I am smitten even before I open the book. It’s the title. Sitting in smoggy, concrete, corrupt Delhi where all that counts is “Friends in High Places”, it’s surreal to read about Friends in Wild Places. How utterly charming to count among your companions a boisterous teenaged tiger (“People gave us a wide berth when I took him for a walk”), a python in love with his reflection, a monkey who piggybacked the pet goat, and Harold the hornbill who (sometimes) shared his food with little Ruskin, even if the boy did not share his enthusiasm for beetles and other such delicacies. I know it does seem like the writer’s imagination ran riot. Fact and fantasy, real and make-believe blur like they mostly do in Bond’s works. Did the pet python really travel by train in the family’s picnic basket? Do bears jump and thump on roofs to steal pumpkins? Fantastical, but from the author’s eloquent pen, very plausible.
After all, Ruskin Bond has always lived in a parallel universe, simpler and infinitely more magical than the one we trudge along in.
Maybe it has to do with the physical space he inhabits; a lovely corner of the Garhwal Himalayas, Landour, in a 100-year-old cottage with a window that opens onto a forest, and also lets the forest in. Really. Bond’s guests ‘who fly in from the forest’ include a wary whistling thrush seeking shelter from the rain and a not-so-shy squirrel who hops on the desk for deliberately left crumbs. Perhaps it has more to do with the kind of person Bond is. A man who prefers walking to using noisy, polluting motor cars; who is happy with the slow hum-drum pace of life and avoids the mad rat race; who favours his pen and paper (which you can carry to the woods) over a computer, and who sees beauty, instead of grime, everywhere.
Even in Delhi.
Admittedly, Bond’s Delhi is of the 1950s, when the Najafgarh jheel flowed and kingfishers could fish in its waters, and great banyan trees offered shade and shelter-to man and animals alike. The trees may have made way for the metro, and the jheel for a mall, but consoles the author, Delhi still has its kingfishers and its babblers.
I have been reading Bond since my school days. He wasn’t so prolific then, and was one of the few Indian writers among a plethora of Enid Blytons, Carolyn Keenes (pseudonym for the many writers of the Nancy Drew books) and unpronounceable Russians. I eagerly awaited his next title in the city’s musty public library, and a new Bond on the shelf would inevitably lead to a tussle with friends for first reading rights. I would disappear with the spoils, settling under the only tree (a neem) in our apartment complex. Soon, I would be transported to another world. Bond’s words carried the whiff of crisp mountain air, the sound of tumbling streams, the loneliness of wayside stations, the easy friendship of owls and deodars and tigers. I longed to live in that world.
Friends in Wild Places is a very special Bond. Not least because it is beautifully, lavishly illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh. What I love most, though, is the author’s affectionate kinship with nature. It soothes the soul, and restores the faith, especially in a time when most of humanity seems to be at war, and not at peace, with nature. The book is a collection of Bond’s writings on his wild friends, who range from the tiger to the insect. As always, the stories are engaging, endearing, and yet profound. Sample this from a ‘Little World of Mud’: To the Inhabitants of the pond, the pond was the world, and to the inhabitants of the world, the world was but a muddy pond…
Another favourite is No Room for a Leopard, in which the author invokes DH Lawrence: “There was room in the world for the mountain lion and me.” But in Bond’s story there wasn’t room for man and the leopard, who is shot by hunters. He writes, “I walked through the silent forest. It was very silent, almost as though the birds and the animals knew their trust had been violated.” I met old friends in the book: stories, which I had read before. Some forgotten, and read anew. Others which had stayed with me, and I could read many times over like In the Tunnel, about the khalasi or the station watchman who warns and helps the baghera (leopard) trapped in a tunnel to get away before the train rumbles through. I smile, and a tear escapes the eye, accompanied by an acute nostalgia. Do such lonely outposts exist anymore? And where are these people? Outside of Bond’s book, I mean.
Friends in Wild Places is written with humour, and an occasional sense of melancholy, that ensures that the stories, and their characters, stay with you long after you have put the book down.
Prerna Bindra is Trustee, Bagh (bagh.org) and Editor, TigerLink
Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions Ruskin Bond, Speaking Tiger Rs 499; PP159