Bond with the hills

Ruskin Bond’s stories portray the struggles and simplicity of the people of the Garhwal Himalayas, his adopted home.

Published : Oct 28, 2015 12:30 IST

RUSKIN BOND is among the most popular writers writing in various Indian languages. He happens to write in English, his mother tongue, but his stories are redolent of the sights, sounds and flavours of Uttaranchal, until fairly recently a part of Uttar Pradesh, where he has spent all his adult life. A number of his stories are set in and around Dehradun and the Mussoorie Hills. More often than not, he writes about ordinary people and everyday happenings with warmth and ease and in a style that embraces gentle wit and humour but is not without a touch of irony. The people in his stories are real, making the most of their often difficult circumstances with a smile. There is a keen and subtle awareness of the passing of time that makes life so precious. These qualities find him many enthusiastic readers and also render him suspect in the eyes of critics and intellectuals.

A Gathering of Friends is a collection of his short stories written over a period of more than 50 years. Ruskin Bond realised very early in his literary career that his heart lay in the well-crafted story rather than the novel, although he came into the limelight with the coming-of-age novel The Room on the Roof (1957), which won him the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in England, where he had lived for a couple of years trying to make sense of his life. Soon he did and came back to India for good.

In the early to mid-1960s, it was indeed difficult for a writer in India to make a living. Most writers had other jobs, usually teaching, at the high school or university level. Ruskin Bond chose to make his living from writing. It was tough in the beginning, but the pressure gradually eased off over a decade and a half when he settled down in Mussoorie in a modest cottage and adopted a family that looked after him.

Soon Ruskin Bond found himself in the role of the paterfamilias. His chosen family filled a void that had been created by the death of his English father in his childhood and his mother’s remarriage soon after. In this new-found togetherness, he was able to forge a bond that endures to this day. Through his everyday experience, he learnt to make sense of the bewildering, sometimes painful and often enjoyable state of being called life. The first tale in the collection, Rusty Plays Holi , is really an episode from The Room on the Roof .

Rusty, an English boy, really Ruskin Bond’s alter-ego, lives with his none-too-pleasant, disciplinarian guardian. The boy hides in the kitchen in the hope of avoiding his unruly but affectionate friends on the day of Holi. They arrive noisily at his absent guardian’s house and manage to drag him away protesting and kicking. Soon he begins to enjoy himself, after having his shirt torn away, losing his shoes, and being thoroughly drenched in colour. The short final paragraph in the story sums up his feelings succinctly. “He was exhausted now, but he was happy. He wanted this to go on forever, this day of feverish emotion, this life in another world. He did not want to leave the forest; it was safe, its earth soothed him, gathered him in so that the pain of his body became a pleasure.... He did not want to go home.”

Loneliness and a desire to belong among peers appear in this story as being two sides of the same coin. This longing for being a part of a whole, of finding one’s moorings and accepting pain, sadness, loss with equanimity and recognising and celebrating happiness and pleasure and their evanescence makes him a singular writer. He brings to mind A.E. Coppard (1878-1957), an unjustly forgotten English master of the short story. Coppard’s humanism was out of favour in a world that had lost hope following the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the United States to end the Second World War. The bombs killed 300,000 people in a flash and permanently maimed and psychologically damaged many more. Immediately after the War ended came the revelation of the Holocaust that had resulted in the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany. It was an unforgivable tragedy, but the destructive potential of the nuclear bomb created by the U.S. seemed so much more frightening. Coppard’s eclipse in a literary world overwhelmed by existentialist despair, though unfair, is understandable. Ruskin Bond’s acceptance of life, with its ups and downs, appears to be a beacon of hope in a darkening world that is the lot of its present denizens.

In a world overwhelmed by crass commercialisation brought about by utterly callous but ultimately foolish international and national corporate bodies, the need to save the environment —water resources, forests, greenery, even in urban habitats—and the arts, including perceptive literature in all languages, seems to have become as challenging as controlling industrial pollution.

A writer finding the equivalent of his emotional and mental state in a certain moment in Nature would be considered quaint today because most “serious” writers treat it as a necessary adjunct to surviving physically. Ruskin Bond’s success among perceptive readers is because of the emotional fidelity and honesty that is at the core of his lyricism.

In Love Is A Sad Song , the 30-year-old writer remembers his lost love in the opening paragraph thus: “I sit against this grey rock, beneath a sky of pristine blueness, and think of you, Sushila. It is November and the grass is turning brown and yellow. Crushed, it still smells sweet. The afternoon sun shimmers on the oak leaves and turns them a glittering silver. A cricket sizzles its way through the long grass. The stream murmurs at the bottom of the hill—the stream where you and I lingered on a golden afternoon in May.”

