your voice
In a small way they did. Room on the Roof was also serialised in the Illustrated Weekly of India which at that time was able to make a great impact in India. It used to serialise the novels of writers like Kamala Markandya, Bhavani Bhattacharya and some other well-known writers of that period. So it was like writing for the New Yorker. It was our version of it. And that was important.
For Room on the Roof, I got £50 which was the standard advance at that time. Llewelyn Prize was also worth £50. A year or two later, V.S. Naipaul also got it and he also got £50. But £50 was enough to bring me back from England to India. And I had been wanting to come back. If you came by sea, you had to spend about £40. So, from London to Bombay, the fare was £40. And I still had £10 left with me.Room on the Roof did, to some extent, made me quite well-known. As did the Vagrants in the Valley, the sequel that too came in the weekly. But you see I was so young that for few years thence I really had nothing to write about. I was a subjective writer so I was writing out of my own life experiences and relationships. And then at 21, I suddenly wondered “‘what do I write about'”. You have to live a little longer to have something to write about. It’s then that I developed short stories and also generated stories and books for children. It all built up over a period of time and I am still scribbling away…

I remember reading your short story Night Train at Deoli, which is now the title of one of your anthologies, and falling in love with your writing…
You must have been in your school then.The CBSE has one of my stories, The Woman on Platform 8, now. So, there is always something of my writing. And you can’t escape.
(Smiles)
I went to a school in New Delhi recently. They had some story event lined up. And some of the boys there asked me if I was a good student in school. I told them that I was particularly not interested in subjects other than literature and that I never passed in Maths. My highest mark was 23 out of 100. So they were very happy that there was somebody else who couldn’t pass maths. At the end, at least 10 or 12 of them came with their math textbooks and asked me to autograph them and wish them luck in their exams. I thought I was the least suitable person to do so. (laughs) But they seemed to think it would help. So I said, “Hope you pass” and signed the books. So instead of signing my books, I was signing maths textbooks.
But otherwise the children’s response to my stories has been quite good.

We keep cribbing that the reading habit of the young has gone down…How serious do you think is that concern?
Reading has always been a minority thing. In 1950, I was in school. And we had a good library. But in a class of 35 students, there were just two of us who were serious readers. Others would borrow books from library shelves and return them unread. There was no TV, Internet video games, playsatations all the stuff that we blame now for children not reading, but still children didn’t read much they read comics, the only distraction then. So, it’s unfair to blame all these things it’s not everyone who becomes a book lover or a reader.

You yourself were a voracious reader. Who were your early impressions?
I read most of the writers of ’30s and ’40s. I read writers like Somerset Maugham and Bernard Shaw as well as thrillers. Basically everything. Whatever there was in the library, I read. I can’t read as much now. My eyes won’t take it after so many years of reading and writing.

Do you ever feel the sense of fatigue?
At times, yes. I do get tired. But not mentally so much as physically. Or sometimes I might have a great idea, but may be push myself a little harder to write it or put it down. But that’s part of ageing. You get tired naturally. I sleep more than I used to. I am a very good sleeper.

What about your love for nature? Did the hills further strengthen it?
Yes that’s true. In the hills, my association with nature became stronger. I have always been close to nature and it’s there in some of my early stories. But it was more so after coming to live in the hills as I knew more about nature. As a subjective writer, you write about the surroundings. And it has become an stronger influence over the years. It is something that always stays fresh too because you don’t really run out of material then.

The landscape of your writing has been all about people and relationships…
It’s because I am a subjective writer. I’ve written out of my own experiences. I’ve written about people who have come between my orbit. I am not a very inventive writer. I won’t be able to write the Frederick Forsyth or John Grisham type of a bestseller. I am not that professional actually. I just write what I feel like writing and what comes naturally. I write stories about people, their portraits and life sketches, rather than plotted stories.

Would you agree that it’s the simplicity of your writing that has endeared you to your readers?
You are right that simplicity could have helped. It could be because such stories don’t date easily as they are dealing with the essentials of people who don’t change all that much. I’ve not gone into so much over the years into the contemporary issues. And what I wrote about some 15-20-years ago are things that may not be relevant today.

And does that make you feel like you are out of step with the times?
Some people might think that way. I don’t know about being out of step, but I am an old-fashioned writer. And there is no doubt about it. I like old books of old writers, old music,old everything. I am absolutely hopeless with modern technology. But I survive nevertheless. (Laughs) I don’t force myself to be very avant garde or modern.

Do you still write by hand?
I do write by hand. But it’s not that I can’t type. I used to type. I have three old discarded typewriters. But I get stiff neck now if I type for 10-15 minutes. So I am more comfortable writing by hand. And I have a decent handwriting. I still send my hand-written manuscripts. And publishers don’t complain. I must be the last person to be writing by hand.

