Rendezvous with Ruskin Bond

[ Pekba Ringu ]
I had always prided myself on my power of observation, thanks to my unending passion for detective fiction – until I met Ruskin Bond.
Through my preliminary investigations, I learned that he meets his fans every Saturday afternoon, between 3.30 and 5.30 pm, at the Cambridge Book Depot on the Mall road of Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, if he is in station. So, before embarking on my 280-km long drive from Delhi to Mussoorie, I confirmed through Surinder Arora, the proprietor of the bookshop, whether Bond was in station and if he would be meeting his fans on that day. My luck was with me. Arora answered me in the affirmative.
And so, off I went, with a growing sense of anticipation and excitement gradually building inside me, as
I passed through the sweeping plains of UP, crossing Meerut, Roorkee and Chutmalpur on the way. After almost six-and-a-half hours’ journey, I reached the Doon valley (Dehradun). From there on, the 33 km road to Mussoorie started getting gradually steep. Halfway through, the road became more steep and the air colder. As Mussoorie came into view, my heart skipped a beat. So, I thought, this, after all, is the place where Bond lives and very often writes about in his writings. Straddling spurs of hills, it somewhat appeared like our own Bomdila from a distance.
After passing through the ascending twists and turns of Mussoorie, we finally reached the Mall road. But entry was restricted. I had to shell out five hundred bucks as entry fee at the police traffic gate, which I gave happily. By the time I entered the Mall road, I was a bundle of nerves, literally. Excitedly I started looking out for the bookshop. Passersby had told me that it would fall on my right. The bookshop was there, all right, and so was Bond. But I missed both completely. So much for my powers of the so-called detective’s observation, as one might say. It was only when I made a u-turn and started back that I found it. It stood glaringly on my left side of the sidewalk. And there, inside the shop, was Bond, sitting comfortably on a chair and sipping tea.
I asked Deepak, my driver, to stop the car, and immediately made a dash for the shop. In my haste and excitement, I forgot to take my wife, who had accompanied me in the journey all the way from Delhi, along with me. Later, she would pull my leg by joking that I looked like a man possessed at that moment, oblivious of the whole world, including her.
But then, Ruskin Bond has that sort of effect on his readers. Many thus affected, including this writer, visit Mussoorie just to meet him. And there are ample reasons for this fascination.
To begin with, he is unique. And that’s because he straddles so many different worlds at the same time. Born in 1934 in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, he is one of the few living writers who have seen the British Raj with swashbuckling maharajas and maharanis strutting around, and the present vibrant modern India with its share of the poor and the underprivileged. He has lived through the Second World War, the great partition of India; the wars India fought with its neighbours, the period of emergency, etc, etc, including his meetings with people of all walks of life from all over the world, both famous as well as the downtrodden. All of these are reflected in his writings, which make for a fascinating reading.
Take for example, his vivid description of the journey in a horse-drawn passenger carriage from Delhi to Dehradun before the coming of the railways, and his recounting of the incidents related to the wounded soldiers – allies as well as prisoners – of Second World War sent to Dehradun to recuperate are really interesting and a welcome addition to the country’s history. His description of the mentality of the common Englishman living in those times in India is an eye opener. Contrary to popular belief, they had hardly any interest in the politics of the British Raj, or that of the Indian revolutionaries. They were not passionate supporters of their country’s imperialistic policies. To them, politics was a thing to be handled by the government. They were more concerned with the daily activities of living, like going to work or looking after their business.
On the personal front, Bond’s life story is one of the most interesting and inspiring and, again, unique. After independence, when the British were leaving India, he was also sent to England by his family, despite his unwillingness. But even there he missed his Indian friends and the India he loved so much. In his words, “… I missed our games and picnics and little expeditions into the foothills. And the bazaar with its sweet shops and chaat shops, and the little railway station, and the lonely mango groves… I belonged to the hot sunshine and muddy canals, the banyan trees and the mango groves, the smell of wet earth after summer rain, the relief of a monsoon thunderstorm, the laughing brown faces. And the intimacy of human contact – that was what I had missed the most in England. The orderly life, the good sense and civility were all admirable, but they did nothing for the soul. I missed the freedom to touch someone without being misunderstood… I missed being among strangers without feeling like an outsider; I missed everything that made it all right to be sentimental and emotional.”
