Write about the world you know
In an exclusive interview, Ruskin Bond talks of his upcoming memoir and why it's more popular to be a writer today, ahead of his 85th birthday this weekend
There was nothing bad about being an only child— we always had Ruskin Bond on the bookshelf. If you didn't have a view of the hills in a space-strapped city, he transported you to the north with his words. If you shied away from adventure, he'd tell you stories of how Toto, a monkey, jumps into a kettle. And if you intended on reading his work as one reads any other book i.e. from page 1 to x, he'd encourage you to read it backwards — that too in the foreword.
In 2017, Bond began penning down a series of memoirs. This weekend, on his birthday, he releases the final part of the trilogy titled Coming Round the Mountain (Puffin Books) — dwelling on his schooldays at Shimla's Bishop Cotton School, set in the year of Independence. Here, you meet Bond's best friends — The Fearsome Four, as they called themselves — Azhar Khan, Brian Adams and Cyrus Satralkar. But there's more than just mischief; the author absorbs you into his narrative and forces you to see India as it was through the eyes of a child, against the backdrop of war and in this case, the Partition. And Bond still excels at what he does best — constantly reminding you of everything that is good in the world.
Perhaps memory is the author's best friend. Memoirs can be difficult to write, but he maintains that he enjoys all his writings. "Once I have an idea or when I have to write about my own life, I just have to put pen to paper and it all starts flowing," he tells us, over a phone call from Landour in Uttarakhand, where he lives.
The trilogy has been beautifully illustrated by Pune-based Mihir Joglekar. Although black and white, the artist captures the sense of school life vividly. "It sets off the story nicely. In a book for young readers, it's always important to have good illustrations because then when one grows up, it is easier to read a book without illustrations," Bond says.
But what does the author, whose name is inextricably intertwined with children's literature, feel about school life today? "This is, of course, the computer age, but they like the same things, like cricket or football or jalebis, that I did — I still eat jalebis at the cost of my clothes being too tight for me. But kids nowadays have to work a little harder and on some days, I do feel sorry for them," he quips, adding, "Technology makes writing easier. I'm still writing with a ball-point pen and a writing point. So, I'm one of the last people writing by hand. But one should be comfortable with the way they write or read. Although young people may be reading e-books on tablets, I find that in my book sales and readership, the printed book is still the most popular form of reading, at least in India."
Another challenge for youngsters, Bond says, is drawing from observation — something that he learnt from his father who passed away when he was 10. "I didn't have much time with him, but he gave me a lot of his even though he had a job. We visited monuments and collected stamps [which is how I learnt most of my geography]. I think there is so much to write about here in India that sometimes I wonder why people often set their stories in foreign countries with foreign names and characters — very remote from the reality that is life over here. I always advise youngsters to 'write about the world you know'. Unless they want to write fantasy, there is no point in setting a story in America or England, if you haven't even been there. I think it's the influence of films and television," he explains.
And no, Bond doesn't watch Game of Thrones or any superhero flicks. "I used to read comics. But we don't get many now. Frankly, a lot of them have disappeared. That's right, they're all becoming movies. I miss the funny ones because most of the movies are usually about superheroes. I don't believe in superheroes. Since the world doesn't have any real heroes now, they have to invent superheroes," he laughs.
With plenty of career options to dive into today, Bond says it's more popular to be a writer. He recalls the time he made his choice. "I only started writing seriously when I was about 13. When I finished school, I was determined to be a writer. When I came home after I had done my senior Cambridge, my mother said, 'Well, Ruskin, now what are you going to do with yourself?' I said, 'Mum, I'm going to be a writer,' and she told me, 'Don't be silly. Go and join the army!' In those days, that was the ultimate destination for boys after school. But I think I would've gotten beaten daily if I went there... Now kids have a lot to choose from."
What does he look forward to the most about turning 85? Not cakes, for sure. "Oh, I'm supposed to go to the bookshop where the book releases. I am not usually big on birthdays, but booksellers and publishers like to make a little fuss, so okay, I collect a few birthday cakes. But I'm more into tikkis and gol gappas, and jalebis, of course," he says, adding that he doesn't cook either. "Well, the few times I've cooked, it's been disastrous. But I can boil an egg. Sometimes the egg turns out to be half-boiled because I'm impatient. Still, I will write a book titled 50 Different Ways to Boil an Egg. It will be my masterpiece."
A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli