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.
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?