Ruskin Bond at 81 is a candid raconteur, finds Fiona Fernandez, who winds through the hills of Mussoorie for an afternoon chat
Rusty, whom Ruskin Bond dubs his alter ego, would have jumped at the prospect of a mini adventure like the one this writer set out on last week. The much-loved protagonist reappears after over a decade in Rusty and the Magic Mountain, Ruskin Bond’s delightful read, laced with humour, fantasy, and slice-of-life-simplicity.
Hair-raising bends, quirky co-passengers, and nature in all its scenic, sometimes, erratic glory made for an eventful ride as I headed to Bond’s Landour home. By the time our car wound its way to the top of Mussoorie’s hills, we had seen it all, with the ticking clock reminding us that we might be late for our date. Finally, we were at “Ruskin Bond ka ghar”, up a flight of giant stairs. A knock on the glass-paneled door saw the celebrated author greet us personally. “Hello. Have you come by to interview me?” he enquired. Momentarily tongue-tied, I muttered a meek, “Yes, Mr Bond.” His welcoming demeanour warmed us, and soon, we lost ourselves in the world of the storyteller from the hills.
Bond’s study table and a vine that has taken over his wall
“All storytellers are liars!” he announced, while settling into his reading couch near a bookshelf. “My family stories are all true but when I run out of ideas, I look towards relatives; don’t we all have eccentric uncles and aunts? And, when I run out of those, I write ghost stories,” he chuckled.
The picturesque view from outside Ruskin Bond’s home. PICS/FIONA FERNANDEZ
Giving piles of books close competition in the cosy sitting room were awards, citations and plaques. Ever ready with a witty anecdote, he recalled, “Two years ago, I was conferred with a lifetime achievement award. But there was no award, just a framed certificate.” Curious, we rolled back the years to the time he received his first award, as a 17-year-old for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. It was for his first novel, The Room on the Roof. “It hardly mattered; I remember receiving a cheque in the mail,” he shrugged. The humility of a name behind over 500 short stories, essays and novellas was inspiring. “In those days, choices were limited. I recall my mother's face when I told her that I wanted to be a writer after school. She said, ‘Don’t be silly, Ruskin! Join the Army.’ I never scored over 25-30% in Mathematics. Later, I took revenge on my Math teacher by writing a skit. The key is to never leave your writing around,” he said, twinkle in eye.
Six decades later, India’s favourite children’s book writer is still going strong. “I get letters from so many (children) but sadly, cannot reply to all. They confide in me a lot — share their ambitions and worries. They connect with me after reading my stories,” he revealed, adding how girls in particular like to send him poems. “I keep telling them that poetry doesn't need to rhyme!”
Rusty and the Magic Mountain, Ruskin Bond, Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, R299. Available in bookstores and as an e-book
When talk veered to Rusty, he said, “He’s my alter ego. He loves to be around nature. My publishers (Penguin) were keen that I create another Rusty adventure, as he is popular. In the 1950s-70s, writers were not known faces. By the 1980s, it became possible for Indian writers to publish here. Earlier, writers could publish their work only in magazines, or look overseas. Publishing has come of age. The influence of films has also impacted writing.” When my cousin, a schoolteacher, nudged him to share a few tips for young writers back at her school, he obliged. “You must respect the language you are writing in. Writers must be responsible to readers. I was lucky to have a good foundation, thanks to my father and my school (Bishop Cottons, Shimla). Youngsters think writing is a one-way ticket to fame. I like reading the Concise Oxford Dictionary, just for fun. It improves your vocabulary.”
Bond then offered us a tour of his sanctum sanctorum — his work nook. Again, like his writing, it spelt simplicity. We spotted books and notepads, as well as the vine of a plant that had wormed its way all over the wall. “Some day, it will strangle me in my sleep!” he joked. We noticed that the bed was beside his writing desk. “Dreams help. And if it’s a vivid one, I note it down immediately. I try to write on most days. It’s important to work regularly,” he said, like a worldly-wise uncle. By now, sunlight filled the room, reminding us that it was nearing lunchtime, which he usually follows with siesta.
As we bid goodbye to the writer of The Room on the Roof, we wondered was this dream or reality? Fact or fiction? Ruskin Bond won’t tell. You’ll have to read between the lines.
His nickname 'The Horse': I earned it since I ate well, and the fact that I always ate what was put in front of me. I’m extremely fond of pickles.
On literature fests: These are more about talking and less about the reading habit.
On Nissim Ezekiel: He was a very kind man. In 1976-78, when there was a case against my writing, he was one of the few who appeared in court for me.
His love for football: If not a writer, I would have been a footballer. When I was 17, I tried out for a D-team for Arsenal FC. I watch the English Premier League and European League.·
My big secret: I wished to be a tap dancer after watching Fred Astaire. Alas! My girth didn’t permit me to pursue it.