I really got to know Ruskin Bond pretty well in the early 1990s. I got to know him as an author through his books that were a staple read for us. But I became sort of friends with him through Brahm Dev – our common friend who had been bum chums with Bond over years. Brahm uncle was my father’s lodge brother and one of the strong literary voices from Dehradun, along with being an ace photojournalist and the proud owner of RK Studios in Astley Hall, Rajpur Road.
Through Brahm Dev, I came close to Ruskin Bond for a few years, went to his house and had delicious conversations with him over tea each time I went to Mussoorie.
Ruskin Bond's letter to this author. Photo: L Aruna Dhir
Once, he had invited us over for a simple lunch of Dal Chawal when we turned up at his door around noon. During those years, I would take visiting friends and members of my family to meet Bond at Ivy Cottage. We continued to meet a few times when he visited Delhi to pick up his awards or launch a book.
Then we drifted apart and I have not met him in a number of years now.
But this formal interview I had with him in 1993 was his best, Bond wrote to me. A part of it was published in the Sunday pages of The Times of India back then. Here, for the first time, follows the full conversation I had with him. What is remarkable is that it is still so relevant and ageless about our times and, more importantly, about Ruskin Bond.
Like the mountains amidst which he has chosen to make his home, he is magnanimous and awe-inspiring, also unassuming and simple. Though this Bond is no gun-toting toughie, he is assertive, moving against the odds and doing what he likes most. If he is tough, he is one of the hardest core.
Born in Kasauli in 1934, Ruskin Bond grew up in Dehradun in his grandfather’s house and has spent most of his life in Doon, Mussoorie and Shimla. As a novelist, children’s author and nature writer, his work has been published widely in India, the UK, Europe and the US. His writing career has spanned 30 years. Some of his works have been translated into Dutch too.
In Garhwal – Heaven in Himalayas, his first coffee table book for adult reading, he pays a tribute to the hills and valleys of the Garhwal Himalayas where he has spent the happiest period of his life. To Live in Magic: A Book of Nature Poems, a collection of his nature poems, was brought out by Living Media. And Penguin India started Puffin India with, among other titles, his famous Panther’s Moon.
One fine July morning, when the sky was clear and the Sun bright, I, escorted by a friend who had a penchant for photography, decided to drive up to Landour to have a little chat with the master storyteller. Having read him in school and after, I felt like an awestruck teenager. My first question expressed my mood.
Apart from me, a million others fell in love with you while still in school. Do you write with a particular age group of readers in mind, I asked?
“As a boy I used to write for adults,” he replied. “It was only when I was 40 that I started writing for children. And I was much more successful.”
Room on the Roof, which won Bond the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957, was written when he was only 17.
I asked him, “it seems to me that unlike most authors who pined for fame and success, you just happened to step into them while walking on a sidewalk, lost in thoughts about the plot of a new story. Could you comment on this?”
“When I was much younger, I was quite ambitious. In my 20s, I would have craved for fame and success. As I grew older, they became less important for me. Actually, I am one of those people who always call themselves a failure no matter what they do. I sincerely feel that I could have done much more substantial work. In my life there has always been a conflict between the professional and the personal. Most famous writers give the highest priority to their work. But to me, my emotional attachments and the people in my life were more important. I haven’t done all that I could have.”
“All the same, I am a very persistent person. I read somewhere that anyone who has lost a father at a young age, as has been the case with me, is never satisfied with his work and wants to go on trying harder, maybe to compensate for the loss.”
At that moment, I became aware that he was timing his speech to match the speed of my hand. Almost sheepishly, I admitted to him that I knew no shorthand. He laughed narrating his own experience.
“When I was struggling for my first job, I quite fooled the office director who interviewed me. He asked me if I knew shorthand. I, very emphatically, said yes. Once, in the course of my job, he saw me scribbling something. He took a look at it and said he hadn’t seen it before. I told him it was the latest method. In the process I invented my own shorthand.”
Relieved by his friendly disposition, I wanted to know about his educational qualifications.
“I only managed to finish school,” he said. “I wasn’t a bad student but I was very rebellious as a boy. My mother wanted me to join the Army but that didn’t appeal to me. I was very stubborn. I straight away wanted to be a writer. I was already earning money in my teens so I thought why go to college. Of course, I did a lot of reading on my own. Though I don’t regret not having gone to college, I wouldn’t advise every young person to do that. The world is highly competitive today and not everyone can be a writer.”
