In the Capital to receive the Padma Bhushan award, Ruskin Bond reminisces about writing in times gone by
It's always wonderful to meet an author who made you fall in love with the hills before you had ever set eyes on them. A few days away from his 80th birthday, Ruskin Bond was in Delhi last week, to receive the Padma Bhushan award. “I am grateful, and it’s really nice to be honoured. I'm not sure I deserve it though,” he said, modest despite being one of the best known, and best loved authors among both adults and children today. He started writing in school, and today, Bond remembers a time long ago, when things were very different for authors. “There has been a lot of change, of course. For one thing, 50 years ago, a writer wasn’t a face. You were known by your writing, by your by-line, or by your books. There was no television those days; the visual medium didn’t exist. You weren’t even interviewed.” In fact, Bond's first interview took place almost 20 years after his first novel, The Room on the Roof, was published in 1956. “It had been serialised in the Illustrated Weekly and I got a couple of reviews here and there, but that's all.” Laughingly, he adds that it was even later that he became a face as well as a name for readers. “I wish it had been then, when I had had a better face.”
While Bond started writing when books were not being published in India, he was still determined to make a living as an author. “And I was basically a fiction writer. Fortunately in those days, lots of magazines and newspapers carried fiction, so I would bombard them with my writing.” The Hindu, he says, was one such paper. “I wrote a lot of articles and stories for Sport and Pastime, Hindu's weekly sports magazine, way back in the 1950s and ’60s. I don’t know if they are still preserved in your archives.” For each story, Bond would be paid around Rs.50. Apart from the money he made from his work, he also built up quite a collection of ready work. “When books started being published in India, in the ’80s, I had all that material I could go into collections with.”
Times might have changed, but Bond maintains that his writing hasn’t changed all that much. “Perhaps I am more cynical now, more humorous too. I’ve learned to look at the ridiculous side of life. But I write about people, and human relationships. That hasn’t changed, though the externals have.”
Recently, someone asked Bond if he still works on his typewriter. “I said, no, I've abandoned it. I'm very high tech now. I write by hand”.
Today, Bond writes in a different world from the one he started in. And while his books have made their way into the Kindles, iPads and Nooks, he has never really become comfortable with technology. “I'm not really nostalgic but I have never been a practical person. And I was never easy with any kind of machinery. I could never drive a car properly except through a wall. Even normal telephones would put me off. If today I am uneasy with computers or even mobile phones and things, it’s not because I’m against progress.” Recently, someone asked Bond if he still works on his typewriter. “I said, no, I've abandoned it. I'm very high tech now. I write by hand”.
Though known widely as a children's author, the truth is that Bond’'s work, he admits himself, isn’t always meant for a particular readership. “The Room on the Roof was general fiction, though it was written by an adolescent about an adolescent. Today, it might qualify as a Young Adult novel.” Of course, many children today are introduced to Bond’s work in schools, with his stories making their way into the English syllabus. And Bond has made it a point to keep in touch with his readers. He visits bookstores and schools on a regular basis, though he admits that it is beginning to be tiring now. “It is nice to have that generation span of readers. I meet parents and children, and people who read me 20-30 years ago. Some of them went on to read more of my work. Some didn’t.”
Bond himself, he adds, has always been a reader. “I was a literary sort of boy. I moved on from children’s to adult fiction very soon. Though I started with Alice in Wonderland, and I still read it now, I moved on, maybe within a year, to authors like Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene”. It was his love for reading that led Bond towards writing. “My early writing might have been very literary. I was trying to emulate my favourite authors. As I grew older, it changed, and living in the mountains, I came closer to nature. The more people I met, the more experiences I had, the bigger my canvas grew.” Bond adds that even if he had not lived in the mountains, he would have still been interested in writing and books. “The written word would have played a vital role in my life, no matter where I grew up”.