Bond with the best
On an enchanting evening in his Mussoorie home, Ruskin Bond tells UMANG AGGARWAL about his ‘actual first’ novella, growing sense of humour, his lazy approach to life, and the dreams that haunt him
Without a mobile phone, a computer, or even a palace for a house that some might expect an author of his stature to be in, Ruskin Bond lives in a quaint, little cottage in Landour, Mussoorie. One has to see it to know that the author does really live the kind of simple, thoughtful, adorably slow-paced and toytownish life that his stories and novellas often paint with words. The 83-year-old author still writes manuscripts. He tries to walk half the way to the Cambridge Book Store at the Mall Road in Mussoorie to meet fans every afternoon. He still follows his father’s advice of “paddling his own canoe”. And like regular people, struggles to get out of bed, which is positioned to get just the right amount of heat and light from the sun.
Till the Clouds Roll By and Looking for the Rainbow are two of his latest releases. And another one is set to release. In a conversation that was marked by his very natural sense of humour, he told us: “As a boy, I had no sense of humour. I was very serious. It has grown as I have grown older. I find life getting more ridiculous all the time. Earlier, I didn’t laugh at myself much. But it has grown over the years.” Here’s more from the chat:
The year of Independence in HIs life
A simple conversation with the author can educate one about the history of our nation. His life is very deeply intertwined with it. He told us, “In 1947, I was 12-13 years old, and I was in boarding school in Shimla. I remember that the then Viceroy or Governor General, who had handed over the reigns of power, was Mountbatten. And, of course, we used to see quite a bit — Shimla was then the summer capital. So, a lot of things happened there.
I remember the flag being hoisted on Springfield. In fact, a year or two later, as the school prefect, I hoisted the flag. But shortly after the celebrations, the riots had begun in North India and that included the hill stations. And in my school — Bishop Cotton — about one-third of students were from what became Pakistan. So, they were all evacuated overnight in Army trucks. Suddenly, our school was reduced in numbers. And it took two or three years for it to recover. And then, when I came home in the winter holidays, to Dehradun — my mother was there — it was just recovering from a good deal of communal rioting. But by the time, things were getting back to normal in a few months. But then, Gandhiji was assassinated in January 1948. I was in Dehradun; it was the winter break. I was in one of the cinema halls in Dehradun when they stopped the movie and told us what had happened. I remember I was watching an English movie called Blossoms in the Dust, starring Greer Garsen. It was about a couple who started adopting orphaned children. I only saw the first 15 minutes of the film, and I still haven’t seen the rest of it. I was a great movie-goer. But it hasn’t come across my way again. After Gandhi’s assassination, everything shut down for a week — no cinemas, nothing.”
The deep bond with India
Bond wanted to be an author. His mother wanted him to take the then traditional route and join the Army. “I would have been another Beetle Bailey. I would not have been of much use to them,” he said, adding, “I was shunted off, to be permanently there (England). There were relatives there. I moved to London because I wanted to write, too. And I took various jobs because I didn’t have any money. But the urge to come back was always there. And then I got my first novel — The Room on the Roof — accepted. In those days, the standard advance was 50 pounds. But the fare back to India was 40 pounds. So, when I got down at Bombay, I still had 10 pounds to get to Dehradun.”
his ‘actual first’ novella
“I was still at school when I decided that I was an author. I had written a little novella in my school exercise book. Most of it was describing school activities; teachers in particular. I had written some nasty things about some of the teachers. The exercise books fell into the hands of my class master, and I got into trouble. In those days, you used to get caned. And it was the first time I was getting canned. So my friends advised me: ‘Bond, you stuff a couple of text books down your trousers when you get whacked, and you won’t feel it.’ I did so, but not very convincingly. At the first whack, my housemaster said, ‘You’ve got something there, take it out.’ And since I am literary person, it was As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Then, another whack, and he said, ‘This side? Take it out from this side.’ And (Robert Louis) Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde fell out. I got three or four more. And they tore off my exercise book. That was the end of my very first novel. It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning. But it wasn’t a masterpiece either. I don’t regret it. My old school had a good library. And I was incharge of it for three to four years. So, if I had to skip the morning PT, I would use the incharge keys to the library and slip off.”
