Ruskin Bond: Laughing into his 90th year - Hindustan Times
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Ruskin Bond: Laughing into his 90th year

May 18, 2024 05:10 AM IST

The author’s nature diaries, ghost stories, novels and essays have instilled a love of reading in generations of Indian readers. On the eve of his birthday on May 19, he speaks about his rich inner world, the wonderful compensations of old age, and how not to give in to despair in the face of mankind’s violent impulses

How do you plan to celebrate your ninetieth birthday? Do you like birthday cakes?

Ruskin Bond at work. (Courtesy Harper Collins)
Ruskin Bond at work. (Courtesy Harper Collins)

The one thing that I haven’t lost in life is my appetite. I like going out for lunches, and I eat well. My family will take me out. I like butter chicken and roast lamb. I enjoy Indian and Chinese food. I am not too fond of dessert but I guess I might settle for some choco bar ice cream or a gulab jamun. I must sound very greedy but I guess that’s alright.

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When and how did you learn to laugh at yourself?

Hmm… Let me think! I guess that happened when things began to go wrong in my twenties and thirties. Sometimes, the books and stories that I wrote were rejected by editors. I had to deal with the embarrassment in some way, so I turned to laughter. I have continued laughing into my 90th year. At this age, I am a bit clumsy and do a lot of silly things, so I scold myself. I say, “Bond, you are an idiot! Get your act together. Stop making a fool of yourself.” If other people are laughing at you, it’s a good idea to laugh along with them.

132pp, ₹360; HarperCollins
132pp, ₹360; HarperCollins

Why are people so afraid of growing old?

I wonder why. Growing old hasn’t been an unpleasant process for me. I suppose they are afraid of being sick and helpless. As you age, you have to put up with health issues. But provided you are not overdependent on others or financially broke, and your day-to-day life is reasonably comfortable, I think old age has many wonderful compensations. People who are retired usually have more time to pursue their hobbies, go for walks and meet their friends. But writers, like old soldiers, never retire. They simply go out of print. (laughs)

You haven’t gone out of print. You have a few books out every year. This year, you have How to be Happy with HarperCollins, Hold on to Your Dreams with Penguin, The Hill of Enchantment with Aleph, and Stories to Live By with Rupa. How does it feel?

I have been lucky. I enjoy the process of writing, and it feels nice to be read and appreciated. But a lot of writers, whose books I used to read in the 1950s and ’60s, seem to have disappeared from bookshelves. At most bookstores these days, you get to see only the current best sellers and a handful of classics. I like going back to old favourites. Fortunately, with the Internet, you can get hold of old books but it is not that easy. You have to hunt at times.

Many of your books are set in the hills. If life had turned out differently, and you had lived in cities, do you think your writing would have been different?

There are glimpses of city life in some of my early books because I lived in Delhi. Had I stayed on there, I guess I would have continued on those lines. When I moved to the hills in the late 1960s, I ended up writing more about life in villages and small towns. Animals, birds and trees became a big part of my work. You could say that I have always responded to my environment as a writer, whether I have lived in Delhi or Dehradun or Mussoorie. The only place I haven’t written about much is the United Kingdom. I lived in Jersey and London for four years after school. They did not stimulate my imagination much.

In your new book How to be Happy, you write about how your connection with plants, animals, trees and birds helped you build a rich inner world when you felt lonely as a teenager. What advice would you offer lonely teenagers who escape into their phones?

I used to walk a lot in the hills and observe things and people. I think being out and about helped me forget my home life until I had to trudge back home in the evenings. Watching how others lived and coped helped me as a young man, and also as a writer. I suppose going for walks in the city might have its perils. In the hills, you were pretty safe unless you encountered a leopard or a bear. In that case, you ran, not walked. You must know that I always came last in the marathon. My philosophy was simple: “Don’t run unless there is a crocodile or a tiger behind you.” I rambled a lot, and it gave me pleasure. Now my eyesight is weak, so I don’t ramble as much. When I was lonely, I used to also turn to books. If I had a little pocket money, I would go to the cinema. I was a great movie buff. Today, young men and women are watching a lot of movies sitting at home and not getting out. Having a rich inner world does help. It gives you a place to find rest, comfort and joy.

Tell us about your cat Mimi, who finds a place in this book.

Mimi was brought home by my grandson Siddharth. This cat is originally from Mumbai, where she met with an accident and one of her legs had to be amputated. But let me tell you, she is very fast. She catches mice efficiently and tortures them with glee. My grandfather used to have a lot of animals. I have enjoyed writing about them in some of my books. I have a good relationship with animals but do not have a lot of them inside the house.

What was it like to go on hunts when you were younger?