What were your feelings about getting a literary award at such an early age?
“After finishing school, I went to England for a couple of years. Since I had a stepfather I wasn’t much attached to my home. But once in England, I wrote Room on the Roof out of home sickness for India, not my home. It was only when I had returned to India that I learned the book had won an award. Since no one in India had heard about it, it didn’t make much of an impact on me. Just that, a few friends were really happy for me.”
I wanted to know who he admired the most. Did he have any idols?
“I admire people who have excelled at something,” he replied. “Maybe a carpenter or an artisan who tries for perfection in his field. I liked Fred Astaire as a dancer. Among writers, I look up to Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Émile Zola.”
The film Junoon was based on your book Flight of Pigeons. Do you like watching films?
“In my Doon days, I was a great moviegoer. I loved musicals. I was also a very voracious reader. I read everything by Dickens, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and many others. I also liked the classics by Honoré de Balzac. Though I can’t sing a note correctly, I like listening to Indian and Western classical music. I am a great sports enthusiast too. I avidly follow international cricket and football. In fact, that’s the only time I watch TV. As a young man, I used to play football. I was a better goalkeeper than I am a writer. It taught me how to save my goals rather than score one. It made me very defensive.”
A knock on the front door interrupted us. A young couple wanted Bond to speak on Ecology for their forthcoming meet. He expressed his inability to do so because of his tight self-imposed schedule but promised to write something on the subject and send it to them before their meeting. The couple, half-satisfied, thanked him and left.
'I taught myself to write. I had ink in my blood.' Photo: L Aruna Dhir
Sensing how uncomfortable he had felt turning down their invitation, I asked him, “You seem to have difficulty in saying no to people. Am I right?”
“I never say no to children,” he replied. “Adults, yes, because they come with a motive. Whereas, children have no ulterior motive. They just come out of curiosity to see the person whose stories they have read.”
By your own admission, you became a professional writer after school. How did you choose this profession?
“There were other things I could have done. But writing was something I did best. Other things were just glamorous ideas. I am a steady writer but not a regular one. I enjoy writing and I want to keep it that way.”
He went on to talk about theatre. “I have often been asked why I don’t write plays. But that would mean living where people stage plays, like in Bombay, London etc. Writing poems and short stories is something I can do anywhere, even in a desert. I like being in the mountains. I don’t like city life. Nothing could persuade me to live, say, in Delhi. Some cities do have their charm, places with history, individual character and strange stories behind old buildings. London intrigued me because it is steeped in history. I walked about places where Dickens might have written his works.”
Have you had any formal training? Do you think writing is inborn or can it be acquired?
“Genius is inborn. May be the craftsmanship of writing can be developed. Anyone with a good knowledge of words could be a good writer but not a great one. There has to be something inside to be a really great writer. You know, Dickens and Shakespeare didn’t even finish school. As for me, I taught myself to write. I had ink in my blood.”
How important do you think it is to have a Godfather when you begin writing novels? You know that RK Narayan found a friend and mentor in Graham Greene.
“I never had one that is for sure.”
How should an up and coming writer cope with that eternal predicament of rejection slips?
“I used to get lots of them in the beginning. I had an outlet in My Magazine of India – a small magazine from Madras. All my rejections would go there. That magazine used to pay me Rs 5 by money order. Once I got Rs 3, I was outraged. They said, Rs 2 had been deducted for the annual subscription.”
“Any way, you must keep at it. The more you carry on, the easier it becomes. Of course, you should become knowledgeable about your market, you must believe in yourself. Believe that what you are doing is important. It is also important to pursue a career based on what actually interests you, though people don’t have much choice these days. And, never despair.”
There is too much of you in your stories. They don’t entirely seem fictional. How far is this true?
“Very often there is a blend of autobiography and fiction. I am a very subjective writer. I see things out of my mind’s eye. I write about experiences I have had or maybe something that hasn’t happened directly to me but has occurred in my vicinity. I am not very inventive where plots are concerned. I get ideas from what I have known and am familiar with.”
“I also find it difficult to write about unpleasant people like gangsters, psychopathic murderers, crooked politicians etc, though the world is full of them. Even the ghosts in my stories are friendly. It’s always the ghost who ends up being frightened and not the child.”
Though all your stories tug at one’s heart because of the human element in them, nevertheless, most of them leave the reader feeling forlorn and wishing that there was a happy ending. Why?
“True, most of the stories have a lot of pathos. But such stories were written in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Maybe, because of the disappointments I have had on account of relationships that did not turn out as I wanted them to. When I was younger I took myself more seriously. As I grew older, I started seeing my flaws and I could laugh at them. You won’t find this in the children’s books. There is more humour in them.”
What do you have to say about the state of affairs of India today?
“It is a bit depressing. A man like Nehru went about without any security. Today, even a DIG of police would have double the amount of what our PMs earlier had. One easily gets a claustrophobic feeling these days. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was a lot of hope and optimism. Now one sees an increase in the crime rate, misbalance in the economy and unemployment among the educated youth.”
As we sat there chatting, a sweet little girl armed with a tea tray appeared. Throwing her the indulgent look of a grandfather that he has become to his foster family’s children, Bond introduced Savitri to us. Prem Singh, Savitri’s father, had come to work for Ruskin as a boy and now his wife and three kids also stay with him.
You have written a lot on love, I said to Bond, but didn’t you think of settling down yourself?
“Well, I was not going to get married just for the sake of it. Anyway, getting married would have put some restrictions on my writing work. And then a single man can put up with lack of money or any other hardships. But since I don’t particularly enjoy living alone, I brought up a family.”
Going by the endless number of stories and novels that you have written, should one presume that you have never faced writer’s block?
“I get it sometimes. I have had it for the last three days. Whenever, I am stuck I take a long walk till I get an idea. This is something you can do in the hills. And of course, I love taking walks.”
Looking back, would you want anything changed from what it has been?
“I am basically a contented being. Yes, I have been unhappy at times. Sometimes I feel I have failed in many ways. But I feel satisfied when I think I could have failed at the first hurdle itself 40 years ago. In a way, people who indulge in literature are trying to cheat mortality. It would be nice to know that a few of the things I have written earlier are still around.”
Having rejected the glamour and lucre of a big city writer 25 years ago, Bond lives almost abstemiously, among simple people leading a simple life. I pointed this out to him.
“I don’t scorn money; you do need money in life. If not for yourself then for others. But to lead a luxurious life would be boring. I feel very uneasy with luxury.”
“Of course, I still have a dream that someday I will have a place of my own. May be just a little cottage with a big garden full of all sorts of flowers. And yes, I don’t own a car, simply because I can’t drive one. The only time I tried to learn how to drive, I went through somebody’s single brick wall straight into their lawns where they were having a garden party. Well, they did invite me for tea but only after I agreed to pay for the wall.”
What milestones have you set for yourself now?
“There are always more children’s books to write. I am also working on an autobiography, a kind of a philosophical essay about the happenings in my life. But I don’t look too far ahead. I guess, at my age, one wouldn’t.”
What message would you like to give to young aspirants who still have to make a niche for themselves?
“Be sure about what you want to do in life, then stick to it. A lot of people get easily discouraged and drop out. Enjoy your work and be ready to face a lot of disappointment. Persistence is very important.”
As we walked down the steps onto the main road, I felt I was walking out of a story by the same man whose tales I grew up reading. Ruskin Bond, marvellous and fascinating like the very hills he so loves, dreams of a bright tomorrow where children can enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like frolicking about on the long shaded roads, dancing under a cascading waterfall and picking red, blue and yellow flowers on the track up to a hill top. He believes that heaven is a place on earth.
Ruskin, by RK Laxman.
As he smiled a goodbye to us, he already had a faraway look in his eyes. I don’t know whether he was thinking about a friendly ghost or a pretty little girl in red ribbons to tell the children about next.
Today, Ruskin Bond stays in the same house, called Ivy Cottage, which has become quite a Mussoorie landmark, with the same family and a similar set of dreams. He is still a very simple man in spite of all the awards he has won, including a Sahitya Akademi Award, a Padma Shri and a Padma Bhushan.
The only difference is that he has regaled us all a million more times with his fascinatingly simple stories that do not fail to tug at our collective hearts.