From the extraordinary labyrinth of India’s social and historical landscape as well as the vibrant emergence of Indian literature in English comes the personal story of the country’s most loved writer, Ruskin Bond. The lone fox in conversation
From the extraordinary labyrinth of India’s social and historical landscape as well as the vibrant emergence of Indian literature in English comes the personal story of the country’s most loved writer, Ruskin Bond. The lone fox in conversation with Ananya Borgohain
Overwhelming, quaint hills manifest varied sentiments — a tinge of yellow from the rays of the setting sun on the sharp blades of the spring grass; the steep slopes that yield to the valley with meditative streams; the arduous, snow-capped mountains standing their guard; the solitude and tranquility of the forest’s canopy; they all offer a blanket of solace that warmly swipes many, often lost in sundry recollections. In India’s ‘Queen of the hills’, Mussoorie, lives one such man, loved unanimously by Indians, and who has finally decided to tell them the poignant, moving, and extraordinary story of his life.
Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Sahitya Akademi, and John Llewellyn Rhys Prize winner Ruskin Bond holds a special place in the hearts of most Indians. He has effortlessly and endearingly cultivated the hobby of reading in them, inculcated their sense of vivid imagination, and coloured their childhood. Few writers have been as much loved as he has been. Born on May 19, 1934, in Kasauli, British India at a military hospital, to Edith Clarke and Aubrey Bond, he grew up in Jamnagar in Gujarat and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, before moving to Uttarakhand. His father served in the Royal Air Force from 1939 till 1944. His parents separated when he was eight after which, his mother married an Indian, whom Bond calls Mr H in his recently released autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, published by Speaking Tiger. We discuss his life, at the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road, Delhi.
Bond is filled with vivid memories from his childhood. The rich yellow of Polson’s butter, drives in a Hillman convertible, postage stamps from Solomon Islands, his father’s opera records of Madame Butterfly, the palace of the ruler of Jamnagar, which was a short walk from the Bonds’ house, and many more such images continue to remind him of fulfilling primitive years. Bond says that his father was 36 and mother 18 when they met in Mussoorie and had a scorching affair. His father, he says, was also quite friendly with his mother’s sister before in Dehradun but things did not work out for them. Bond never came across a record of his parents’ marriage but they did become Mr and Mrs Bond for his baptismal certificate. His father joined the Royal Air Force and they had to leave Jamnagar. He went with his mother to Dehradun to stay at his grandmother’s house and his father moved to Delhi. His parents had started fighting frequently by then and their relationship was on the rocks.
Ruskin was sent to the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Mussoorie, which he hated right from the first day. It was the time of the World War and his father was posted in different war sectors. Young Ruskin missed his father all the more when his mother chose to be out often. She liked the cosmopolitan Dehradun that let her party, go to picnics and the cinema. As he writes, “Who would have thought there was a World War going on? Or that the country was in the throes of the Quit India Movement, and then the sun would be setting on the British Empire?” It was at this time when his mother met Mr H, who became such a consistent presence in her life that one day when the three of them were outside and H and his mother were sitting on the banks of the Eastern Canal, Ruskin left them alone and wandered off. His mother did not even notice; neither did she enquire about him after returning home.
Ruskin loved spending time with his father. Their conversations were replete with discussions of music, stamps, comics, milk shakes, and Rudyard Kipling’s stories. He liked spending time with his father in Delhi. He met his father’s friends and colleagues there and would come back to school and exaggerate stories about the war while reiterating that his daddy worked in the RAF. His father passed away from jaundice when he was 10. Ruskin’s life was no more the same. He had almost no friends, he hated his boarding school, and his mother had married H. He held a strong resentment against his step-father and was sent to his grandmother’s home to live with her. Throughout his autobiography, he does not use the full name of his step-father. Bond reveals, “It is actually no secret. His name was Hari. At first, I did not want to use his name because there are so many relatives around and I did not want to make them uncomfortable with my account. Later, I did tell my editor to use his full name if that was important but by then the book had already gone for printing.” He does clarify though, that his step-father was never impolite to him, just indifferent to him as he was to his own children from his previous marriage. He also admits that perhaps he judged his mother and H too soon and too harshly. Although he adds, “I am a writer with no regrets.”
Young Ruskin was thoughtful and exhibited an existential angst many a time. “I was more contemplative then than I am now”, he chuckles and says, “I had an unusual childhood and so it took me time to open up to people and make friends. I was mostly found in the company of books. I guess that’s true for so many authors who are famous but have had a traumatic childhood.” But Bond’s childhood was also one of a kind in the truest sense of the word. He has lived through the most major phases of the Indian political history — pre-colonial India, the princely cultures of the erstwhile kingdoms of Alwar and Jamnagar, the British way of life in the Indian hills, Partition, post-colonial India, and so much more. His journey has also documented the evolution of Indian history, both political and social. As India’s identity has transformed and reconfigured over the years, has Bond ever felt that his individuality too has been debatable?
Having been born and brought up in India and living through the country’s most euphoric and poignant moments, how does he react when he is referred to as an Anglo-Indian? He replies, “I would rather use the term ‘All-Indian’ than ‘Anglo-Indian’. The term Anglo-Indian has already undergone so many changes in its definition. First it referred to Europeans who moved to India, then it was used for Eurasians who migrated to India, and then to children whose father was British and mother was Indian. I have not been directly involved in active politics or identity politics in the country but I consider myself an Indian whose parents happened to be British.”