And you don’t dread the drudgery of it all?
No, no, on the contrary, it prevented me getting arthritis. I find it easy to write by hand. I don’t tire that easily that way.

You have been termed as a “reclusive” writer. Do you love being lonely?
I guess I’ve always been a bit shy. But I am not really reclusive. I don’t live alone, but with my large adopted family, who rather adopted me. There are some 10 or 12 of them.And it gets very noisy at times. Something or the other keeps happening. So while I am not reclusive, at the same time if I am going to write my work I can’t see everyone who comes knocking at the door. When people phone or write, I always tell them to come around. But when it’s early in the morning or during my afternoon siestas, and someone comes out of the blue, many of them tourists, just for a photograph or something, then it can be irritating. So rather than being rude what I do is to lock the door and have it conveyed that Ruskin Bond is in Bombay or Singapore, but not in Mussorie. But of course they might see me later on, then they would curse me. (Laughs) The good time to visit me is evening. It’s the time when I am neither writing nor sleeping.

They also call you a chronic bachelor. Why didn’t you marry?
I’ve been a bachelor all my life, so they can call me one. (Smiles) I have a brother in Canada. He left India in the ’60s. And never came back. He has had four marriages. So he has made up for mine. (Laughs)

Tell me something about your adopted family. It has been a long journey with them.While you have stayed single, the family must have multiplied?
Yes. They are into great grandchildren now. Their grandfather came to work with me and got married shortly after. His three children grew up in the house. And now all three are married and have children. And it’s a cricket team. Only I am their 12th man. I always was the 12th man. Even in school, I never got into the team. That is why I left cricket and started playing football. As a 12th man you get tired of carrying things and doing the fielding whenever the star batsman feels tired and wants to take a rest. So I switched to football. I was a good football player.

What was writing to you when you started and what it is now?
At the time when I started, writing meant even more to me than it’s today. By the time I could finish school, I decided I was going to be a writer. And there were some setbacks and I thought well I wasn’t going to be a great writer. But I decided to make it at least my vocation. I’d write as long as I would live. At least there I succeeded. I was certainly more ambitious when I was young, which all of us are. I have no regrets as a writer. I wrote to the best of my ability and was successful in my own way. And the best thing is made a living out of what I enjoyed doing.

You have also written a fair bit of poetry…
I enjoy writing poetry. Publishers don’t want to publish books of poetry, but nevertheless I sometimes trick them into publishing my books. Poetry happens when I am in the mood and write three or four poems at one go and then go back to prose writing.

How do you distinguish between your fiction and non-fiction? Almost all of your stories seem remarkably real.
Some of the fiction I have written is close to non-fiction and vice versa. There was a story I wrote sometime back. It was called Escape from Java. Everybody was saying it was an autobiography. And yet every word of that story was fiction. But the fact that I put myself in the story and wrote it in the first person, through all the events that were happening in the story, it was convincing enough for people to think that it’s non-fiction.
On the other hand, there are stories in which there’s something of both and some stories which are almost entirely true. I was writing the other day about this old lady who is waiting to die and she has 40 dogs. Quite an eccentric character! It’s a true story, but people think it’s fiction. So sometimes even the true stories seem so improbable.

But you have processed the personal in many of your stories… May be that’s what make your stories seem more probable…
I think, yes. I suppose if you put yourself into it whole-heartedly, it really happens like that. In the new collection for children, there is a story about being trapped by a tiger. And some people would think that it actually happened that way. While it was only a nightmare.
I get frequent, recurring nightmare. I see myself in a forest guest house or bungalow, alone. And I am looking out of the window and this big tiger comes towards the room and I close the window. And reach out for the door. All the windows are opened and each time I go to a window, shutting them, I see a tiger outside. I see the tiger coming closer and closer. It stops and bangs at the door. But before it breaks in, I quite fortunately wake up. I think it signifies the insecurity of some kind, the threat from outside.

You have also written and edited ghost stories…
When I run out of people, I write ghost stories. Recently a little girl came to me and said: ‘Sir, I like your ghost stories. But can’t you make them more scary?’ So my ghosts are not frightening enough.. With all the horror films that you have on TV, my ghosts are relatively friendly and helpful. I have never met a ghost, but I write convincing ghost stories.

If you encounter a ghost, maybe they should thank you that you have been writing about them..(Laughs)
You are right. May be they should.

Have you though about writing a memoir? Penguin brought one which was the story of my life till 21. It was called Scenes From a Writer’s Life. If events and people are too close, you hesitate to write about them until there is a distance. With distance you can gain some perspective. Also, you don’t want to embarrass anybody who is still a part of your life. If I do write something autobiographical, I would disguise it. However, instead of writing a full-fledged memoir I would rather continue writing short stories. It’s important that you keep working. Writers should never retire. Only football players retire unfortunately. (Laughs) But I am already running out of my relatives. What should I write about now?