Raj Kanwar recalls his friendship with author Ruskin Bond who turned 79 on May 19.
Do you see what I see?” asked Ruskin Bond excitedly as we stood in the balcony of his room overlooking Astley Hall, Rajpur Road, in Dehra Dun. I gave him a blank look. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you see those beautiful young college girls walking down the street, gossiping and laughing?”
That was the day Ruskin wore his new glasses. His vision had become impaired and only the day before, at my instance, he had got his eyes examined by Dr. B.S. Rathke. Ruskin’s brand new glasses gave him an entirely new perspective, enabling him to see clearly the familiar street scene below. “Oh my god,” he grumbled, “Now I realise what beautiful things I had missed all these months.”
This was in late 1955; Ruskin’s vision had weakened over the previous few months as he did much of his reading and writing by lamplight. The power supply to his stepmother’s house had been disconnected due to non-payment of electricity dues. Though his first novel, Room on the Roof, had been accepted by Andre Deutsch Ltd., a London publishing house, and he had also wangled an advance of £50 against future royalties to pay for his return voyage to India (the book was eventually published in 1956 to rave reviews), he was yet to be included in the privileged class of published authors.
Ruskin was then a struggling freelance writer, selling his short stories to the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India.
Other leading newspapers and magazines like The Sunday Statesman, The Hindu, The Tribune and The Onlooker (of Bombay, now defunct) too lapped up Ruskin’s simple stories. I was then a Dehra Dun-based correspondent for The Statesman and The Tribune and got complimentary copies. I was the first to rush to Ruskin’s room if his story was published. Ruskin would also get complimentary copies if and when his story got published. We did not buy our own copies; at that time every penny counted and we scrimped on these avoidable expenses. It was then a hand-to-mouth existence, more for Ruskin than for me. I was lucky since I lived with my family, and the money I earned was extra. Ruskin, on the other hand, had to earn his livelihood from his writings alone. He lived primarily on his guts, wit and pen. Ruskin and I would walk down the small distance from his Astley Hall room to the Post Office at 9.30 in the morning around the middle of each month just to check if our money orders or letters containing cheques from our respective publications had arrived.
Yet, we had somewhat expensive tastes. We would have a glass of cold coffee crème and a giant mutton samosa for eight annas at Kwality and Indiana, two of the more expensive restaurants. As we were regular customers, the restaurants’ owners were gracious enough to extend credit facility at least to me. To make matters worse, Ruskin was generous to a fault and often paid for beer for some of his student friends, who were invariably short of money.
Ruskin is today a much-published and much venerated author. Though not many of his books were ‘bestsellers’, most have had repeat editions, entertaining over three generations of children and a large number of adults too. Four of his stories have also been adapted for movies. Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992, and later in 1999 he was given the coveted Padmashri Award.
This year, 2013, Ruskin completes 65 years as a writer. His has been a long and at times arduous journey, yet today he stands much taller among his peers.
This article has been corrected for a factual error