How Ruskin Bond keeps the magic of boyhood alive

Though ‘Children’s Author’ is a tag that he is usually associated with, Bond began writing for children only in his forties   | Photo Credit: Deepak Harichandan

Ruskin Bond’s maiden foray onto the big screen, a cameo in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Saat Khoon Maaf released in 2011 (based on his own short story, Susanna’s Seven Husbands), was nerve-wracking, confesses the writer. He played the part of a fatherly priest in the movie, a role that saw him giving the lead character, performed by Priyanka Chopra, some advice and a chaste kiss on her cheek. But he hadn’t practised enough, he says. “So, when I kissed her, I knocked her glasses off.”

This was one notable moment, among many, of Ratna Sagar’s aptly-named Memorable Moments with Ruskin Bond, a special event organised by the publishing house for Chennai’s educationists and schoolchildren at Crowne Plaza Chennai Adyar Park. The freewheeling conversation with publisher Atiya Zaidi and educationist Uma Raman was punctuated with questions and rejoinders from his audience. Bond charmed them with stories, memories and observations, tinctured with the same kindness, warmth and wry humour typical of his stories.

A writer who reads

“I still think I am first a reader and then a writer,” he says, at a post-event interview. Books, as a poem penned by him goes, are his “familiar friends, these timeless tales” that “have been with me since I was ten.”

This friendship started because he was sent to a very strict school, where boys frequently got beaten. “Getting caned first introduced me to books,” he grins. The first time Bond was called to the headmaster’s study for a caning, he was advised by a friend to stuff two books down his trousers to minimise the pain. So, he did — Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to be precise. The headmaster discovered them, unfortunately, and he did get a painful caning after all. But it led to Bond becoming a bookworm who loved reading “Shakespeare, Dickens, Daphne du Maurier, Somerset Maugham,” among others.

From the reading sprang the writing. “I wanted to emulate my favourite authors,” says Bond, who wrote his first novel The Room on the Roof, when he was 17. The novel tells the story of Rusty, an Anglo-Indian teenager living in a European colony of Dehradun, who runs away from his guardian Mr Harrison, discovering a new world of love, friendship, food and more. The book started off as “rather autobiographical” says Bond. “Being so young I had only my own life to comment upon.” After several drafts which included changes in plot and fresh characters, it got more fictionalised, he says. It took him over a year to find a publisher. He got a good one, finally, he admits. “That helped to make it known and make me known,” he says, adding that he hasn’t changed a word of the novel since then. “When I wrote it, I was still an adolescent. There are things in it that could be improved from the writing point of view. But I’ve never touched it because I wanted it to represent me as I was then.”

A good life

There is still something Peter-Panish about Bond, despite his grey hair, wrinkles and slowed-down gait. He has kept, intact, his childlike wonder, his sense of possibility and his impish sense of humour. And he still holds onto the magic of his boyhood. “It’s the period I write about the most,” he agrees. His writer’s pen flings fairy dust on these childhood memories and conjures up the characters we love: eccentric Uncle Ken, Grandfather in a petticoat feeding his misandrous owls, the little princesses his father taught at a palace school in Jamnagar (it is here that Bond learnt how to read upside down, a superior skill, he assures us). This, perhaps, explains why his young readers love him so much. “I like children because children like me,” he says, with a grin, a comment that saw the children in the audience explode into laughter, yet again.

Though ‘Children’s Author’ is a tag that he is usually associated with, Bond began writing for children only in his forties. “I was always good at writing about children. But I wrote those stories without a reader in mind,” he says. Then, by sheer chance, he wrote a story called Angry River, a story about a little girl, Sita, who lives with her grandparents in a hut on an island. It was intended to be a novel, but the publisher said it was too short to be one. With revisions, however, it could be a good children’s book. So, Bond went ahead and made those changes.

Bond over banter
  • On The Hindu
  • When I started writing, I wrote the odd piece for The Hindu. But I wrote for Sports and Pastime (a weekly sports magazine published by The Hindu group from 1947 to 1968). They would publish not just sports news, but short stories. Some of my earliest stories were published there.
  • On trains
  • “A lot of my early stories are set in trains, and platforms and stations where I have romantic encounters with mysterious girls (laughs). Except looking back, they could be uncomfortable. Those steam engines. By the end of the journey, you ended up with an upset tummy and badly needed a bath.”
  • On writer’s block
  • “The best way to avoid it is to write your story in your head, then put it down. Or put it aside and come back to it later. And keep a wastepaper basket handy.”
  • On James Bond
  • “I’m not related to him (the spy). But I do have an uncle called James Bond. He was a dentist.”

“I did it for practical reasons, but I thought it was fun. So, I wrote more for children,” says Bond, who today splits his writing, focussing on both children and adults in equal measure. “Children,” he says, “are harder to please. An adult will put up with you for two or three chapters, a child won’t.”

Nature, children, memories, family, the hills, animals and the more-than-occasional ghost find their way into his writing, all of it: poetry, prose, short stories and novellas (he doesn’t, particularly, enjoy writing full-fledged novels). As with many storytellers, Bond’s characters are culled from the real world, amalgamations or fictionalised versions of the people (and animals, not the ghosts, thankfully) he has met, spent time with, and loved.

Through the many landscapes he remembers and recreates — the deserted railway station at Shamli; the dusty yet dream-ridden town of Pipalnagar; a sleepy, idyllic version of Dehradun, populated with tongas and trees — strides the author himself, both character and narrator.

For Bond, the border between fact and fiction is a porous one. “I am a very subjective writer,” he says, admitting that he rarely can detach himself from a story. “Critics say that a writer should detach himself. I don’t — I am best at telling the story through my own eyes.”

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 9:04:57 AM |

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