CHAT WITH RUSKIN BOND
I don’t know when I first read a short story by Ruskin Bond. Or rather, I don’t recall a time when I hadn’t read something he’d written—an article for the Indian newspapers, a compilation of tales set in his beloved mountains around Mussoorie, or a full-length novel.
It is December 1998 and I am in Mussoorie, and curious to meet Ruskin Bond, the author, as well as Ruskin Bond, the person. What does he look like, sound like, what are his surroundings, his interests. I am also apprehensive. The aura of celebrity can be intimidating.
As it turns out, I am disarmed as soon as he opens the door. He is carrying a baby who regards me with large, solemn black eyes. I resist the urge to say, "Mr. Bond, Mr Ruskin Bond, I presume!"
"Come on in," he says, and leads the way into his living room. We sit down, he with the baby on his lap, and me with a fatuous smile on my face. Behind a purdah, leading to a room off the living room, I can hear children’s voices, and a bustle of activity. I clear my throat, and explain who I am—a writer who is Anglo-Indian by birth and Canadian by nationality—and why I am here to meet him. I probably sound like a star-struck teenager, but at that moment, the baby snatches his glasses off, and there is a pause as he retrieves them gently, says, "Excuse me for a moment." and carries the infant into the adjoining room.
The baby is obviously part of Bond’s extended family, (Prem, his boyhood friend, Prem’s wife, their children and grandchildren) whom he mentions in the preamble to his memoir, Scenes From A Writer’s Life. As he puts it: I have become a family man by virtue of remaining a bachelor. All the noise, merriment and bedlam of a large family living together has become an integral part of my own life, and for the most part it’s joy to my heart and music to my ears."
I glance around the living room. Unpretentious and comfortable. Books along one wall, and sofas that have seen plenty of use. A lived-in room. A kindly, friendly sort of room.
Something like Bond, himself. He returns, sans baby, and settles into his chair, looking for all the world like a cherubic Friar Tuck, minus the robes and tonsure. He smiles apologetically and says, "Sorry about that. You were saying?"
I try to resist gushy babble-speak, and we talk about his career and views on the current literary scene, books he has enjoyed reading over the years and his opinions on publishing outlets for short fiction and children’s literature.
Bond’s writing has the hallmarks of gentle humour and lyric simplicity. As a writer myself, I am aware of how difficult this is to do, so I ask him whether he does a lot of re-writing and editing. "No, not much," he says. "Once I have an idea for a short story in my mind, it seems to flow on to the page quite easily. He pauses and adds, "Of course, I used to do more re-writing when I was younger. My first novel, The Room on the Roof, for example, went through three drafts before I was able to sell it to a publisher." He smiles. "But I was young then, and determined to get into print! Now I don’t get too anxious about that sort of thing."
He doesn’t need to. Bond’s stories, beautifully crafted, speak directly to the reader—as if he is right there, chatting to his audience, rather than spinning a tale on paper. Nobody captures as he does, the Himalayan landscape with its moods, its seasons, its flora and fauna. His characters are ordinary hill-folks who earn their living as humble farmers, street vendors or cattle-herders and Bond imbues them with vitality and charm. His pastoral vignettes are evocative, filled with bird-trills, the flash of butterfly wings and the smell of the earth after rain.
I ask him whether he has any preferences among his books, he confesses that he has "a bit of a soft spot" for The Room on the Roof. It was accepted for publishing when Bond was nineteen and living in Britain. "Well, you see, it was my first book," he says, "so I’m rather partial to it. Also, although it is immature in many ways, there is a spontaneity and freshness about it that I still feel pleased about even after all these years."
While Bond’s essays, short story collections, and children’s books are widely available throughout India, the U.S., Australia and Britain, they are not easily found in bookstores in Canada. When I mention this, it leads to a discussion about the vagaries of publishers’ overseas distribution policies in general, and markets within India in particular.
"Twenty years ago, there were more venues for short-stories," he says ruefully. "Today there aren’t many magazines—no literary magazines in India, at any rate—that are receptive to short-fiction. Some of the newspapers have Sunday magazine supplements, and they will accept a 1500 word story from time to time." As an established writer, Bond has no difficulty finding a publisher for his collections of essays or fiction. "However," he adds, "It isn’t easy for a new author to break into print, even though India has some tremendously talented young writers."
I sound him out on the subject of contemporary fiction. "Much of the short-fiction published in literary magazines in Canada today is rather avant-garde," I say. "There is a great deal of experimentation with form and style. The stories, too, are often dark: incest, sexual aberrations, drug abuse. It makes me wonder whether writers of our generation who write conventional tales about ordinary people and gentler themes are out of date."
"Not "out of date", he is quick to point out. "Perhaps just out of fashion!" His smile is sardonic. "But then fashion is whimsical. And it depends on where you live. A story about a drug addict in New York, doesn’t have much relevance to a reader in Africa." He pauses and adds, "but writers who touch a universal chord—Chekhov, the Bronte sisters, Dickens for example—although their writing styles aren’t contemporary, the stories they tell are still read by people all over the globe. So, I wouldn’t give up on the idea of writing conventional stories, provided they are thought provoking and emotionally satisfying."
I ask him whether he follows a work routine. "Do you set aside ‘X’ number of hours each day for writing?"
He looks faintly amused. "Well…I try to. It depends on whether I have to get something off to an editor. Yesterday—no, not yesterday…day before yesterday—I wrote two and a half pages. Yesterday I wrote nothing. Today, I decided I must get another couple of pages completed, so I did. But I don’t go at it for more than two, maybe three hours at a stretch."
The baby toddles into the room again and climbs onto Bond’s lap. A young woman, presumably the toddler’s mother, smiles at me as she brings in a tray of tea and biscuits. Bond hands the baby a biscuit, which he chews on thoughtfully. The chai is sweet, milky and delicious.
I look at Bond, the baby, the sounds of domesticity in the next room, and say to him, "It must be a good feeling to know that you’ve accomplished all you ever wanted to be—a writer whose work is recognised and loved throughout India and abroad—and that you live in Mussoorie, surrounded memories of boyhood, familiar neighbourhood haunts, and the company of old friends."
He smiles, "Yes. Career-wise, I suppose there have been some missed opportunities, but by and large I’m content with the way things have gone. And, yes, I wouldn’t stay anywhere else but here. Life isn’t as orderly as it is in the West." He pauses and chuckles, "In fact, it’s often a bit of a topsy-turvy Alice-in-Wonderland-world, but it’s home and its where I belong.
As the recipient of several awards, the latest being India’s prestigious Padmashree Award for Literature, Ruskin Bond would be entitled to a Donald Trump sized super-ego. Yet he remains engagingly unaffected about his accomplishments. I get the impression that while he is happy to be recognised for his literary work, it is still the small things of life that continue to delight him: the sound of rain on the roof, the laughter of children, the warble of birds and the scent of the deodar forests around his home.
A post-script. As I get up to leave, he points to a picture on the wall. "Bet you don’t know who those two are!" I peer at it and turn around with a grin: "Oh yes, I do! Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, right?" He strikes a pose and warbles, "When I’m calling you…" I chime in: "ooo-ooo!" And we both laugh!
October 26, 2000