Bond found soulful company in books. They moulded his mind and it is in stories that he found a channel of catharsis. It was difficult to grow up in a boarding school, so stories and literary engagements not only kept him busy but transcended him to a world that calmed the exasperated recesses of his distressed mind. However, he says that he did not take a liking to Enid Blyton’s books. This seems to be interesting to many young people in India because when most of them were in school, it was either Bond or Blyton for them, especially in the 1990s. He says, “You know, she was a goody-goody! I would prefer mischievous characters.” Interestingly, Blyton has also been accused of racism in her works. Bond says, “I don’t think she had Indian characters in her books. I would not be able to comment on it. I remember Billy Bunter’s story by Charles Hamilton, though. It had a Maharaja but of course, no offence was directed at him because Maharajas are so respected anyway, probably because of all the jewels!” Growing up he says that he read the likes of Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, PG Wodehouse; and Arthur Morrison and Patrick Hamilton in his later years. Among the Indian authors, he speaks highly of Mulk Raj Anand, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Kamala Markandaya, and so on.
By 17, he knew he wanted to be a writer. It was the few true friends that he had made by then who encouraged and convinced him to pursue writing in London, where such aspirations really came true. His mother, being pragmatic, had advised him years earlier that since his father died during service, the British RAF would be obligated to hire him. Now was the time for Ruskin to give the thought an actual shot. And off he went to England, where he spent the next few years. His mother and Hari had come to see him off at the Dehradun station too, a far cry from years ago when his father had just died and he returned to Dehradun to find that nobody had come to receive him.
In England, he knocked on doors, waited long hours outside offices and asked anyone he could for a job. He started earning three pounds a week working as a junior clerk at a grocery chain. He gave his aunt a pound as rent and spent the other two on books, films, and stationery. His life in London was as active, with him mostly trying to build a network that could help him professionally. He felt lonely and was polite to a fault. Life was filled with struggle and occasional hopelessness, but gradually he found the right company. Bond’s writings were not received well in England. Some of his works were rejected but he did find luck with radio. He was invited to read his story, The Rainbow, live on BBC. It became one of the early chapters in his debut and now a cult classic, The Room on the Roof. His association with BBC continued and he soon made acquaintance with Diana Athill, the famous British literary editor, who turns 100 this year. Diana’s constant feedback influenced Bond and they particularly kept in touch over The Room on the Roof. She was a confident, intelligent, and independent woman who helped him refine his literary attributes. Bond affectionately mentions that she drove around London even in her 90s. It is Diana who helped him get the book published, and the rest is history.
Not just books, there was time when he liked a few Hindi films as well. He recalls taking Diana to watch this “silly” Hindi film called Aan (1952). Ask him which was the last Hindi film he watched and pat comes the reply, “7 Khoon Maaf”, which was based on his own Susanna’s Seven Husbands and in which he had a cameo too. He says, “Vishal Bhardwaj did a great job with The Blue Umbrella, which was also based on my story. 7 Khoon Maaf, on the other hand, changed a bit. What I wrote was a tongue-in-cheek, black humour story, but the film was really dark humoured. But of course, it was a good film and Priyanka Chopra did a fabulous job in it.” He says he admired actresses such as Kamini Kaushal, Nutan, and Nargis.
The hills continue to be essential for his peace of mind. He may have lived in Jamnagar, Delhi, or England, but it is the hills of Mussoorie that will always be his home. Bond says, “It is because of family. I have relatives here. Diana and I interact once in five to 10 years, some of my friends live abroad too but people close to me are here and I like it this way.” Relationships are crucial to him and that much is evident. At Landour, he lives with his adoptive family. But he does fondly remember two of his lost loves — Sushila and Vu. Vu was a Vietnamese girl whom he had met in England. She read the tea leaves in his cup once and predicted that they were not destined to be together, and refused to get involved in a romantic relationship with him. He had met Sushila through a friend and who stayed in his house with her brother for a while due to certain circumstances. Time brought them closer, but her family was strongly opposed to the match. Once again, Bond had to accept defeat at the hands of destiny. I ask him if he still remembers her. He replies, “I do think about her but she has no place in my life today and vice versa. However, I know it would not be appropriate to invade her privacy. She is a grandmother today. Back then, I was 30 years old. Now 50 years later, I look like a sumo wrestler and I am sure she is quite rotund herself!”
It is his quintessential wit and unparalleled elegance that perhaps makes Ruskin Bond who he is. One can be famous with talent, sure, but it’s only the grace that he has that can sustain the fame and success. Bond never married, does not have a biological family to live with, his old friends are far away, and his guide and editor is now at an old-age home (voluntarily). I ask him if he misses having someone he could write for, someone whose opinion would stimulate him to write better. He thinks about it and says, “I always tell young writers to have a beginning, middle, and an end in mind when they write; to keep it simple and have the flow going. For myself, my friend Somi was my harshest critic. Never wrote anything, that fellow, but reserved the strongest criticism for me and I enjoyed showing him my works too. I have had good editors; Ravi Singh has been so patient and good with my products. Apart from that, yes, if you have someone particular you want to discuss your works with or who inspires you to be better at what you do, I am sure that is a very nice feeling.”
Pic: Alwin Singh