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Ruskin Bond’s autobiography: Notes from a small room

Lone Fox Dancing Ruskin Bond Speaking Tiger ₹599  

To readers who have followed his every word, Ruskin Bond’s autobiography won’t be much of a surprise. After all, incidents from his life have been fictionalised in many of his stories. In fact, if you’re reading the book, it might be a good idea to keep a pile of his other books nearby. Every now and then, a fleeting ‘where have I read this?’ led me to hunt through the various Collected Works that I have collected.

The book is divided into four parts — his childhood, school years, life in England, and finally back in India —with photographs of family and friends. Sadly, there is none of Uncle Ken, for whom I looked eagerly. But you get to see the originals of Somi, Kishen and Ranbir.

Bond begins with his earliest memories; “of a little boy who ate a lot of kofta curry and was used to having his way.” The reader is introduced first to Osman, the khansama, and via his story to Jamnagar and the Bond family. And to the fact that young Ruskin was the result of a “torrid affair” between a 36-year-old man and an 18-year-old girl who probably got married because the child was on its way.

The senior Bond found a job as tutor to the prince of Jamnagar’s children and, in attending these classes, Bond junior learnt the useful art of reading things upside down.

After his father, the most important person in his life during this phase was his ayah who was immortalised in his first “literary effort” that compares her to a papaya. Quarrels between the parents are noted almost as a footnote to an idyllic childhood.

Childhood memories

When World War II broke out, Bond senior enlisted in the Royal Air Force while the family moved to Dehradun to be with the “Dehra Granny”, as Bond calls his maternal grandmother. Now you learn that all those lovely tales of the eccentric grandfather were “either made up or based on hearsay”. It is at Dehradun that the pampered child is suddenly forced to grow up: a disapproving grandma, a mother who is out with another man, a strict school... ending with parents’ separation and Bond going to be with his father.

Bond makes no secret of the fact that he preferred life with his father. He ranks the few months that he was in his father’s custody as the happiest time of his childhood but one does wonder at how often the eight-year-old is left all alone. “New Delhi was a safer place in the 1940s than it is in the 21st century,” writes Bond, and you are forced to agree when you read of his life in the capital.

But this happy life came to an end when the youngster is packed off to school—Bishop Cotton’s in Shimla. Within a couple of years, the father, weakened by repeated bouts of malaria, died of hepatitis. “And so the bottom had fallen out of my world,” writes Bond and the following pages are a poignant analysis of his relationship with his father. He goes home to his mother for the holidays to find that no one has come to receive him. The 10-year-old makes his way to his grandmother’s house only to find out that his mother has remarried: the same gentleman who led to his parents’ separation.

A sense of melancholy, punctuated with wry humour, pervades the narrative as Bond takes the reader through life in school and with his mother and her family during the holidays. You can actually conjure up in your mind’s eye the image of a confused child trying to make sense of a world that has suddenly gone awry. Bond candidly admits that he did not try to reach out to his mother and stepfather and probably rebuffed their overtures.

A little room beckons

Once he finished school, Bond began to look for ways to achieve his ambition: that of being a writer and going to England, “where all the writers I had admired had made their careers.” Bond’s account of his sojourn first in Jersey and later London keeps one hooked: whether it is his interactions with the legendary Diana Athill; his chance encounter with Graham Greene, pointing to how much things have changed for authors in the years since; his one-sided love affair with a Vietnamese girl, or his explorations of Britain’s capital. Through all this the reader is conscious of how much he is missing home. “All I really wanted was my little room back again,” he writes.

This longing leads him to leave London rather suddenly and return to India. Back in Dehra, he begins writing for magazines like The Illustrated Weekly of India and the reader meets a range of characters like Bibiji, his stepfather’s first wife; lawyer Suresh; journalist William Matheson. Here too he has a chance encounter with a literary great, G.V. Desani, who was getting authors to sign a petition nominating him for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A stint in Delhi leads to a lovely chapter of what the city was like in 1959. As he writes of “extensive fields of wheat and other crops that stretched away to the west and north” of Rajouri Gardens, I remember the urban clutter of the early 1990s and sigh. While working for the Council for Tibetan Relief (CARE), he also makes peace with his mother and her family. It is through CARE that he finally gets to Mussoorie and decides that if his dream of being a writer “was to become a reality, this was the time to do something about it.”

All is well

In the summer of 1963, an almost-thirty Bond returns to the hills, never to leave. The last part of the book is familiar territory for Bond’s readers—a combination of nature writing and stories of people—as we learn how he became the Ruskin Bond that most of us love. He talks about the arrival of Prem and then his family, who become his adopted family; of steering a magazine called Imprint through the Emergency; finding himself under arrest for publishing a story in Debonair; and of meeting Indira Gandhi; of storms and squirrels; of Maplewood and Ivy Cottage. And of, finally, becoming popular and being in demand. “I’m like a shopkeeper hoarding bags full of grains, only I hoard words. There are still people who buy words and I hope I can keep bringing a little sunshine and pleasure into their lives to the end of my days.” We hope so too, Mr. Bond.

Lone Fox Dancing; Ruskin Bond, Speaking Tiger, ₹599.


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