Sad and funny

Ruskin Bond, as a person, is at ease with himself and his fellow men. In a society divided by religious, caste and class considerations, his stories are refreshingly democratic. Many of his characters are sad and funny at the same time, and sometimes farcical, qualities he shares with Charles Dickens, the Victorian literary master, and Charlie Chaplin, cinema’s supreme comedian and director. The modest man that Ruskin Bond is, these comparisons would no doubt embarrass him.

In Dinner With Foster , he writes: “A man in a crumpled shirt and threadbare trousers came up to me, looked me over with his watery grey eyes, and said, ‘Sir, would you like to buy some gladioli bulbs?’ He held up a basket full of bulbs which might have been onions. His chin was covered with grey stubble, some of his teeth were missing, the remaining ones yellow with neglect. ‘No, thanks,’ I said. ‘I live in a tiny flat in Delhi. No room for flowers.’ ‘A world without flowers,’ he shook his head. ‘That’s what it’s coming to.’”

Creative characterisation

Reading many of his stories, one would think that he wrote about a world where no cataclysmic event had ever taken place, whose people were essentially kind and giving, with a sense of community and belonging: in short, an idyllic world. The answer to this kind of reasoning is that the literary artiste creates a world that is as close to reality as possible or an imagined one, each being as valid as the other, depending on his/her expressive abilities. Many of Ruskin Bond’s tales appear to be a “creative treatment of actuality”, to borrow a phrase from John Grierson, considered the father of the British and Canadian documentary film in the 20th century.

One of the virtues of genuine writing is a subtle handling of the passage of time, depicting its caprices along with its cruelties. Ruskin Bond excels in this area. He is also able to create interesting men and women from all social classes, though he is at his best with people struggling with dignity to make a living and still managing to smile. He can achieve all this with rare economy.

An example of his expertise in characterisation is this description from Dinner With Foster of the decrepit fellow who tries to sell gladioli bulbs to the writer: “I grow gladioli, sir, and sell the bulbs to good people like you. My name’s Foster. I own the lands all the way down to the waterfall.’

“For a landowner, he did not look very prosperous. But his name intrigued me.

‘Isn’t this area called Fosterganj?’ I asked.

‘That’s right. My grandfather was the first to settle here. He was a grandson of Bonnie Prince Charlie who fought the British at Bannockburn. I’m the last Foster of Fosterganj. Are you sure you won’t buy my daffodil bulbs?’

‘I thought you said they were gladioli.’

‘Some gladioli, some daffodils.’

“They looked like onions to me, but to make him happy I parted with two rupees (which seemed to be the going rate at Fosterganj) and relieved him of his basket of bulbs. Foster shuffled off, looking a bit like Chaplin’s tramp but not half as dapper.”

This sad, comic exchange belongs to a more humane time; material comforts acquired through political power and dirty money had not yet overwhelmed the right to a dignified life.

Ruskin Bond’s Dehradun and Mussoorie had not been taken over by a land mafia backed by corrupt politicians or the ruthless cutting down of trees, clearing of vegetation and tunnelling of mountains for dubious hydroelectric projects that have resulted in massive earthquakes and landslides, killing people and animals in thousands.

The villagers in Panther’s Moon are a united lot. Their village is menaced by a man-eating panther. Armed with only axes and a spear, the villagers go after the animal. Bisnu, who has just entered senior school, is with them. He faces the charging panther and lands a blow between its eyes with his axe. The animal charges at another of the four-man group and knocks him over.

Just then, the one with a spear plunges it into the panther’s side. It runs away, only to be tracked down to a stream, where it is found lying on its side, dead, by the water’s edge. What follows is comic, with a touch of the bizarre.

“‘It is dead,’ said Bisnu. ‘It will not trouble us again in this body.’

‘Let us be certain,’ said Sanjay’s father, and he bent down and pulled the panther’s tail.

“There was no response.

‘It is dead,’ said Kalam Singh. ‘No panther will suffer such an insult were it alive!’” The deceased panther’s situation comes to light later. “‘We should be safe as long as a shikari doesn’t wound another panther. There was an old bullet wound in the man-eater’s thigh. That’s why it couldn’t hunt in the forest. The deer was too fast for it.’”

It is not just a shikar story in the Jim Corbett vein. The ending is surprisingly tender. Bisnu, returning home after a school examination, brings bangles for his sister Puja, but they are of the wrong colour. When she sees her brother’s crestfallen look, she tries to console him: “‘Actually they are just as nice as red and gold bangles! Come into the house when you are ready. I have made something special for you.’

‘I am coming,’ said Bisnu, turning towards the house. ‘You don’t know how hungry a man gets, walking five miles to reach home!’”

This story portrays the joys and struggles of the Garhwal Hills’ peasantry with poetic insight. The writer obviously knows these people and their way of life. He loves and respects them as he does all the characters who figure in his stories. Ruskin Bond is a rare writer, perceptive and happy in his own skin. There are not many like him these days.

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