Nature as a character
“My interest in nature is natural, but has also grown over the years. It wasn’t as much when I was a boy/young man. I took everything for granted. It probably changed when I came to live in the hills, and came closer to nature. When I first came to Mussoorie, I stayed for around 10 years in a small cottage near the forest. And that made me very aware of the natural world around me. In the past, it had been in the background, but now it became a theme/subject in itself,” he shares.
A blow to the author’s ego
Digressing, like many celebrated authors, is part of most of his narratives. Talking about the coming of Western brands to India, he ended up sharing a funny story from his personal life. He said, “Coca Cola came to India during World War II; the American soldiers brought it. We used to have a drink called Vinto before that, a raspberry flavoured soft drink. It went out of business, I think, but it was a kind of bottled fizzy drink. There were snacks in the school tuck shop, such as jalebis and samosas. There wasn’t any plastic to begin with. So, you didn’t get any packets. If you did get anything, it would be in paper. Envelopes made out of old exercise books.
“I’ll tell you a funny story — when one of my first children’s books was published by the CBT (Children’s Books Trust) in Delhi in the early 60s, I had a few copies at home. There was a boy down the road whose father ran a little ration shop. He came one day and saw the books and asked me: ‘Can I have one of those, uncle?’ I wanted to encourage him to read. So, I said, ‘Sure,’ and gave him one or two. He went off very pleased. A couple of days later, I was passing by his shop. I walked in as I wanted to buy some peanuts. He packed them very nicely; just that the envelopes were made out of the paper from the pages of my book. So, that was an end to my author’s ego. He put it to very practical use!”
Delhi and Writer’s Block
Purana Quila, Qutab Minar, Connaught Place — these were dear to Bond as his father, whose absence is probably one of the biggest reasons he started writing, had introduced him to the city. In fact, he chose Mussoorie over other hill stations because the hilly town is close to the National Capital. Telling us why he just couldn’t bear to write or live in Delhi despite the attachment, he said, “Delhi is a little more interesting now than it was then. In the 60s, Delhi was very dull. There was nothing happening there — just bureaucracy and the Government. On the other hand, business to some extent and entertainment was confined to a few cinemas in Connaught Place. And again, if you wanted to eat out, there was just Connaught Place. But now, the whole of Delhi seems to be eating out, putting on weight, and living the good life! So now, if I were living in Delhi, I could find things to do. The air quality has gone down, they say. But even in the 60s, we used to get dust storms there. It would come in from Rajasthan.
So, it was not the best place to be at. Even as an adult, when I would return to the city, I would go for walks in Lodhi Gardens. One time, I tripped over young lovers on the grass. I can be rather absent-minded; I was looking at the birds above and not the birds below. I was very apologetic as it was my fault; I must look where I am going.”
A lazy and backward genius
“I am a backward person; I actually don’t use a computer or laptop. I don’t have e-mail. If I have a cellphone in my hand, I might hold it upside down. Even this doesn’t work (pointing to a landline kept by the chair on a side table). I am used to writing with a ballpoint pen. Actually, I have three abandoned typewriters. In the old days, I used to type. But it is uncomfortable now. Also, my eyesight isn’t all that good for the computer screen. I am more comfortable writing by hand — I have a neat handwriting. My publishers then send me a printout, which will be full of mistakes and I have to correct them. Everybody else in the house has got expensive cellphones and kids have got laptops. Even laptops are out of date; now they do everything on the phone. Even novellas instead of novels — by nature I am a lazy person. Why should I write a 500-page book if I can do the same in 200?
most recurrent dream
I dream about people who have long gone. Sometimes, there are repetitive dreams, too. The ones that are scary are not of monsters but are anxiety dreams. My most recurrent dream is that I am staying in a very expensive five star hotel in Bombay or somewhere, invited there by a publisher or somebody very important who says, ‘Stay here, you are my guest, you don’t have to pay anything. I’ll come and join you in two days.’ And, he doesn’t turn up! A week passes, two weeks pass. Of course, I have all the luxury of a five star hotel, but who is going to pay the bill since nobody is turning up? Fortunately, I wake up just before the bill arrives. It’s a feeling of insecurity, I think. Because as a writer, all my life I have never known how much I am going to earn in the coming month or the coming year.”
