Saturday, July 22, 2017

On Ruskin Bond: In The Hindu Business Line

I have read Ruskin Bond all my life and have always loved him. His books, to me, are like coming home. His autobiography 'Lone Fox Dancing' was published recently, and though I am not a big fan of autobiographies generally, this was one I had eagerly waited for. I wrote an essay about his enduring appeal, about him and my grandfather and bits about the book for The Hindu Businessline's BLInk, one of my most favourite places to write for.

Read it here or see below. 


Dear Mr Ruskin Bond watches over my writing desk as I start with these words. In a black and white photograph that Mr Murthy, of Bengaluru’s very old and famous Select Book Shop gave me to keep years ago, Bond looks down – it is a low angle shot – with two books and a rolled file in his hands that rest over his stomach. The shop and half its signboard is behind him. The beloved author looks like he was about to smile but the photographer clicked the shutter a millisecond before he could do so. For years the aging photograph, undated, remained within my journals. Now it occupies a place on the wall alongside several other pieces of papers, Post-Its with reminders and whatnots that I haphazardly have sprinkled before me. I try my best to avoid the reminders, but Bond catches my eye now and again. 

I have recently finished Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing and am meant to write my words on him, and it. I falter, I gloriously procrastinate, read other books, look up things like how many characters there are in War and Peace and what the seedcake kiss in Ulysses means, things I really don’t need to know right this minute…because frankly, it is a bit intimidating, writing about Bond. How do you write about someone who everyone feels they have a familiar, familial claim to? There will undoubtedly be a lot I will have to leave out; here comes in my worry about all the things that I will not end up saying about him.

Bond and his writings have meant different things to different people, articulated variously every so often, as memoirs, in travelogues to Landour where he lives, as anecdotes and as chance meetings. He has inspired several generations of readers and writers over a career spanning six - something decades. I find something appropriate that I paraphrase here: At this point there is so much about (Bond) that it’s difficult to tell what of it matters, and how much. It all sort of cancels itself out. (…) even writing about your own feeling and reaction (…) feels extraneous and unnecessary. Didn’t someone already say exactly what you want to say in much better words?

But one gets over oneself and attempts anyway. Bond’s effect on how I read and what I write has been, like his writings, sometimes subtle, sometimes sublime, even subversive; I am still working it all out in my head.

My grandfather was a freedom fighter Communist card holder doctor, the three too entangled into the personality I’ve heard he had to be separated by commas when I describe what he was. He was a big reader. I never met him because he passed away six months, nearly to the day, before I was born. I got to know him through the large collection of books he left behind and owing to no one else claiming it, I got to inherit. His books are how I ‘met him’. Ruskin Bond’s books were not part of his collection but in the simplistic annals of childhood memories, it all meshes into the same thing. It was in the hills, where I grew up, that I first chanced upon a Bond book. The walks he went on were relatable to the walks around town and to the library and elsewhere that I had gotten used to taking. The birds and flowers he wrote about were relatable because though the ones we had in this part of the country, far-far from the Himalayas, were not same-same, they were still pretty and colourful and in plenty. We were also that generation that was blessed with the wild imagination of the pre-screentime days, so could imagine pines and sorrel, nettle and other unfamiliar things by giving them our own understood shapes and colours. Yearning for a grandfather and jealous of the time older cousins had had with him, if his books were my connection with him, Bond became the grandfatherly figure who instructed how to walk the hills and notice the flowers and birds and other dancing things. Perhaps that is why I find myself returning to their books – one who wrote, the other who read and collected – again and again. Bond’s books feel like coming back home.

As sweet luck would have it, I happen to be back in the hills when I begin reading Lone Fox Dancing. It feels right that I am in hill country. Throughout the autobiography I cannot shake off the feeling that it hints at a swansong, from his Dedication and Acknowledgements page onward to “the evening of a long and fairly fulfilling life. And it is late evening in Landour.” It closes on a late evening with a small boy bringing the author fresh apricots that are “still very sour, very tangy, but full of promise.” In the pages in the middle, Bond lays out a life “journey that has gone on for eighty-three years, sixty-seven of these spent writing.”

For a fan of Bond’s books, the autobiography is a bit like being shown how the magician manages to pull the hare out of his hat every single night. Bond lays out incidents, anecdotes, inspirations and memories of a lifetime, several of which he has turned into some of his best loved stories. That he was born in Kasauli, that the years he spent with his father in Delhi were the best years of his life, that he was a misfit when he had to live with his mother, step-father and their children, that he was in England for a brief four years before India was too hard a pull to resist, that he settled in the hills and never left them for too long is as familiar to his fans as are his penchant for nursing sick plants to health, his love of a good walk and the small room with a large window that is his workspace. There are lovely photographs in the book from all these periods of his life, for added pleasure. The humour is characteristically subtle, quiet and all too often, poignant, emotional. He is perhaps more willing to be vulnerable here than he has ever been, even though several passages have been published earlier either as is, or interpreted into short essays or added on as passages in his short stories. The book, like the man himself, feels familiar, and quiet – two qualities I keep repeating in my head. Quiet is the word I have always remembered the effect his work has had on me, a slow breeze filled with the fragrance of the flowers of the mountain, carrying a mix of bird calls, stray conversation, dog bark and undersong.

Then there are stories that can only be called sensual, sexual; of restlessness, of the discoveries of youth, of love affairs, “…there were loves; some unrequited, some mutual and intense - … and a few will not be spoken of, for some passions are private, and the world is no poorer not knowing them.” There are writings that aren’t exactly children’s literature that he is a lot famous for. The image of Ruskin Bond as the benevolent grandfather figure endures though, and takes precedent over the romantic that he continues to see himself as. This popular portrayal of him, padded on – sorry! – by panegyric essays such as this, is one that he finds odd enough to mention several times during the book. He wonders if honeymooners – “some of the most frequent visitors to my humble flat” – ask for his blessings because they are under the impression that he has been a celibate man, “and the blessings of sexually innocent adults are believed to be potent.”

It is an image he seems to have only half-heartedly tried to shake off though. It perhaps hasn’t helped that his writings have always captured the innocence and the uninhibited joy of reveling in nature. Also that he has retained that child-like curiosity, appreciation of and love for the beauty of birds and animals and trees and well-walked paths and flowers and friends and a good time. In a world that hurries along the act of growing up to be an adult, more and more so, and doing the things that adults are supposed to do, reading a Bond essay feels like a time out, a reminder that it is perfectly good to stop for a while and look around. Quite literally a cartoon by Kim Casali, Love Is…stopping to smell the roses. Perhaps this is why his writing appeals to the vast age spectrum that it does: for children, it is a revision of the natural world that they are familiar with, thus relatable, and for the adults, it is looking back into what they remember was a simpler time. That old romanticized Ideal. Nostalgia is a potent drink, after all.

Given how much of Bond’s life experiences have lent themselves to his stories and essays, directly or otherwise, Lone Fox Dancing oftentimes plays the role of filling in the gaps, joining the dots of how everything transpired and in what order. An extra touch of poignancy hops along for the ride. There is plenty of material still for him to mine, you get a sense. He writes of science and politics having let us down, but notices then that “the cricket still sings on the window-sill.” The hoarder of words hasn’t tired of the two windows in his room, the windows that have yielded him stories from the other side for decades, for different generations now.

“I am happiest just putting pen to paper – writing about a dandelion flowering on a patch of wasteland,…”

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