On Ruskin Bond's 80th birthday today, here's an interview mid-day conducted with the author in 2012 before the release of his book 'Maharani', a title for older 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 H.H., 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
Ruskin Bond. File Pic
“Till today, 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 about forests walks and writer’s block, at a leisurely pace, an impending deadline means we 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 it 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, H.H. (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 H.H. 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 interesting 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 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 H.H. remained the focus, and emerged as a 3-Dimensial character,” he reveals, while speaking about his biggest challenge while working on the novella.
It’s close to wrapping up time; I cannot resist slipping 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 7-8 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 with 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 need to 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, Rs 299. Available at leading bookstores