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Ruskin Bond: ‘Life gets funnier as you get older’

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on July 25, 2020 Published on July 24, 2020

Solitary splendour: Never fond of crowds, Bond moved from Delhi to the hills of Uttarakhand in the ’60s

With a new book to mark 70 rich storytelling years, author Ruskin Bond dwells on vivid memories of boyhood, on wanting to be a tap dancer or a soccer player, and why he’d rather laugh at himself than at others

* Ruskin Bond’s A Song of India (Puffin) marks 70 years of his literary career

* The celebrated author is midway through the fifth book in his memoir series and is simultaneously working on a ghost story set in the cottage he lives in

It takes seven calls — on the landline and a mobile phone — to have a conversation with Ruskin Bond. The sound is faint, but I can hear the laughter after the third phone call. “I can’t hear you. I think with all the heavy rain, water has got into the phone lines,” he says from his mountain-side home in Landour, Uttarakhand.

Bond, 86, is ready with a new book. Called ASong of India (Puffin), it marks 70 years of his literary career. He wrote his first novel, The Room on the Roof, when he was 16, but has lost count of the number of short stories or children’s and adults books he has written since then — close to 200, he guesses.

A Song of India Ruskin Bond Puffin Books Non-fiction ₹250

 

“But then I have been writing for 70 years,” he says, characteristically dismissing the feat as procedural.

The celebrated and much-loved author is midway through the fifth book in his memoir series and is simultaneously working on a ghost story set in the cottage he lives in. Has the lockdown affected him? “To tell you the truth it doesn’t bother me in the least. In fact, in some ways I am lucky because now I don’t have tourists banging on the door,” he tells BLink. Excerpts from the interview:

Fans galore: Bond, who has authored close to 200 books, especially enjoys writing for children   -  K MURALI KUMAR

 

How do you remember 70-year-old details so vividly?

I do have a good memory. Haven’t gone totally gaga yet (laughs). A dialogue will obviously be a rough estimate of what was said at the time, but I have a good visual memory for people, faces, events and incidents. In fact, I remember childhood and boyhood more vividly than I do later years. I think our childhood memories are more distinct in a way: We are seeing things for the first time then. So maybe they register in the mind more vividly.

In ASong of India, I deal with 1951 and it’s a year in which I kept a diary and a lot of that material went into my first novel, The Room on the Roof. So, also having written about that period, more than once, I would perhaps remember it more clearly than other times.

Are you especially nostalgic about those days?

I do like writing about the past. I think about the past quite a bit. Especially about my parents, about friends, and sometimes things that didn’t happen the way I would have liked them to have happened, and I ponder about them and say, well if it happened differently what would have the outcome been. And I think as we get older we are inclined to dwell a good deal more on our early days. I am sitting here on a sofa, dozing off and on, and reminiscing about those days. So it’s not exactly nostalgia, but it’s a sort of habit of looking back.

How has the lockdown affected you? Are you able to read, write and be yourself — just like before?

Well, being a writer most of my work is done from home anyway. So there have been fairly long periods throughout my life when I have been at home and not gone out a great deal. I am quite happy being at home and surrounded by books. I am well looked after by my adopted family. I have got writing to do and, to tell you the truth, it [the lockdown] doesn’t bother me in the least. In fact, in some ways I am lucky because now I don’t have tourists banging on the door.

When you started out you were paid ₹2-5 for a story. Were you able to strike better deals later?

Those days, of course, we had a lot of magazines and newspapers that published short stories, literary work, which is no longer the case. But at the same time we had very few book publishers. So, in a way, since I was trying to make a living from writing, I had to write a lot of short stories and I would really bombard all the papers and magazines in the land, with the result that, over the years, I built up quite a backlog of short stories. And these, in the last 20 years or so, are coming out in book form since publishers have come to the fore.

Maybe I have been lucky with the changing times too. But my output hasn’t varied. I write as much today. In fact, sometimes more than when I was younger... (then) I would spend a lot of time may be going on hikes, wandering off into the hills... As one gets older you are sort of confined more to the house so you naturally spend more time at your desk.

