Interview | Ruskin Bond: “It is satisfying to write for children”

ByMajid Maqbool
May 19, 2023 08:42 PM IST

On his 89th birthday, the author talks about reading, writing and the unexpected pleasures of growing old

Ruskin Bond, who turns 89 on 19th May, refuses to retire. In a career spanning over seven decades, he has written over a 100 books. He was just 17 when his first novel The Room on the Roof was published. It went on to win the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. Since then, he has won numerous awards including the Sahitya Akademi award in 1992, the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. At an age when other writers would have called it quits, he continues to write and publish books. Three of his new books are being published by three different publishers this month. One of them, The Golden Years, tells us how to enjoy old age. He says it has been written for those, who, like him, “can no longer climb trees, swing from the flying trapeze, or go sky-diving. There are, however, a great many other things we can do, and this book describes and enumerates some of them.”

Author Ruskin Bond (Courtesy HarperCollins) PREMIUM
Author Ruskin Bond (Courtesy HarperCollins)

“Life may not be a bed of roses — roses have thorns, after all — but if you can make your bed with care and dedication and a little love, you may find that it’s a good bed and a good life — often the best years of your life!” he says.

You write that this book, which is about growing old and liking it, will be helpful for the young and old. Why do you think old age is “truly the best time of your life”?

In many ways it is the best time of your life, provided you’re not impoverished or out on the streets, or in great physical distress due to poor health. But otherwise I think I find it is a very contented period. If you’ve done reasonably well in life, and your health is okay, you now can spend more time doing the things you like. Like reading, sitting in the sun, looking for wildflowers, or just sort of being your own master. You don’t have to meet any deadline. In a way, you have more freedom and time. And of course, it makes some change for me too having written for older people and children for most of my time. Some young people will enjoy this book too. There are some funny bits in it about growing old. It reflects, in a way, my own life and outlook, and my home spun philosophy at this age – taking one’s life one day at a time, one story at a time, you might say. One doesn’t plan so far ahead, of course.

How difficult has it been to sustain yourself as a full-time writer over the past seven decades?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s and even the early 1970s, it wasn’t easy because, for one thing, we didn’t have many publishers, except for some text book publishers. So if you wrote a novel, you would try to get it published abroad. In order to make a reasonable living, I would bombard every magazine and newspaper in the land with articles, stories, essays. Every month, I would turn out four or five stories, couple of articles, and this kept me going. Because, in those days, the most you got was 50 rupees, I think, for a story. In the 1970s, things started getting a little better. I started writing for children and some of my children’s books were published abroad too. Then, in the 1980s, we had some of our own publishers that came up. And also into the country came publishers like Penguin, Harper Collins, and others. So it became easier for not just me but for other Indian writers too. Over the last 20 years or so, we have seen a surge of writing by Indian writers being published here and sometimes published abroad too. So things have certainly got easier. They say people don’t read but there must be more people reading now because the book industry seems very buoyant. People do buy books, if not in bookshops, then online. Education has spread. Even if reading is a minority pastime, in terms of actual numbers, it goes into hundreds of thousands. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had so many years of writing. I’ve seen things come and go and, you know, things have changed for writers, and the world has changed around me too. I think that also affects me, my literary outlook, the way people write.

168pp, ₹399; The Golden Years by Ruskin Bond(HarperCollins)
168pp, ₹399; The Golden Years by Ruskin Bond(HarperCollins)

You call yourself more of a reader than a writer. You’ve also written a number of story books for children. Given the many distractions now of the internet, television and video games, how can children be encouraged to read?

