Ruskin Bond: The Solitary Reaper

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Ruskin Bond relives his journey from the isolation of childhood to the home he found in the hills

Lone Fox Dancing | Ruskin Bond | Speaking Tiger | Rs 599 | Pages 277

EVERYONE KNOWS RUSKIN Bond. And that is the crux. Even if we have never met him, he seems familiar. Most of us first encountered him as junior school students. To read Bond’s stories was akin to ambling through his home, watching the sun set over the Himalayas, listening to the whistling thrush in the trees and ghosts clattering teacups in the drawing room. His stories were so intricately woven into his life’s experiences that to read him was to know him.

He is often called India’s ‘beloved’ writer because of his influence on young readers, who regard his home in the hills as a shrine, and his post box a confessional. They send him lengthy manuscripts, first drafts of novels and poems that rhyme. He also receives melancholic letters from young readers, especially girls who are unhappy at home. They regard Bond not merely as an author, but an ally and possible guardian.

Sixty-five years after starting his writing career, with 30-odd novels and countless short stories, anthologies and essays to his name, Bond is now out with his autobiography (Lone Fox Dancing; Speaking Tiger; Rs 599: Pages 277). With his fiction, we readers built an image of him in our head, the amiable grandfather who always had a story up his sleeve, who might leave the room all of a sudden when fatigued of company. His memoir proves that our suspicions were right; writing is his sustenance and succour, the hills are his muse, and solitude is often preferable to company. If the book were to have a subtitle, it could be ‘Living by Writing’.

Like all of Bond’s books, this autobiography is eminently readable and engaging. Even when it grapples with loneliness and unhappiness, it retains warmth and tenderness. His writing has never been a work of genius. We enjoy his stories because he can spin a yarn and can immerse us in his world. But we seldom gasp at the craftsman of his sentences or marvel at his engagement with the times. His canvas is the immediate, and his strokes assured. He soothes and comforts readers, he doesn’t thrill us. His insight and sensitivity compensate for his lack of ardour. He’s a writer who admits that he seldom edits his lines. (He writes with a ballpoint pen on lined paper and posts his manuscripts to “indulgent” publishers who then type it out). The result is that his work is effortless, but not perfect. His prolificacy has ensured that he has stayed in the public eye, his books occupy entire shelves in shops and libraries, but there is also a certain déjà vu to his work. You might read a story for the first time, but you feel you’ve read it before.

In recent years, I've done more non-fiction than fiction. Perhaps, it is easier to do more non-fiction. And as I am getting older, I'm getting lazy

In his autobiography, he writes, ‘I suppose most writers, to a greater or lesser extent, base their fictional characters upon real people. Mine come very close to the reality. It is my own response to them that varies. The most fictional of all characters is myself.’ In Lone Fox Dancing, the reader encounters the factual author Ruskin Bond who is very similar to the fictional one. When we meet in the capital, he lumbers into the room, smiles wanly and requests that he be allowed to stay in one place. Looking down from the eighth floor of the Taj Mahal Hotel at Lutyens’ green canopy, the 83-year-old author explains the difference between his fiction and biography. He says, “What I’ve done in early years and later is take people and events from my life and fictionalise it, in order to make a good story or make a point. In recent years, I’ve done more non- fiction than fiction. Perhaps, it is easier to do more non-fiction. And as I am getting older, I’m getting lazy. Because with non- fiction, you don’t have to invent a plot or an imaginary sequence.”

His other recent non-fiction book, Confessions of a Book Lover, which was published earlier this year, documents a few of his favourite writers and their writings. The authors in the book include Virginia Woolf, Laurence Sterne and Joseph Conrad. The book that Bond had to relinquish for our interview and which rests on his Delhi bedside table is Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. He enjoys Conrad’s novellas for how they conjure the sea and cast him into the “rushing wind and tumbling waves”. Bond might be a man of the mountains, but he loves stories of the ocean.

Bond’s relationship with reading is not merely one of leisure, it is about survival. Lone Fox Dancing chronicles the aching loneliness and isolation that he felt as a boy, especially as a 10-year-old when his father died. He writes of that day when the ‘bottom fell out of his world’: ‘A great void opened up in front of me; I knew almost immediately that my life had changed forever, and that there was nothing, absolutely nothing to look forward to.’ It was only in 2001, at the age of 67, that he dared visit his father’s grave in Calcutta. In the wake of this tragedy, only books provided him solace and writing became his path to freedom.

