Ruskin Bond steps into his 80th year today. In his long, journey spanning six decades, he has written over 500 short stories, nearly 50 children’s books, a dozen or so novellas and 150 other books.
His first story My Calling was published in August 1951 in the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. He was paid Rs 50. Thereafter, his mother put him on a boat to England to live with Aunt Emily in Jersey; his mother had thought that he would have better career prospects there than in India.
Young Bond wanted to resume writing short stories. But somehow he could not get down to writing. One evening, he was on his usual walk along the seafront when a gale literally carried him to the promenade.
And then, as he recalls, something happened. It was at that moment during the walk, to use his own expression: “I resolved that I was going to be a writer, come hell or high water.” His first book was finally published in May 1956 after three years of trials and tribulations, a year after he returned to India.
The Room received rave reviews and won the coveted John Llewellyn Rhys Prize given to a Commonwealth resident under age 30. Much later, he won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992 for Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra. He was also the recipient of Padma Shri Award in 1999.
Are there any unfulfilled ambitions or are you fully satiated after six decades of writing?
Raj, you were there when the Room On The Roof won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. You have also seen me in those struggling years. It has been indeed an uphill journey, both figuratively and literally. From those hand-to-mouth days, I have now reached both financial stability and professional fame. What else does a man like me in my twilight years wish to achieve? So yes, I have seen and done it all. I will continue writing and will happily go with a pen in my hand when my time comes.
Tell us about those struggling years. What was your motivation and inspiration then?
Thank God, that turbulent phase is now in the past. Occasionally I thought of giving it all up and taking up a job, suitable to my qualifications, not much to boast about. I had only done my Senior Cambridge and did not even possess a college degree. I was on my own most of the time, even though occasionally I lived with my mother and stepfather. Fortuitously, in those days, some mainstream newspapers and magazines such as Sunday Statesman and the Illustrated Weekly of India published short stories and that provided me a ready outlet. I then made Rs 300-400 a month. The motivation, in fact, was my desperation, since I had hardly any other option. Eventually, my determination and audacity paid dividends, and I started making a reasonable living, though nothing to
Four of your books have been made into movies. What has your experience been with the film industry?
Junoon was the first movie produced in 1979 by Shashi Kapoor and directed by Shyam Benegal. It was based on my novel, A Flight of Pigeons, set around the 1857 War of Independence. The next was Blue Umbrella by Vishal Bhardwaj. It was based on my story of the same name. Bhardwaj made another movie Saat Khoon Maaf based on my story Susanna’s Seven Husbands. I had to expand my four-page story to an 80-page novel to make it suitable for film adaptation. I was paid Rs 3 lakh for it. Currently, a movie named Life Mein Hungama directed by Sunil Advani is being shown in Maharashtra and a couple of other states.
My experiences with people in the film industry have by and large been very pleasant. Everyone including some of the top directors, producers and stars gave me the due respect and regard.
On a lighter note, why have you remained unmarried? Have you never been in love?
Yes, there was a Vietnamese girl in London and we dated for a while. But then one day she suddenly left, without a word, to join her family in those turbulent civil war years in Vietnam. I was somewhat heartbroken but there was nothing I could do. Then there was a Punjabi girl in Delhi whom I liked but her family thought that she was too young to marry. Oh! (he sighs) It’s a long story of teenage crushes, instant infatuations and all else that generally happen to men of marriageable age. When I was young and personable, most parents or even their daughters did not think of me as a suitable boy, possibly due to my financial instability. And when I finally gained that stability and more, I was in my 50s, well past the marriageable age. By then I had become a happy ‘householder’ and soon over the years I became the head of a growing family. It so happened that in 1969-70, I had employed Prem and his wife Chandra as domestic help. While the duo looked after my household chores, they also gave birth to three children. Then in due course, those three children also grew up and got married. In the course of natural progression, they too became parents. All of my children and grandchildren are suitably placed; a granddaughter who has a master’s degree in English language is married in Punjab. Thus, today I am a grandfather with seven grandchildren. Surely, I couldn’t have asked for more.
You said your first income was Rs 300. What is your annual income today? Don’t answer if you do not want to.
On the contrary, I will happily answer your question. Today my average annual income ranges between Rs 20 to 30 lakh. Even then, it is just about enough to meet the needs of my large extended family. I am really very grateful to my guardian angel. However, all this affluence has come much too late in my career.
And why have you chosen to remain Internet illiterate? You don’t even own a mobile phone.
Don’t you remember that I couldn’t even learn to ride a bicycle in my younger days? How do you expect me now to learn the complicated rigmarole of Internet and mobile telephone? I have given up typing too, and I now hand write all my stories. I think I am happy this way.
Raj Kanwar is a Dehradun-based writer and senior journalist