Ruskin Bond at 85: From his room in the hills

Ruskin Bond, in his room. Landour, Mussorie. May, 2019.   | Photo Credit: Vangmayi Parakala

It’s a drizzle-flecked Sunday in Landour, and Ruskin Bond’s cup of morning chai has gone cold. It sits still on his writing table, pushed to a corner, forgotten. There’s a flurry of friends bounding up the stairs to greet him and he hasn’t had time for a sip. But there’s cake, lots of it, and his family makes sure there’s a plate in every empty hand around the house.

It’s his birthday cake; you cannot refuse.

Bond just turned 85, and for the first time in his six-decade long writing career, the intensely private author has agreed to release a new book on the same day, May 19th. He will soon head out for the birthday-cum-launch party at his usual Sunday haunt — the Cambridge Bookstore in Mussorie. Here, patient fans have always managed a meeting.

The book in question, Coming Round the Mountain, is the third in a series of Penguin-published autobiographical novellas for young readers, which details episodes from his childhood.

The first of these, Looking for the Rainbow, came out in 2017, the same year that Speaking Tiger published his full-length autobiography Lone Fox Dancing .

Clearly, over the past couple years, Bond has been reminiscing.

“As you get older, you have more to remember. You look back, and as you ponder about the past, you start remembering things you’d almost forgotten or hadn’t thought about much,” Bond says. It’s no secret though that almost everything he’s ever written — short stories, novels, and essays/anthologies — has been informed and inspired by his own life. We’ve all been privy to fictionalised versions of his long-lost friends and loves, his parents, and the people from his boarding school years.

Ruskin Bond releases Coming Round the Mountain, the third part from his series of childhood memoirs for young adults on his 85th birthday in Landour, Mussorie.

Ruskin Bond releases Coming Round the Mountain, the third part from his series of childhood memoirs for young adults on his 85th birthday in Landour, Mussorie.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It’s a wonder then that after all these decades, he can still remember what’s real and what’s made up. “I have a good vivid memory, a very visual memory,” he says, by way of explanation. “But it gets confusing sometimes!” A low, but hearty laugh. Last year, Bond met a boyhood friend, and had recalled in conversation that the two of them had watched Gone With the Wind together at the Orient Cinema in Dehra Dun. The friend didn’t know what he was talking about. “I said to him, ‘Don’t you remember, it was so boring we walked out in the middle?’ But he couldn’t remember it at all. He instead remembered something totally different, which I had had no memory of,” Bond says. “So I guess memory can be tricky — selective,” he adds.

Bond on screen
  • Junoon: A 1978 film, based on A Flight of Pigeons, set in the Revolt of 1857, directed by Shyam Benegal
  • Ek Tha Rusty: Three seasons of a Doordarshan show based on his short stories, directed by Shubhadarshini Singh
  • The Blue Umbrella: A 2005 film, based on a story of the same name. Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj; on Netflix
  • 7 Khoon Maaf: A 2011 film, based on Susanna’s Seven Husbands. Also directed by Vishal Bhardwaj; on Netflix
  • The Black Cat: A 2017 short film, adapted by a fan Bharghav Saikia in 2017. One of actor Tom Alter’s last; on Youtube

He concedes that he’s contradicted himself at least once in these past four books. In Lone Fox, Bond remembers a school headmaster with some resentment. In the latest book however, he ends on a friendlier note. “I resented him because I felt he’d been unfair in his treatment of me. But then on the other hand, maybe that treatment did me some good in the long run. So you think, ‘oh well he wasn’t such a bad chap after all, huh?’”

What is inevitable learning from a conversation with Bond is the quality to ride easy over life’s countless ebbs and tides. He’s fully aware, and comfortable, of how one tends to alter their perceptions of reality as time passes; and he has never punished himself for not wanting to write.

“Writing has never been a task. It might’ve been if I’d taken on assignments — and then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.” In interviews earlier, Bond has often called himself lazy and not particularly hard working.

“I don’t use a chair anymore. When I’m sleepy in between writing, I just topple back into bed.”

“I don’t use a chair anymore. When I’m sleepy in between writing, I just topple back into bed.”   | Photo Credit: Vangmayi Parakala

This ease seems to be the secret to Bond’s longevity in the business. At least three big Indian publishing houses — Rupa, Speaking Tiger, and Penguin — have maintained a consistent relationship with him for years.

This very disposition, so palpable in his writing, is also the reason why his work continues to be accessible to almost everybody — not an easy feat any more in a country where Indian writers in English with a certain ‘mass’ appeal are looked at with a certain disdain. But almost every English-reader in India would’ve at some point spent time with Rusty; they would’ve all loved how samosa, jalebi, bhutta are crucial companions to events in a Bond book.

Bhutta is what Bond and his friends Azhar Khan, Brian Adams, and Cyrus Satralkar are eating in Coming Round the Mountain, as news of India’s Partition trickles into their lives. They’re about to lose each other in the confusion of the subcontinent’s redrawn borders. They don’t know that yet. “Right now, the rain is the same as it was yesterday,” he writes as having said.

The poignancy of the moment won’t be lost even on young readers who have no real context of the event. Bond’s work, despite not overtly appearing so, has always had a strong connect with the socio-political realities of its times. But he’s never worn his politics on his sleeve. “I think it rather dates very quickly, if you write too politically,” he says. It is through a strong sense of how events play out on an individual that Bond has managed to be, in an odd sense, a chronicler of the everyday stories, even if fictionalised, of the people of Independent India.

Surely, the drizzle this morning would’ve felt very different 72 years after that post-partition rain. But when he opens a simple, single-ruled notepad, Bond shows a glimpse of a new story he’s written — back to fiction, he’s done with memoirs — and just like all those many years ago, it is in his steady long-hand.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 11:50:46 AM |

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