Plain tales from the hills

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Ruskin Bond’s stories continue to enthral readers across generations

Ruskin Bond’s stories are imbued with a gentle humour, warmth and kindness that have made them loved by generations of children and adults. And speaking to the author recently on the occasion of his 75th birthday (May 19), it was clear that those qualities are as much a part of the man himself as they are of his work.

“I don’t want to see another cake for a year or two,” he tells me ruefully when we finally get to talk. Getting hold of the author has been rather difficult, not because he’s unapproachable. Far from it. It’s just that he’s been flooded with calls and visits from well-wishers and fans alike. And they all brought him cake. “I’ve eaten so much — and I’ve already been told I need to lose weight!” he says. “But the more thoughtful young readers gave me pens because they know I still write by hand.”

Young fans

He talks about his young fans often during the interview, and his fondness for them is apparent. He tells me, for instance, about the little girl who came up to him and said, “Mr. Ruskin Bond, I really like your ghost stories, but your ghosts aren’t scary enough.” “She told me, ‘Why don’t you make them scarier?’” he chuckles in amusement.

Gently optimistic

“I guess kids want more hair-raising stuff!” And then there’s the little girl he met in a school in Delhi, who was asked what she thought of him. “She thought about it for a minute, looked me and up and down and said seriously, ‘You’re not a bad writer’,” he recalls. “I took it as a wonderful compliment.”

A Ruskin Bond story never ends on anything but a gently optimistic note, and I realise that this is part of the way the author views the world. I ask him, for example, how the hill stations he’s spent most of his life in have changed in the 50-odd years that he’s written about them.

“Well, they have changed in the sense that they’re more crowded, with far more vehicular traffic,” he says. “But, you know, the mountains themselves don’t change. If you take the trouble, you can still find quiet, beautiful spots as you walk through the hills.”

Even his memories are tinged with that positivity. “One tends to look back on the good times rather than the bad,” he tells me. “When I think back to my grandmother’s house, I don’t remember the fights I had with her, but her beautiful garden and the lovely kofta curries she made.”

It’s these recollections of places and people — and he says he has a wonderful memory for both the recent and the distant past — that provide him with all the stories he needs. “And when I run out of people, I can always turn to ghosts,” he smiles. “Though I must admit, I’ve never met one; I just imagine them!”

It isn’t surprising, then, that 17-year-old Ruskin didn’t last very long when he left this familiar and beloved milieu for the British Isles in the early 1950s. “I was very homesick and I wanted to come back within a few months,” he recalls.

“But I needed to save up for the sea passage. When I got an advance on my first book, Room on the Roof — it was just 50 pounds, not huge amounts like today — I had enough for a passage to Bombay. I even had 10 pounds left to get to Dehradun!”

And, as he puts it, he just ‘forgot to leave,’ living there to this day with his adopted son and his extended family. In the years that came, the stories flowed. His early stories, he says, were meant for a general audience, even though they often drew upon his childhood memories.

Writing for children happened almost by accident. “I had just written Angry River, a novella, and since my publishers felt it was too short for adults, they asked if I’d consider modifying it into a children’s book,” he says. “Being of a fairly pragmatic nature, that’s exactly what I did, and it was very well received.”

It’s still the novella that attracts the author (“definitely no big, fat novels”), though he does enjoy writing personal essays (of the sort we saw in The India I Love (2006)) and the occasional poem (“though they’re hard to get published!”). “There’s still so much to write about,” he says. His fans, young and old, will be glad to hear that.





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