You have never cared for fame, success or money...

As a boy I was ambitious. By the time I finished school I was determined that I wanted to be a writer and nothing else. I remember my mother asking me, “What would you like to do now, Ruskin?”, and I said, “I want to be a writer, mum”. She said, “Don’t be silly; go and join the Army”. In those days the Army was the first choice with most boys when they finished school. My grandfather had been in the Army, my father in the Air Force, so I thought it was time that changed.

I was never a material person. I needed the money in order to continue writing and live the way I wanted to live, which was, you know perhaps, as far away from the madding crowds as possible. So, when I actually came to live in the hills in the mid-’60s, I threw up a good job in Delhi because I just wanted to write and live a life away from the material side of things.

The success actually came pretty late because, although I did start off with the novel being published when I was very young, there was a long hiatus when nothing much happened... And then I started writing for children and that took off. So it was sort of a second writing career, a second chance that came along, so now I write more for children than adults. I enjoy it more.

Your characters are often drawn from your life...

Sometimes I take the past and events that were true but then I fictionalise them, may be with ghosts or animals. So a lot of my stories are semi-autobiographical and personal in a way, but they do get changed quite a lot in the process of writing.

When you are not reading or writing, how do you spend your time?

I watch TV. I keep up-to-date. I am not a political person and I don’t get involved in politics but I do follow quite closely what’s happening in India and all over the world. I keep my ear to the ground. I do follow sports too. I follow football, cricket. I was a hockey goalkeeper and we didn’t wear protective masks in those days (laughs). Nowadays we have to wear masks for everything — from hockey to coronavirus.

What if your writing career hadn’t taken off?

When I was a boy I wanted to be a tap dancer. I don’t have the figure for it now (laughs). Then I wanted to be a football player, in a way all the things that you cannot make a good living out of! Well, I guess I would have been the happiest amongst books. If I hadn’t been a writer maybe I could have been a librarian, a bookseller or worked in publishing. To be close to books, in a way, not just as a bookworm but interested in books as objects.

Where is Raj (his boyhood infatuation in ASong of India) now?

We lost touch when I went to England. And then I heard she got married. She was a supergirl. Of course, she used to beat me at badminton!

And made parathas for you?

Yes.

Do you still like parathas?

Yes, of course. Stuffed parathas, particularly. Aloo paratha, onion paratha. I like puris too. Chhole bhature, tikkis and golgappas. I used to get nice golgappas in [Delhi’s] Bengali Market (laughs). We had chhole bhature just the other day. I like pickles too. I don’t have a sweet tooth. I don’t like chocolates and sweets. I like spices.

Do you eat golgappas when you experience writer’s block?

I don’t often get it [a writer’s block] as I don’t sit down to write a story till I have written it in my head. So, I have sort of seen it happening already visually, like a film. If I do encounter [a block], I put the story aside and come back to it later. If I get very irritated I tear it out and throw it in the wastepaper basket. That’s the final solution.

What’s been the happiest moment in your life?

So many happy moments. When I beat Raj at badminton (laughs) — that was my happiest! It happened only once.

Any regrets?

Regrets I don’t know. There are not too many — I could have been a better writer though.

What is that one thing you absolutely detest about the new world?

I think the way many of the world’s leaders and politicians behave, at least what I see of them on the television. It’s hard to find — I am not talking about our country, but in general, across the world — a world leader that you can respect. They all seem to be pretty much second-rate.

Are you pleased with the way India has shaped — socially, economically and politically?

Change has happened gradually, certain things have got better; people earn more than they used to, in general; disparity between the rich and poor is not as wide as it used to be. In India you still have certain freedoms that you don’t have in other countries. And, well, we still get chhole bhature (laughs).

You like to laugh at yourself...

Life does get funnier as you get older and I do laugh at myself. If you laugh at other people they don’t appreciate it (laughs) and if you laugh at yourself they are quite happy with you. It’s best to direct one’s humour at oneself. That will make you more popular.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent writer based in New Delhi

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Published on July 24, 2020
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