Literary Review

Ruskin Bond recommends...

Called The Ruskin Bond Selection , a new series by Speaking Tiger is digging out books from the past, especially recommended by Ruskin Bond. The books picked so far carry the distinct flavour of the Raj, evoking nature, nostalgia and the fine art of storytelling, and include The Valley of Flowers by Frank Smythe, first published in 1938, and Jon and Rumer Godden’s Two Under the Indian Sun and Rungli Rungliot , both dating to the 1940s. Moving further down history, the selection digs out Alice Perrin’s first collection of short stories, East of Suez , published in 1901, and Jerome K. Jerome’s Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow , first published in 1886. The latest book is Gulbadan by Rumer Godden, first published in 1980. The series editor and Managing Editor at Speaking Tiger, Anurag Basnet, talks about the story behind the series.

How did the idea of the series first come to be? Was reviving Raj literature part of what gave it shape?

Ruskin Bond has been writing for a long time, but he has been reading for even longer. That is where this idea sprang from. In fact, speaking to him, or even reading his stories and essays, one can sense the breadth and scope of his reading and his tremendous recall. We are, in a sense, picking titles from his bookshelf. So we came up with the idea, proposed it to him, and he was quite excited about it.

It wasn’t really about doing a certain type of book — whether Raj literature or this or that. I don’t think pigeonholing books into convenient niches makes much sense. But yes, because many of these are books Bond would have read in his childhood, they definitely come from the previous century, which is why some of the books have a definite Raj flavour. At the moment, the fact that all these books are from the Raj is incidental, and while this period of history will make an appearance, the series is not going to be just that.

What’s also interesting is the way the selection displays Ruskin Bond’s name. The labels on the covers do claim the books are part of the series, but they are subtle, not overt.

Now that you point it out, yes, we haven’t been over the top in branding the series. But that’s because, if you are reintroducing a title (to readers), the book also has to stand on its own. We might change our minds over time. But right now, I think it works.

How collaborative has the selection procedure been ?

The process is collaborative, it has to be. Bond suggests books, mostly. And if we find one that we think should be included in the selection, we ask him. For instance, The Valley of Flowers, a book in the series that is a personal favourite, I stumbled upon it in the process of putting together an anthology called The Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations, Life. When we were putting that anthology together, I was reading a lot, across the board, on the Himalayas. That’s when I came across this book, and Bond had been considering it too. But even in that case, we did ask him, because the important thing, something that’s crucial to the series, is that the book has to be one he has read and loved. We obviously won’t foist our choices upon him. It is absolutely a collaborative process and I’d say that Bond’s contribution is much more than ours.

As editors and publishers, what do you look for in the books you are reviving — yesteryear charm, nostalgia, relevance?

A little of everything, but as for relevance, I’m not very sure. How does one figure out relevance in such a fast changing world? I mean, what would be relevant from, let’s say, the 19th century, when Alice Perrin wrote East of Suez. What is for sure is that most of these books are proven bestsellers of their times. They’ve stood, in a sense, the test of time. What they all have is excellence in writing, a certain timelessness. This is our principal criteria, and Bond’s too. For instance, Rungli Rungliot is an account by novelist Rumer Godden of the time she spent in a remote tea garden in Darjeeling just before World War II. It is an innocuous book, but what resonates is the writing, the sense of isolation the book evokes and, the peace such isolation brings. The Valley of Flowers by Frank Smythe is similar. The valley as we know it today is totally different from the one in the book. Smythe was one of the first climbers to attempt Everest, preceding Mallory and others. He was climbing Kamet, and on his way back, he and his party got lost in a thunderstorm. Then, after a certain altitude, the rain stopped, the weather cleared, and in front of them was this rolling meadow. They called it ‘the valley of flowers’. Three years later, he went back to it. This was just before the struggle for Independence. This book, as well as Rungli Rungliot, evokes the tropes that recur in Bond’s writing — nature, mountains, peace and tranquility; that peculiar quality which, in Hindi, is called thaharav.

Before the series, you also revived two books — In the Court of Ranee of Jhansi and The Himalaya Club — by the 19th century author, John Lang. What’s the story behind them?

The story has a lot to do with Bond. Both those books are excellent. Lang paints very impressionistic pictures of the Raj and that period. There is something very visual about his writing. He doesn’t go too deep into things, but in just recording what is around him, he’s excellent at evoking moods. He has a really sharp eye for people’s characters. The Himalaya Club is about Mussoorie, which used to be the watering hole for British officers during the Raj. They’d serve in Delhi and then go to Mussoorie to have a wild time. Bond knew about Lang, and that he was interred in Mussoorie. He went looking for his grave and brought this long-forgotten writer back into the consciousness of readers.

There have been other books with the Bond stamp — anthologies, collections, either edited by him or bearing the stamp of his approval. Why did Speaking Tiger decide to do it too? Why revive these books through this selection?

We could have revived these books as standalones, but they wouldn’t have worked without Bond. He is one of the best known authors writing in India, and somebody who is much loved, with readers across all ages. So, when he recommends books, it allows us to reach more people than we otherwise would have. One also has to look at it in terms of the broadness of scope. The advantage that the selection gives us is we can work with a wide range, with no limitation in terms of scope. For instance, we can include poetry, essays, short stories, novels — anything. It gives us a lot of playing room in terms of what we can do. And they are all from Mr Bond’s bookshelf and come with his express recommendation. So it’s a win-win.

Ruskin Bond is often mistakenly considered primarily a children’s author. What do you think that spells for these books?

The Selections will have books for everyone, grown-ups as well as for children. Having said that, I do hope that people who come to these books with the impression that Bond writes mainly for children will pick them up and figure out for themselves who they are actually for. And I also hope that children will read these books, if for nothing else than the endless possibilities in the English language and how great prose and poetry is capable of transporting the reader to other worlds.

Bringing back what’s been written before, many of the concepts, ideas and sensibilities long gone, can also be a political move, one that requires careful curating...

I don’t think we would revive something that is overtly problematic, or has the sort of overtones that would be unacceptable to us or to Bond. But I also think one has to see everything in context, and the fact that something was written then, doesn’t mean that it applies for all time.

And then there is the very pragmatic question of sales and readership. Do you consider this series, its books with styles, language, stories from the past, a risk?

Yes, they won’t be flying off the shelves. So we temper our expectations. We go for lower print runs and hope that people will rediscover these books the way we are rediscovering them ourselves. We all personally like these titles and we hope there will be more people like us.

These books are, in a sense, from another era, and we need to work hard to tell people that while the writing might not be as familiar as that of contemporary writers, the subject matter might be something you’ve forgotten, the writing and story might still resonate with you.

If you are a person who reads a lot, you know there are one or two books that stay with you for a long time. Perhaps one of these can become a book that will affect you somehow. Somebody sitting in a city reading The Valley of Flowers can be transported to a place that is not there any more.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 12:30:33 PM |

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