For a long time, I was never a fan of novels. I felt that a story could be told in a concise way. Ruskin Bond showed me that it was a possibility.
Bond, who turns 86 today, rose to fame when he wrote his first novel The Room on the Roof when he was 16 years old. People argue that it’s his best work. I say it’s his best novel.
He wrote two more later in life – A Flight of Pigeons (which was made into the Shashi Kapoor-starrer Junoon), and the Sensualist, which is probably more of a novella than a novel. The story – a semi-erotic story of a sexually-charged man, who loses his mojo after having too much sex, was published by Vinod Mehta while he was the editor of Debonair Magazine. While writing the foreword for The Sensualist, Bond even admitted that someone in Mumbai (then Bombay) filed a complaint, which resulted in Bond making frequent visits from Mussoorie to a court in maximum city to appear before a judge. He never mentioned what the verdict was.
One thing is for certain though: Bond should not stick to writing erotica. I think he realised it himself and has since preferred to play it safe; writing about the trees, ghosts and prets, crickets and cicadas, as well as children playing cricket are his strong points. His semi-autobiographical stories are wonderful, as is his autobiography ‘Scenes from a Writers Life’.
I first read Bond’s work in Class 4 in an anthology called ‘The Road to the Bazaar’. Short-stories like ‘The Fight’ that tells us about friendship that is developed after two boys – a Punjabi and a Rajput – fight over who has the swimming rights to a forest pool. ‘The Great Railway Journey’ is the misadventure of a boy who wants to see the world; and ‘When Guavas are Ripe’ is about how three children befriend the local guard of a guava orchid from where they steal fruits in summer. Bond had won me over.
Over the next few years, short stories like ‘Calypso Christmas’, ‘Sita and the River’, ‘The Blue Umbrella’, ‘Grandfather’s Private Zoo’, among others not only cemented Ruskin Bond’s place as one of the finest Indian short story writers, but also took me to the hills without even going there. Today, of course, the hills are something I love and wish I could move to.
As I grew older, I also realised the complex relations Bond had with his mother. His mother left his father when he was a boy, and he resented her for marrying his stepfather. In his short story ‘The Last Time I Saw Delhi’, Bond writes about how he doesn’t want to meet his stepfather and stepsiblings after he visits his mother in a Delhi hospital. Most of his writing, especially when it came to his romantic relationships – whether they were real (Vu Phong) or fictional (Sushila) – show that Bond’s character in the story, whether they were really him or a fictionalised version of him – was insecure about his female relationships. It showed Bond’s vulnerable side, which probably added to his list of fans.
Today when I read Bond, I usually go back the short stories about his hometown; I even enjoy the occasional ghost story, and short-thrillers of humans encroaching on wildlife and a big cat’s response to the same.
The closest encounter I’ve had with Bond is when I visited Mussoorie in 2015. He frequents a local bookstore and signs copies over there. Unfortunately, he wasn’t at the store on that day, but I still managed to get a signed copy. I’ve always thought of going back, but I’d rather believe what I have read about the man than see him in real life. The fact that he’s on Twitter, but only has two tweets – both in 2016 when he got on Twitter – only adds to his charm.
Happy birthday, Mr Bond. May you continue to inspire us to imagine.