Born to write
“I was a good football player; I would have loved to play for Arsenal or Manchester United. But the only thing is, at the age of 83, I am still writing stories. Playing football would not have been very easy. I wouldn’t make a living from it. In those days, the big team was Arsenal. Boys usually supported the top team,” he says.
In one of his latest releases, Till the Clouds Roll By, Bond writes that as a boy, he went straight from comics to adult fiction. He never read children’s books. Elaborating on that, he said, “I found that a lot of my early stories, although written for adults, were thought suitable for children, too. I was in my 20s, and my stories were finding their way into school books. It was only when I was in my 40s that I started writing stories specifically for children. Up to that time, I was just writing stories and some were found as children’s stories. Now when I write, I have a young reader in mind. I remember that there was a novella I had written and submitted to a publisher in England. He said, ‘It is too short to publish as a novel. So, if you could make it even shorter, we can make it a children’s book.’ And I worked on it a little more and redesigned it. It was one of my first children’s stories that was published — Angry River. It’s still in print. After that, I wrote The Blue Umbrella.”
more readers today
“Although people think nobody has the time to read anymore, actually there are more readers today for the simple reason that there are more educated people, particularly in the middle class. So, the potential readers are there. And readers have always been a minority. In my school days, in a class of say 35, only two to three of us were the ones who read books. Others would read comics and go to the movies once a month. Also, you didn’t have all these technological distractions. Today, three out of 30 read, at best. But because of the vast increase in the number of people who can read, that small minority in terms of actual numbers is vast. That’s why the publishers are doing quite well. There are young writers who are making money. You keep hearing of Chetan Bhagats and Ravinder Singhs whose books are doing well. And there are all kinds of writers. Some are very smart; they write for a particular readership. Marketing is also important. Even I get dragged off now to attend a lit fest or a book fair — things we never had earlier. The first book fair that Delhi had was in 1969-70 on a small patch of wasteland near the Regal Cinema. Of course, now you have the World Book Fair. Literature festivals are a fairly recent phenomenon. Earlier, you had a book published, you were lucky to find it in a book shop, and maybe it would get reviewed. If they got popular, writers were known by their names. They were not recognised as they would be today.”
Bond had to leave in the middle of autographing books at the recent Book Fair in Delhi as he had got mobbed. He told us, “I had to be escorted out; I was only able to sign one book there for some poor lady who had all her hair pulled in various directions. Well, I was very kindly taken out, and because of my poor eyesight, I don’t notice half of these things anyway.”
Ruskin Bond and James Bond
“I did have an uncle called James. He is a dentist and wasn’t a secret agent. On his grave in the old Mussoorie cemetery, I wrote: ‘Strangers approach this spot with gravity. James Bond is filling his last cavity.’”
Telling us if he has been asked the quintessential question about when he was getting married, he said, “When I lived in Dehradun, after I came back from England, the landlady who had lent me a couple of rooms used to pester me. She was determined to get me married. She would produce from nowhere all sorts of attractive women who were 10 years older than me. The very opposite of what I would have wanted to get married to. This game used to carry on. She used to try very hard. I called her Bibiji. Even years later, when I was in my 50s and she was dying in Delhi, she was very old, the first thing she would say when I came to meet her would be: ‘Shaadi kab kar raha hai, Ruskin?’ She hadn’t given up.”
Describing the kind of woman he would have married, he says, “Thinking of the ones that I did want to, I’d say placid demure, good humoured, and pretty, of course. They didn’t have to be readers. I’ve been in love before and none of them were interested in my books or writing. Even none of my adopted family members have read anything that I write. I like it that way. I don’t want anybody telling me I could have done this better. Regarding marriage, people have asked me. I tell them I wasn’t lucky enough. In those early years, I didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t a very attractive catch for them. I didn’t have anyone who would arrange a marriage for me, apart from Bibiji. I mean parents or anybody like that. I proposed two to three girls, but they all turned me down. There was a Vietnamese girl in London; she made excuses. There was a girl in Delhi, but she was much younger than me, so her parents wouldn’t hear of it. But no regrets. So, I might have been married, and I can write about all these girls. However, had I married them, they wouldn’t have allowed me to write about them.”
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