The view from his small window shows a bright and sunny day. He watches the world go by – noisy young boys returning from school, sparrows chirping on a nearby tree, cows trundling home, the bells on their necks jingling.
Ruskin Bond, the Padma Shri and now Padma Bhushan author, is sitting in his favourite chair in his cosy little cottage in the Landour area of Mussoorie. A narrow flight of stairs takes one to the room, which has a couple of old Hollywood posters on the walls, and comfortable cane chairs for visitors to sit on.
Born to British parents Edith Clerke and Aubrey Bond in a military hospital in Kasauli (his father was in the Royal Air Force), Rusty, as he was fondly called, saw his parents get divorced when he was just four. He did his schooling in Shimla, Jamnagar and Dehradun. In the summer of 1963, Ruskin Bond decided to settle down in Mussoorie.
He has written children’s books, several novels, and love stories, often set in his beloved hills. Some of his stories have been made into films: The Blue Umbrella, A Flight of Pigeons (Junoon) and Susanna’s Seven Husbands (Saat Khoon Maaf). Bond now lives with his adopted family in a cottage he bought ten years ago. Excerpts from the interview:
Could Rusty have ever thought he’d grow up to be a Padma Bhushan?
Not at all. Rusty was always the unconventional rebellious type. He liked writing even when he was in school and often won prizes for it. But that he would be liked for it was not a thought that would have crossed that young boy’s mind.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was growing up, I remember having read all the books in the library. I often tried to emulate my favourite writers. So I guess I wanted to be an author when I was in school. When it actually came down to making a living out of something, I knew it would have to be writing.
You’ve lived in Kasauli, Shimla, Jamnagar, Dehradun, London. What made you settle in Mussoorie?
A few years after my father’s death, my mother sent me to the United Kingdom for “better prospects” in 1951. Those four years were not easy. I had grown up in Dehradun and I missed my friends, my simple life back home. In fact, it was while I was in the UK that I started writing my first book The Room on the Roof (which later went on to win the 1957 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, awarded to a British Commonwealth writer under 30). I would work in the day and write at night.
I did all kind of jobs to sustain myself. I worked at a grocery store, in the public health department and what was then Thomas Cook and Sons. The last job was particularly interesting but I got fired from it. I had a young woman who was my boss but she soon started having an affair with a fire attendant and was thrown out. I had to manage the show and I must say I made a mess of it. I often took calls and had to do hotel bookings. I never did and in fact don’t still get the hang of bed descriptions. So I often separated people who wanted to sleep together!
Then I moved to London and worked at a photo studio. This was an interesting job. All this while though, I worked hard to find a publisher for my book. And when I did and got an advance of 50 pounds, I knew it was enough to get me home to India. Those days one travelled by ship. The tariff to get to India was 40 pounds and I still had ten pounds left!
What were the early days like?
I came back to Dehradun. To begin with, I was very ambitious. So I wrote short stories and poems and religiously bombarded newspaper and magazine editors with them. Sometimes I got lucky and some got selected and I earned a few hundred rupees. Since I was in my 20s and didn’t have any responsibilities I was just happy to be doing what I loved doing best.
Also, when you are young, things happen around you rather than to you. So I still remember I was in school when I received a letter that my father was no more. I also remember how I was watching Blossoms in the Dust with a few friends in a hall in Dehradun when the show was stopped midway and we were told that Mahatma Gandhi had been shot.
I guess I just trudged along. Fortune and name came much later. I also wrote for children and three of my books were published in London so that lifted my income to some extent. In the summer of 1963 I decided to move to Mussoorie because it had always been close to my heart. Also, it was the closest to Delhi and I wanted to be in touch with all the editors and publishers. I edited a magazine called Imprint from Mussoorie for about four years. It was in the 1980s that Penguin decided to come to India and asked me to work on a few books. I already had hundreds of short stories that I had been writing.
|If not an author, what would you have been?|
I wanted to be a tap dancer when I was very young. I also wanted to be a footballer and I did play decently. Something that my form will belie today! In fact, I can still kick the ball well, running after it is another thing altogether.
Who is your favourite author?
I enjoy reading classics. In fact, I recently re-read Wuthering Heights. I like Charles Dickens. Somerset Maugham, PG Wodehouse, Anton Chekov, Ernest Bates, Graham Greene. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome is something I still like re-reading. So I guess there are many.
Do you still use a typewriter to write?
Well, I still have three old typewriters lying at home. Now I only write by hand, something I have always liked. The computer hurts my neck. Besides, I still have decent handwriting so I guess nobody minds much.
What is your day like?
Lazy. I do write every day but I respond to weather. So if it’s a nice sunny day, the kind I love the best, I am in a good mood. When it rains and snows, I am usually a little grumpier.
You have written love stories, children’s books, ghost stories. What do you enjoy writing the most?
It’s difficult to pick a favourite. I guess some of my early short stories like Night Train at Deoli. When it comes to writing, I keep moving between genres. The 1950s and 1960s is what I could call my romantic period... Night Train at Shamli, and The Eyes Have It.
Writing for children is fun and in fact recently I had a young boy ask me why there are so many leopards in my stories. I told him, “Well, I’ve always had leopards prowling around the places I grew in.” Also, I guess I just like leopards.
I must admit I write ghost stories when I run out of people. I often use my dreams to get inspired for these as I guess dreams have a ghost-like quality to them. But yes, as I grow older I enjoy writing humour because you learn to see humour in a lot of things.
Did you ever get close to getting married?
I did have my share of falling in love. I got close to marriage once or twice but I was finally rejected. You see, I was a very attractive young person. But combine that with being an author who didn’t make much money in his 20s and 30s.
Looking back, I have no regrets. A young boy Prem came looking for a job in the early 1970s and I became his default father. Soon he married and had children. Today I have three grandchildren (Rakesh, Mukesh and Savitri) who also have children. So we are actually three generations of the family in the house. They all call me dadaji. So I guess I am lucky. I don’t really live like a single old man.
How do you write in a house full of so many people?
An author should be able to write anywhere. In a busy train, in a roomful of people. Once you are in your own world, the surroundings don’t matter as much. Plus l guess I like the feeling of the family around me. It probably helps me make up for the lonely childhood I had.
From HT Brunch, April 6
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