'Soon, India might have more writers than readers!'
He'd win the title for India's most loved writer across generations. Ruskin Bond's new title, Maharani, a part fiction-part biographical novella, is a charming, witty and dramatic account of the life and times of HH, the beautiful, selfish and spirited widow queen of Mastipur. Fiona Fernandez listens in as the author chats about his return to writing for adults, the modern, market-savvy author and Mussoorie
Till date, I’m advised to avoid chocolate, but I cannot give it up. The extra inches around my waist says it all…” Ruskin Bond’s response to my recollection of our previous meeting in Mumbai had ended our delightful telephonic interview on a warm, familiar note. In 2004-05, at an author session, while being attached to the same publisher, I had the good fortune to share dinner space with ‘Mr Bond’. Our conversation coasted along from Mumbai’s muggy weather to his love for this calorific indulgence, even as we helped ourselves to scoops of chocolate chip ice cream. “I’m not supposed to eat it; but we live just once, no?”
That frame surfaced in a flash, as one heard the voice at the other end of the line, from Ivy Cottage, in Landour. “You’ve called at the right time. I’ve just woken up from my afternoon nap,” Bond says, as one imagines the serene, hilly backdrop, in stark contrast to the urban cacophony at the other end.
Pleasantries done, I check my watch. As much as one would have loved to discuss forest walks and writer’s block at a leisurely pace, an impending deadline means we must talk shop, immediately. “I was trying to write a different story. I thought of this one (Maharani) a few years before I got down to writing it. The theme and the protagonist attracted me. In recent times, I’ve been writing a lot of short stories, particularly for children, so, I decided to have a go at a novella, instead. I have written for adults in the past though quite a bit is used in school and University curriculums. In fact, in the 1970s, I was hauled up by the Bombay High Court for my book, The Sensualist,” recalls Bond when we ask about his return to writing a book for grown-ups.
For someone whose first novel was back in 1956, one can still sense the grounded enthusiasm across the phone lines. “Maybe I got carried away…” he trails off. “I started this book as a short story. And yes, there was nostalgia attached to it. In six-nine month’s time, it had developed into a novella,” he shares, of how the Maharani emerged as a full-length novella. In the author’s note, Bond had mentioned that the story wasn’t entirely true, nor was it a fabrication. “As with most books, real-life characters are embellished into the plot and become fictionalised. There is a mix. I created incidents, characters and themes. After 50-60 years of writing, one tends to do things in a certain way,” Bond reminds us, adding that it wasn’t a conscious effort to strike a 50-50 balance between fact and fiction.
What will strike the reader is that despite her loneliness and troubles, the protagonist, HH (or Neena, to Ruskin, the narrator), is a spirited character — “I’m sure Neena wanted to be portrayed as a fighter, with a certain degree of affection and impatience, as someone who made an impression. She demanded that sort of attention, in real and literal life.” Readers will note, quickly into the book, how Bond has ensured that she isn’t reduced to a sympathetic figurehead.
Which moves us to the book’s next most engaging element — the enduring relationship between HH and Ruskin. Despite being close friends, they share a platonic connect and were never lovers. “This way, he could tell her story with more disinterest, without being involved. It’s intriguing that their relationship survived the decades despite not having much in common,” Bond philosophises.
Bond with the story
By now, the imagery around the Maharani’s mystique becomes clearer. But how can one refer to a Ruskin Bond title without the mention of his beloved Mussoorie? “This story was set in Mussoorie of the 1960s and ‘70s. There were few cars on our roads. Today’s Mussoorie is a weekend favourite, an impermanent place, with fewer full-time residents. It’s tough to spot too many ‘characters’ around,” he admits. “In earlier times, we got to know the people as they lived here. My story is about a Maharani of yesteryear. The story and its characters are reminiscent of the people I met in those days.”
So, how did Bond manage to pack in such an expansive, nostalgic story without the bane of the editor’s cut, I ask, “No writer likes to edit his copy. I had to sacrifice my exploits to ensure HH remained the focus, and emerged as a three-dimensial character,” he reveals, while speaking about his biggest challenge when he wrote this novella.
