Prolific and popular, witty and wise, charming and cherubic, Ruskin Bond commands adulation across regions, age groups and gender. Here is a writer who has defied genres, challenged conventions and remained enduring and endearing down the years.
My dream of meeting the famous writer came true one rain-drenched evening at his home in Landour, a quaint little ‘town' above Mussoorie. We settled down for a chat in his tiny living-room filled with books, pictures and ‘ trophies'. The writer's familiar chubby face was framed by hair that was ‘ more-salt-less-pepper' and combed neatly, like a schoolboy's. His eyes were sparkling blue, his complexion a healthy pink, and his smile ever so engaging. He replied to my queries in his deep, resonant voice.
You have written in almost every genre — short story, novel, poem, travelogue, essay etc. Which is your favourite genre and why?
I have been writing for well over 50 years — this has given me a chance to try out different genres. My early work was fiction, short stories, novella — some of it autobiographical. Then, when I was in my forties I started writing non-fiction, even children's writing. My favourite forms are essays and short stories.
Could you describe the process of writing a story/novel — from ideation to fruition?
If it is a short story I would have written it in my head before I put anything down. Otherwise it may fizzle out halfway through. I would visualise it like I would a film because I am quite a visual writer. I would see the characters and incidents happening and then sit down and write them down in a language that is hopefully pleasing to the reader. In a personal essay, particularly a travelogue, you can jump from one thing to another. You need not plan in advance and can let it just happen. In fact, the unexpected makes it more exciting.
Do these stories stay in your head for months, or maybe even years?
Yes, often they do. Sometimes, stories which stay in my head are those which I haven't even thought of (chuckles)!
Do you decide in advance what you are going to write — a children's story or an adult one? Or does it just happen along the way?
Some of my stories, written when I was in my 20s and 30s, were not written with a particular readership in mind. But in the 40s I wrote an occasional story aimed at children because I was asked to. One story — The Angry River — was liked by a publisher in England in the 1970s. While it was not long enough for an adult novel, the writing was a bit advanced for a child. So he suggested that if I rewrote it keeping a young reader in mind, he would publish it as a children's book. I rewrote the book and it was published. This way the first children's book that I wrote was not originally meant for children. The next one was The Blue Umbrella.
Of course, some of the stories of my childhood are suitable for children since they are about growing up — autobiographical stories about grandparents and relatives and pets — kids can identify with them rather easily.
Once the stories became popular I had to introduce a few more pets — these stories which started off as non-fiction soon became fiction. I think most of us writers are great liars but we call our lies fiction. Sometimes we become victims of our own imagination.
Do you like writing for children or adults?
I enjoy writing for both. I like writing funny stories for kids and making them laugh. Kids are very bright and it's great fun writing for them and interacting with them.
For instance, in Delhi not long ago, a teacher asked a nine-year-old girl, ‘What do you think of Mr Bond as a writer?'
Now that was quite a serious question. She looked at me, thought hard and said, ‘You are not a bad writer.' I thought it was a great compliment (laughs).
And they make their complaints too. ‘Sir, I like your ghost stories, but they are not frightening enough. Can't you make them scarier?'
My son wanted me to request you to write more ghost stories.
I have run out of ghosts, but I'll try. Actually I write ghost stories when I run out of people and I have nothing else left to write. To be perfectly honest, I haven't yet met one though hill-stations are supposed to be the favourite haunt of ghosts.
How do you see the future of books and reading for pleasure?
I think it is rather good. With education spreading and more and more children going to school, the demand for books is on the rise. Today there are many more publishers as well as bookshops. In Delhi, where I grew up in the 1970s, there was hardly any bookshop. Now every large upmarket residential area has one, not only in the Capital, but in most big towns.
Moreover, there is a far greater consciousness regarding books today with book fairs, book launches and literary festivals a regular phenomenon. People are now aware of the presence of books. During my time, people did not buy books other than those by important authors.
Once in 1967, India Book House published a book of mine. Like every author I would go to the bookshop and look for my book. Once I went to a small bookshop in Shankar Nagar in Delhi. I found my book below a pile of Harold Robbins, who was a very popular author during those days. I looked around, making sure no one was watching, and removing my book from under the pile, placed it on top. The shopkeeper saw me and, replacing it back in its original position, said, Yeh Chalta nahin hai! Well, to teach the bookshop owner a lesson I bought the book (chuckles)!
What has been your experience with Bollywood?
Flight of the Pigeons was the first story of mine which was made into a film — Junoon, by Shyam Benegal. It was true to the story, only the ending was changed slightly. It was a good film, probably a bit too opulent. The acting, particularly Naseeruddin Shah's, was excellent.
The second story was The Blue Umbrella, and this time the director was Vishal Bharadwaj. It had a great lyrical feel and very good cinematography. As far as acting is concerned, Pankaj Kapoor, because of his tremendous histrionic skills, completely dominated the film.
Vishal is filming another story of mine called Susanna's Seven Husbands. The shooting of the movie, titled Saat Khoon Maaf, has been completed and is now being edited. The original story was around seven pages, which I expanded to 70 pages. It is about a lady, played by Priyanka Chopra, who murders seven of her husbands played by Naseeruddin Shah, Irfan Khan, John Abraham, Naseer's son Vivaan Shah among others. She kills Naseer by giving an overdose of Viagra! It is a black comedy.
I have been writing Here and Now Fiction for more than a decade now. However, most publishers are still stuck with the fantasy syndrome or cover versions of mythological tales and fables. No one wants to take risk with reality fiction.
These trends change. We have had ten years of fantasy and science fiction, we may now have adventure or humour or something else — these cycles come and go.
Who is your favourite children's writer?
I like William by Richmal Crompton, Billy Bunter by Frank Richards as well as all classics such as Alice in Wonderland and books by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. I occasionally dip into these even now.
Did you read J.K. Rowling?
I started reading her second book. But I got scared when in the second chapter itself three people dropped dead (laughs)!
What is your advice to writers?
Don't be discouraged if things do not go the way you want them to. You are bound to face disappointments. Keep at it. Sooner or later you will find a readership.
What is the best thing about being Ruskin Bond?
That I have been able to write for so long. I started at the age of 17 or 18 and I am still writing. If I were not a professional writer who was getting published I would still write.