In spite of living there for almost four years, with the offer of a comfortable government job and life, he returned to India to start life from scratch again. He lived alone mostly, and survived on whatever he earned from writing. Although he had taken some jobs in between to survive, he gave them up to devote himself to doing what he loved most – writing. But it was a tough life, surviving solely on the earnings of one’s writings and living alone.
Nevertheless, being a fiercely independent man, he surmounted all the odds and won. Bond’s life is the inspiring story of a single man’s courage to follow one’s heart against any odds and come victorious out of it.
And then, of course, there is his contribution to contemporary Indian English literature, which is undeniable. He has written over 120 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Among them are The Room on the Roof, A Flight of Pigeons, Time Stops at Shamli, Rain in the Mountains, and The Blue Umbrella. India Today has described him as “our resident Wordsworth.” According to YD Thongchi, president of the Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society (APLS) and a Sahitya Akademi Awardee, “Bond is probably the best contemporary living Indian writer writing in English today.”
Bond received the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1957 for his first novel, The Room on the Roof. He has also received the Padma Shri (1999), the Padma Bhushan (2014) and two awards from the Sahitya Akademi – one for his short stories and another for his writings for children. In addition, the Delhi government honoured him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
My luck was again aiding me now since my trip from Delhi. The last fan was leaving as I entered the bookshop. This gave me a chance to photograph and talk to him uninterruptedly for quite some time. I quickly introduced myself and told him that I am from Arunachal. It seemed that he didn’t encounter that many fans from Arunachal in Mussoorie. When I told him about the APLS, the premier literary organisation of our state, his face lit up with interest. Using this opportunity, I told him about the activities of the APLS and about its president.
As we chatted, I brought up the three questions which I had planned to ask him in case we met, and he replied with the signature gentle wit for which he is so famous. When I asked why he didn’t go back to England, he replied without batting an eyelid, “Oh, I just forgot.” There were sounds of chuckles and laughter behind me. The fresh batch of fans had just arrived.
Not to be outdone, I smiled back and carried on with my next question, “What are your hobbies, sir?” Pat came the reply: “Sleeping.” And the audience burst into peals of laughter.
Realizing that people were waiting for him, I decided to forego my third question for the time being and planned to bring it up later as and when I got the chance. I quickly brought out my present now. It was a beautiful Nyishi shawl, which I wrapped around him. He seemed very pleased to receive the present. Probably the unique design caught his attention. When I requested him to sign an autograph for my son, who is in Class 8, he seemed most interested and immediately obliged. I had the impression that he had a special corner for children in his heart. In fact, in addition to being a writer of fiction and non-fiction for adults, Bond is also one of the top writers in the children’s genre in the country.
But he himself had a very sad and painful childhood. He was six years old when his parents separated. His mother was always busy partying and going around with men while his father worked in faraway places. Since he was closer to his father, he went on to live with him. The visits of his father to his hostel and the vacations he spent with his father were the moments he would always look forward to eagerly. But those happy moments with his father were not to last long. While in his second year at a prep school in Shimla at the age of 10, he got the news of his father’s sudden demise. It was the most devastating experience a child could have. In his words, “… the bottom had fallen out of my world. A great void opened up in front of me; I knew almost immediately that my life had changed forever, and that there was nothing, absolutely nothing to look forward to. I was in the infirmary for a day, because I had broken down and then passed out after I was given the news…. I have experienced no greater pain than the loss of my father…. The only person who had loved me, and had any use for me, was gone. Time heals, but I still cannot dwell on that day when I lay in the infirmary, breathing with some difficulty. If everything begins and ends with love – and I believe it does – my world had ended. I emerged from the desolate night somehow; that is all I’m willing to recall.” But he survived.
Now it was time for him to leave. Though I wanted to meet him again, he expressed his inability, because he was going out of Mussoorie the next day for a programme. After signing the last book for a fan, he got up to go. As Sunil (younger brother of Surinder) escorted him out, I also jumped to lend a helping hand to Sunil. As he was getting inside the car, I asked Bond my third and last question: “Is your story Time Stops at Shamli autobiographical?”