I have been writing for 65 years. Children haven't changed, though what they do might have changed

Studying at Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, and thanks to Mr Jones, a kind teacher with a pet pigeon, he got access to The Complete Works of Charles Dickens. The book threw him into the lives of David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. He writes, ‘If I had to choose a moment when I began to think seriously about becoming a writer, it would have to be this period.’ In his last year at prep, he started writing his first book Nine Months, which detailed friendships and escapades at school and lampooned a few teachers. The writing bug had sunk its teeth into him. As a quixotic teenager, he was scornful of money and indifferent to fame, he was attracted simply by ‘the romance of being a writer’.

But it would be a while before he could fulfil his dream of living by writing. After school he moved to the UK, where he spent dull days in a clerical job. It was only once he returned to the hills in 1956, as a 22-year-old that The Room on the Roof, his debut book, came to be serialised in the Weekly, illustrated by the renowned cartoonist Mario Miranda. It has been 41 years since The Room on the Roof came to life, but it still holds a special place for Bond. He says, “It is full of immaturities. But it has a certain intensity that you can only have at that age. I have never ever changed a word or comma in it because it represents me as I was then. It is a book about adolescence by an adolescent and that is what makes it different. Once a thing is printed and published, I don’t make changes.” He looks back at his earlier work and wishes he could still write like that, believing that he was a better writer then as he was less jaded and could still see the world through fresh eyes.

The Room on the Roof, with its teenage protagonist Rusty, became a cult book for young adult readers. While Bond wrote his first few children’s book in his forties (Angry River, Panther’s Moon and The Blue Umbrella), his connection with children has only strengthened. He says, “I have been writing for 65 years. Children haven’t changed, though what they do might have changed.” He is optimistic about the reading habits of the young, even though he acknowledges that reading is a minority art. He reasons that even when he was in school, in a class of 20, only two or three boys actually enjoyed reading books.

Most writers find it impossible to favour one work over another, likening it to comparing a child with its siblings. But for someone as prolific as Bond, favourites easily surface. Looking back, he says he is particularly fond of a few of his short stories such as The Night Train at Deoli and The Woman on Platform 8. If Bond has spent decades framing the natural world in his words, he has always had a love for the railways. In his twenties, when he was lovelorn and sentimental, he’d often buy a platform ticket just so that he could sit at a station and watch the world go by. And, of course, to find a story, which he often did. He says, “There is a great deal of human interest there (at a station). Something or the other is happening. People are coming and going, saying goodbye. I could just watch what was happening. That was my romantic period.”

If Lone Fox Dancing is an ode to the writing life, it is also about a search for home. He spent 10 years in boarding, two in Mussoorie and eight in Shimla. He visited a different house every time he met his mother and step-father and their children. ‘Home’ was a concept and not a reality for a young Bond. His mother and step-father lived in Delhi in the 60s, and moved between south Patel Nagar, west Patel Nagar and Rajouri Garden. Delhi has become unrecognisable since, but much to his surprise, Bond found that Atul Grove Lane, where he spent a year with his father, has remained quite the same. In this ‘quiet cul-de-sac’ close to Connaught Place (the heart of Delhi), he spent the long summer of 1942 playing football and wrestling with his friend, Joseph. When he visited two years ago, he was pleased to find that it was “exactly as it has been”.

In the hills, he found his true home. First, it was Maplewood Lodge, where the forest seeped into his cottage, and now in Landour, where he dwells among the clouds. A window is essential, he believes, not only to a writer, but to any sensitive human being. “When I wake up, I look up at the clouds (through the window). Then I look directly ahead at the hills and the mountains. Then I look down at the two-three roads that zigzag below. And if I look right down, there is a garbage dump. So you get something of everything.”

For someone who always felt like a ‘mixed-up colonial castaway, an accident of history’, the hills of India provided acceptance, refuge, and, most importantly, beauty. Beauty, after all, is what drives him as an author. As he writes in his biography, ‘But I was—have always been—by nature a lazy person. Disciplined, but lazy, because beauty interested me more than anything else—a beautiful person, beautiful in mind or body; a delicate flower; birds and birdsong; sunlight and moonlight on trees and tin roofs.’ His stories and novels thrive because they remind us of the beauty that lives around us.