It’s close to wrapping up time; I cannot resist slipping in this last one: “Mr Bond, what do you have to say about today’s flood of writers?” His reply is priceless, “I am amazed at the number of requests to write forewords and blurbs. I’m afraid a time might come when we have more writers than readers! Writers are celebrities. In the last two weeks, I’ve received invites for seven-eight literary festivals, from Kasauli to Bhubaneshwar. Books seem to be a hot topic. I hope it reflects in sales!”
Some more prodding, and he adds, “Modern novels have a different readership. I am a literary person, a contrast from the new-age writer. Creating a beautiful sentence is priority for me; this might differ from the modern writer. They have other ways to interest the reader — it might be topical or controversial plots; some writers even check the market before writing a word. I am not a market-driven person; possibly why I don’t have a vast readership; I merely chug along.” Then, he drops us a jaw-dropping figure — “A hundred of my titles have been printed till now, and none have gone out of circulation. I don’t sell in millions or even lakhs but I must ensure I don’t run out of money. So, next up, I have a couple of children’s books to write.” We’ve had our fill of mirth and wisdom with another memorable encounter, as Bond leaves us with a gem: “Writers don’t retire. They must create their own pension funds.”
Maharani Ruskin Bond
Penguin Books India
Your husband’s hobby. How many did he have — five or six?’
‘Five or six? Hundreds! There were hundreds of them. Well, he started with three or four. But rats are oversexed little devils, forever fornicating. They multiply like — like rats! Within a couple of years there were over a hundred rats. All over the place!’
‘All over the palace?’
‘They had a wing of this mansion to themselves,’ said Neena pointing to a large empty space between one wing of the building and the servants’ quarters. ‘I had it pulled down after my husband died. I suppose it could have been of use, but it stank to high heaven — the boards were well pickled in rat urine.’
‘What happened to the rats? You let them all loose, I suppose.’
‘Had to hunt them down. They didn’t want to leave the grounds. Not after the last grand meal they’d enjoyed. Don’t you know about it? I thought everyone knew, although we did try to hush it up. It did not seem appropriate, somehow, for a maharaja Maharani of the realm to be consumed by his pets. Yes, the rats made a meal of him. I wasn’t here, thank god; I was overseeing repairs to our palace in Mastipur — it was in a dreadful condition. And His Highness, being on his own without anyone to control his excesses, went on a binge, drank his way through all the whisky and brandy in the house — and then decided he would say goodnight to his pets, see that they had been fed and given water and lots of cotton-wool to nest in. There was a boy who did the chores, but it was his day off, and His Highness decided he’d look in on them, make sure they were comfortable.
He’d installed a toy train for them, and sometimes he’d give them train rides around the room, placing his favourites in open carriages, winding up the engine, and watching it carry a trainful of squeaking rats going around in circles while he sat on a stool, watching them and chuckling with delight.
‘Well, that night he’d had too much to drink—far too much — and he fell off his stool and passed out. Completely blotto — and there was no one around to pick him up and carry him to his bedroom. It was well past midnight. The rats were hungry. Hundreds of hungry, angry rats! Soon they were all over him, Ruskin Bond exploring his clothes, wriggling into his underwear, nibbling here and there. Nibble, nibble, snap! Word soon got around. Their affectionate master was tasty. And he didn’t seem to mind being nibbled and bitten and chewed. Had he been conscious he would have struggled, cried out, attempted to crawl out of the room. But he was completely anaesthetised — paralysed — mercifully unaware of what was happening to him.
‘The rats were delighted. This was better than biscuits and bread. Sweet, juicy steaks! A delicious rump! A belly to feast on and thighs dripping blood. No part of his anatomy went to waste. Even his eyes were gouged out. They gnawed at his heart, burrowed into his brain. By morning the rats were satiated, most of them asleep, a few still looking for pickings.
Extracted with permission from Penguin Books India