Yes, in many ways I’m more of a reader than a writer. Nowadays, I read three books a week but I might write only one story a week. I can read quite fast. I’m not a slow writer; I can maybe turn out one or two stories or maybe a couple of essays a week. I keep a journal too; not every day, though. If, in the course of the week, something interesting happens, or if I have a thought, I note it down. Anything that takes my fancy, I put it down. Sometimes it can become a story later and one day I can publish it.Spending time with books these days is difficult because kids now have so many other interests – apps, their phones, laptops. It’s only the odd one who becomes a reader. Sometimes a kid is a bit different from others. He would, maybe, take up a book and become a bookworm. I get letters from children who have started reading or want to read more or even want to write, which is unusual. When I was growing up, not many children wanted to write. But that’s something new now. So many children are actually self-publishing or their parents are bringing out their books, which is okay and encouraging. Some of them will go on to become regular writers.I think reading books has always been a minority pastime. Even when I was a boy, I went to a school where we had a good library, but, in a class of, say, 30 boys, there only two or three of us who actually read books. You’ve got to find some particular subject or theme that interests children. And then, once they do become readers and find something they like, then you can’t stop them. Then they’ll always be readers. I began writings specifically for children when I was in my forties. I found it very satisfying because you are, in a way, helping them become readers and to take an interest in the wider world. Books and reading does open up a vista for you in a way that is different from the world of technology where everything is done for you. With reading, you have to make an effort yourself. That puts some children off because they have to think a little while they read. But once a reader, always a reader. When I find a young boy or girl reading, I always encourage them to read more and write more. And to be a writer, you have to be a reader. I can’t think of any famous or great writers who weren’t readers when they were young.

You get a lot of correspondence from young readers. Have you recieved any memorable letters?

I can’t reply to all of them because then I’ll be doing nothing else, but I do occasionally get nice letters from children. Sometimes, they tell me their problems, or their ambitions. Or sometimes they will write about the books they enjoy reading. It could be mine; it could be of other authors. They might ask for tips if they want to write. Sometimes, they would like to meet me. So I get interesting letters from different parts of the country or even from small towns because people in small towns feel the need to be in touch with a writer or someone who can give them some advice or just some encouragement. Kids need encouragement. That’s why it’s satisfying to write for children.

As we get older, we are susceptible to losing our inner child and that joy of living. In your autobiography, you’ve written that “we become like the children when we are old.” How do you maintain a childlike sense of wonder even in your late 80s?

I guess it is part of one’s nature. Some people have a childlike nature. People say I haven’t grown up, which is alright. I’ve been getting new teeth; maybe a second childhood (laughs). I guess, when writing for children, you have to put yourself in their place; have a child’s mind; try to see the world with fresh eyes and with some enthusiasm, because that’s what they need because they are going into a very broken and difficult world. I guess they need all the armour they can get from reading,I hope the book is helpful to all people, and that they will enjoy it and might maybe pick up something from it that will help them, and for younger people too, because, as I say, they’re going to be old one day. I always used to like talking to old people because you learn from them and you also got stories from them. I still do that. Now I also enjoy talking to younger people.

In your book you write that writers don’t retire. What keeps you going and should we expect a few more books and stories from you as you enter your 90s?

Yes, because we don’t get pensions and provident funds! If I stop writing, then the bank manager will say – Mr Bond, your bank balance has fallen very low (smiles). I have three books coming out my birthday. One is the Golden Years. The other one is an anthology of my favourite nature stories and Aleph is doing their own selection of what they think are some of my best stories. The Golden Years was written in the past year. I try every year to bring out some new titles and I have several publishers. I have to keep them all happy. So I can’t retire – they won’t let me!

You write that reading, more than an occupation, is a consolation – “a joy not dulled by age, a selfish, serene lifelong intoxication”. What are your favourite books? Any particular Indian writers you enjoy?

After finishing school in the 1950s, my mother packed me off to England. I was feeling very homesick for India and went through all the Indian authors I could find in a local library. So I went through the works of Rabindranath Tagore - his poems and plays, and English translations of his works. Then, there were writers like Subodh Ghosh and Mulk Raj Anand, who, at that time, was famous for writing Coolie and Untouchable. And I read RK Narayan’s Swami and Friends. So these were the authors of that period I read with interest.Now I read more for pleasure, really. I don’t read much fiction now. But I like reading the biography of anyone who has done something interesting, specifically of authors, biographies of famous writers, modern biographies, and history books, if they are done in interesting ways. I’ll also occasionally read a memoir, if it’s been nicely written. I’ve just started reading a nostalgic book about Darjeeling by a Bengali writer. I read more non-fiction these days. When I read fiction, it’s usually a light detective story or something relaxing. I am reading purely for pleasure now. But I do read a lot, including newspapers in the morning. I’m an old newspaper reader. I don’t care much about television news channels but I do read newspapers. I get more from them in a way.

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.

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