You see, he has never married in his life. He was a handsome man in his younger days, and also a Westerner. It was not possible that girls never got attracted to him. His novella, Time Stops at Shamli, is a hauntingly beautiful story of unrequited love written in first person narrative. Most of his stories, as Bond had said time and again, were a mix of his personal experiences and creative imagination. For example, his first novel, The Room on the Roof (published in 1956), which was written when he was just 17 and for which he was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957, is drawn from his personal experiences of growing up as an adolescence. “… (It) was based on a journal I kept when I was seventeen, just out of school,” reveals Bond in the introduction to the book.
In another introduction to his novella Maharani, he writes, “… this is not a true story. Nor it is a complete fabrication.” Hence, I presumed that Time Stops at Shamli was his personal story of unfulfilled love and the reasons therein were the reasons for his staying a bachelor all his life.
He turns around suddenly as he sits inside the car, with a look of deep concern and answers emphatically, “No.” You see, due to my over-imagination, I was attributing all the incidents in his writings, especially that of failed romances, directly to his own personal experiences. And he could sense it and hence his concern for me.
Actually, I was getting it all wrong. Only later, when I read his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, I came to know about his relationships and the reasons for not getting married. But I leave it to the readers to find about it from his autobiography.
Next day, I went for a visit to his residence in Landour, situated on the upper part of Mussoorie. Fortunately, as luck would have it, I met Rakesh, his elder son, who was just returning from the market. We introduced ourselves and got down to talking. Through him I came to know more about Bond and his family. When queried, Rakesh informed me that Bond would write anytime. It was not like he would write only in the morning. He further informed me that it was he and Beena, his wife, who would accompany Bond to his meetings in other towns and cities.
Rakesh’s father, Prem Singh, a Garhwali from Uttarakhand, had joined as Bond’s khansama (cook) in the late sixties. Thus began a beautiful relationship which, over a period of time, culminated into Bond’s adoption of Prem’s family as his own. As he explains in his autobiography, “Even a fox needs a hole.”
Rakesh is the elder of the two living brothers. The youngest brother died in childhood. Both brothers are married and have children of their own. And Bond is the family’s towering grandfather whom the children of the family lovingly call ‘Da’ (grandfather). The family lives on the top floor of the two-storied building, and the lower floors have been let out on rent.
The family’s love and pride for Bond was clearly evident when Rakesh shared with me this fact. “Now,” he says, “we write our surname as Bond.”
Bond has, in fact, become not only a part of the Singh family but has become a part of the Garhwal ranges, as well. No other person has made the Garhwal Himalaya and its people so beautiful and made it come to life than Bond. Many readers equate Mussoorie and the Garhwal hills with him. He is known and very much revered in and around Mussoorie. In this context, two interesting incidents come to my mind. At the outskirt of Mussoorie, as I was trying to dispel my journey fatigue with a hot cup of tea at a small restaurant named ‘Suhana’, I asked the young owner about Bond. The rustic young man knew about him. Then, another Garhwali man whom we asked for the way to Bond’s residence helpingly informed us that he stayed in Landour. Even the commoners knew him. This respect and love he commanded would’ve been understandable had he been a leader or a Bollywood personality. But being a writer and being so famous and loved was really something.
Probably that’s because in all walks of life, love ultimately begets love. As he reveals in his autobiography, “It is India that has made me. I’ve loved it, and for the most part, it has loved me back.’ He further shares, “Being Indian, and feeling Indian, has little to do with one’s place of birth or one’s religion…. It was only after I had left India, in 1951, at the age of seventeen, that I realized that I was Indian to the core and could be nothing else.” In fact, in the last chapter of his autobiography, he has described himself as “A son of India.”
And we couldn’t agree more. In these times of intolerance and turbulence, Bond’s life story comes as a whiff of fresh air laden with hope and good feeling. It is the story of a true son of India who comes back to his motherland out of sheer love for his country and its people. And at the same time, it is also a silent celebration of ‘unity in diversity’, the basic fabric of this great nation of ours, where everyone is an Indian, irrespective of caste, creed, religion and race.