Whispers of the city

Around the world with a bagful of books

Published - February 10, 2019 12:02 am IST

Ruskin Bond never tires of describing Landour, a little settlement high in the hills above Mussoorie in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal where he’s made his home for many decades; and his readers never fail to find something new in his descriptions as they fill in more details of the place in their imaginations. He does this by way of new stories, memoir and essays, through introductions to his books, and most curiously through the manner in which he constantly reassembles his writings in successive anthologies.

To read and love Bond is to look forward to finding a short story or narrative you’ve read before nestled among a different set of writings. I can read ‘Time Stops at Shamli’ or ‘Voting at Barlowganj’, to take just two of the pieces collected in his latest collection, Landour Bazaar , endlessly — but I never fail to experience a thrill of discovery when I find them in a new volume, with different Bond neighbours, as it were, in the table of contents. Serendipitously, the text feels just that tiny bit different each time, simply by being in new surroundings. In fact, it’s long been a dream project to find all the anthologies of Bond’s writings and map how different stories show up in different collections amidst old and new writing. The labour of tracking down each and every volume apart, I suspect the task is not doable for another reason — as happens spookily in his stories, the chase for his collected collections may bring the archivist to one trap door after another that take her to books no one else even knew existed.

Perhaps, Bond may also spice up the mapping project by updating some essays. In the introduction to Landour Bazaar , for example, he describes how “the Garhwal Himalaya and the people who live on these mountain slopes in the mist-filled valleys have long since learned humility, patience, and a quiet resignation”, with a familiar rhythm to their cheer-filled days but very tough lives — but he notes, with a tone of regret, the changes that have come to the legendary bazaar in the twenty or so years since he wrote the title essay. Yet, even as Mussoorie and Landour change, for countless readers who may make their way around these hill stations, what they see will be some unique combination of the actual landscape and the picture Bond has painted over time not just in his non-fiction, but especially in his fiction.

Transforming memory

No Ruskin Bond story is there in Literary Landscapes: Charting the Worlds of Classic Literature , a vividly illustrated volume edited by John Sutherland. He summarises it as “a collection of the world’s most memorable fictionalised geographies”. Sometimes the fictional touches don’t just change our perception of a place, they actually alter the map. Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, had situated his 1997 novel The Search Warrant ( Dora Bruder in the French original), set against the Holocaust and the German occupation of France during World War II, in the non-touristy quarters of Paris’s 18th arrondissement. It came full circle in 2015, when, as Catherine Taylor updates us, “the City of Paris named a promenade in the 18th arrondissement after Dora Bruder, the missing Jewish girl of Modiano’s novel.”

And as the Windrush issue comes back centre stage in Britain, it is instructive to map the London of characters in Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon’s 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners . Kate McNaughton shows how the opening line of Selvon’s classic uses not just imagery but also nuances of diction to contrast the London everyone is presumed to be familiar with the diverse ‘Londons’ various immigrants, specifically of the Windrush wave, occupy: “One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.” Selvon and Barbadian George Lamming ( In the Castle of My Skin , 1953) found the key for generations of West Indian, and other, writers to come, that to depict a place, language was key.

Cairenes, on their part, caution first-time visitors to their city to read Naguib Mahfouz before they set foot in the Egyptian capital or they’ll never know it. Andrew Taylor recommends Midaq Alley (1947) to get a measure of the city’s profile: “Mahfouz makes the alley much more than a setting for his characters. From the first page it is presented as a character in its own right, depicted through not just its physical appearance but the textures of its crumbling walls, the smells of spices and folk cures, the deep colors of a city sunset, and the intimate evening whispers as the daytime noises die down.”

That’s one of the reasons we keep going back to great works — to catch snatches of, among other things, “intimate evening whispers”.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.