Ruskin Bond celebrates 70 years of storytelling with ‘A Song Of India’

The landline rings a couple of times before it is answered; it is not often that you have a Mr Bond say that he was expecting your call. It is a Landour kind of day — brilliant sunshine filters through the dancing keyholes of the deodar's dark-green, needle-shaped leaves. After a night of lashing rain, the room on the roof has flooded and the morning has been spent mopping up, I am told.

Ruskin Bond, 86, has spent nearly 70 years wielding his pen — he is one of India’s most prolific writers, a staple for children, a recipient of Sahitya Akademi, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awards, and a mascot for nostalgia.

“There’s quite a bit of traffic on the road below. But the valley’s landscape is unchanged and the mornings are still full of birdsong,” says Bond, of the view from his window. It is this hypnotic appeal of recasting life for today’s reader even while looking back with love, of painting a picture of clouds boiling up from the valley even as cars fishtail up the steep hills, that has ensured Bond has survived the tidal shifts of Indian writing in English.

Revisiting boyhood

In A Song Of India (published by Penguin’s Puffin Books) which comes after Looking For The Rainbow, Till The Clouds Roll By and Coming Round The Mountain — all beautifully illustrated by Mihir Joglekar — Bond, who is of British descent, travels the arc of his boyhood. The separation of his parents; a magical year with his father in Delhi; his school days at Bishop Cotton, Shimla, where he was part of a mischievous gang of boys called the Fearsome Four; the death of his father when he was 10 that forever left a hole in his heart; his independent streak when he went to live with his mother and her new family in Dehradun; losing his friends to Partition; the friendships with boys from his hometown that have survived; the many loves who flitted in and out of his life even while he never summoned the courage to act; and the year he went away at 16 to the Channel Islands in the UK to find a new life fill the pages.

“I have a vivid memory of my boyhood,” says Bond. “I did keep a diary but it got me into trouble at school. My childhood in Jamnagar, where my father was employed by the Jam Saheb, resulted in friendships with children across backgrounds. It was a different milieu when my mother married a Punjabi Hindu. After Partition, my Muslim friends left and Sikh friends took their place. I settled here in 1964 and the years have merged. But my boyhood stands apart.”

Ruskin Bond celebrates 70 years of storytelling with ‘A Song Of India’

A Song of India that follows is a tribute that is warm with detail without being overwhelming. It is also a lilting love song to the country that has been the love of his life.

It is this sense of belonging, a necessary quality for a writer, that makes Bond still relevant. “Strangely enough, kids are still interested in stories set half a century ago, even ghost stories, though it takes a lot to scare them these days. Many write to ask about the girl at Deoli station, a bittersweet story written in 1956.”

Falling in love is a constant theme, even if the love never comes to fruition. “I was very vulnerable,” says Bond. “It didn’t take long for me to fall in love even if sometimes it was a one-way thing. With Raj {from A Song Of India with whom he played badminton and whose parathas he devoured earning him the moniker Paratha Bond} it was more a friendship. I lost touch with her when I left for England.”

In the UK, Bond worked four jobs, which he “never saw as careers, although I did consider becoming a tap dancer or a botanist”. He wrote in the evenings and watched Jean Renoir’s film The River, based on Rumer Godden’s book, to tide over homesickness.

His debut Room On The Roof won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957 and paid for his passage home. “The book would make a fine film,” says Bond, who writes in long-hand almost every morning and is reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “But for how long can you get pleasure in biting a lady in the neck?” he laughs.

Looking back at how his writing began, Bond says, “16 is an important year for all of us. Perhaps that’s why it stands out.”

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2020 9:46:05 PM |

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