When I was a boy, my stepfather used to take me on hunts. He was a shikari but clearly not a good shot. He never came back with anything, not even a junglee murgi; so I don’t believe in big tales of great hunters. Sitting around in forest bungalows was the most boring thing in the world but I once found a bookshelf with books by PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and many other writers. I must have been around eight. It was thrilling.

From falling in love with books to writing so many of your own, it has been a long and wonderful journey. How would you feel if some words in your books were replaced in order to modernize them? This has happened recently with Roald Dahl’s books.

If it’s done tastefully, I wouldn’t mind. But you do want the flavour of a story to be retained. For example, if I write about my grandmother’s khansama, I wouldn’t like the word “khansama” to be replaced by the word “cook”. That word is redolent of a certain period, and captures a slice of life from that time. There is a romance about it. I guess some things should not be modernized. But if there are classics that children are expected to study, I guess some modernizing might help. Shakespeare, for instance, is hard for kids because of the Elizabethan language that he used. I too had my share of problems studying Shakespeare.

A few minor changes don’t matter but some big changes can be jarring. For instance, in the name of modernizing a character, if you change what he is wearing, that would affect the experience of the reader. The clothing must be relevant to the period and the setting.

Nowadays, the modernizing of older books is done for the sake of being politically clean. There are so many people who get offended so quickly, so publishers have to be careful. If they are cutting out racist remarks, that is understandable. By all means, please do it as long as you don’t change the author’s style, the atmosphere he creates, his plot and his characters.

These days, one often comes across news reports of children and teenagers who are so badly bullied in school that they see no point in living anymore. What would you say to them, especially as someone who had a difficult childhood and often felt unwanted?

Bullying is very common in schools, more so in boarding schools where you have to live together. A lot depends on teachers and the other staff. Back in the day when I was a boy, schools were smaller. It was easier for adults to keep an eye on things. Today, in many cities, there are schools with three to four thousand children. How would teachers, headmasters, and other staff members keep themselves aware of what happens with such a large number? In any case, bullying is not restricted to classrooms and residential halls. It happens on school buses, and in other spaces outside school. It is a widespread problem, and it only gets worse when children grow up and go to colleges and universities. I would ask youngsters to be prepared for it, to try and blend in. The boys who used to get bullied more were oddly dressed or looked different. One of the boys, who was permitted to keep long hair for religious reasons, was a target for everyone. Life was made miserable for him. He left the school. I think parents too should prepare their children for school. It is not easy and comfortable. They must try not to be too precocious or too different because others might hurt them.

What’s the best part of being a grandfather?

My grandchildren call me Dada, and I like being fussed over and spoilt by them. My own grandmother was very strict and I was scared of her but nobody is scared of me. People want to do things for me all the time, and I get lazier. If I want something to be fetched, they fetch it for me. This is not very good for my figure but I love my grandchildren. We are not biologically related but this is a family that I chose for myself because I like them very much.

In How to be Happy, you write, “Let’s justify our presence on this planet. And let’s do it by trying to emulate the great creator.” Does prayer have a place in your life?

I am not a religious person but, yes, I pray. I rarely go to church. But when I am in danger, the first thing I do is to send up a prayer. I cannot visualize the great creator but I try to commune. Very often, there is some response if the prayer is sincere and I want things not only for myself but also for others. I can pray anywhere. I might just look out the window after we finish our phone call, and say a prayer, or I might pray before I sit down to write. I can pray sitting in a taxi. I don’t have to be at a formal place of worship. Prayer is prayer. The point of it is to try to be in communion with whoever put us there. Some people say that humans originated in the oceans. I am not sure because we don’t look like prawns or lobsters (laughs). I think we are aliens from another planet who have come to make a mess of this one. There must be a greater intelligence out there. Perhaps it could be artificial intelligence.

A lot of people find it hard to believe in this idea of a great creator when they see images of children being killed in mindless violence. When you read or watch news about the genocide that’s going on in Palestine, how do you process or come to terms with it?

I ask myself the same question. Every day, around the world, something horrible is happening. And right now, it’s in Palestine. We have seen, throughout history, that the weak and helpless suffer the most. Human beings have a propensity for fighting and killing each other, and this is usually about grabbing land. The creator made a beautiful planet with birds, animals and trees. But when it came to human beings, something went wrong. A part of us is so beautiful, but another part of us is so evil. Perhaps the human race will die out and some better form of life will take our place. This sounds very pessimistic for a writer who has a new book called How to be Happy (laughs). I hope my book conveys this simple message to children: Life is tough but don’t give in to despair. If you put your mind to it, and try to be cheerful, you can deal with challenges. Also, please try to make the world a better place.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator based in Mumbai. He is @chintanwriting on Instagram and X.

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