At 75, Ruskin Bond still resonates with Indian audiences. His most recent book, Notes from a Small Room, is a collection of essays, some of which have been published in magazines and newspapers, while others have never appeared before. As with much of his other work, Bond’s themes in this book revolve around simple things: a mountain stream, a pot of geraniums. Some essays take a philosophical turn, contemplating life, and the difference between being lonely and being alone. Bond talked to Lounge about this book and his next. Edited excerpts:
What motivated you to become a writer?
I was always a bookish boy. I loved reading and I loved books so I thought well, why shouldn’t I also write books. The one that set me off when I was about 12 or 13 was David Copperfield. As a child, he runs away from home; so did I. Then he grows up to be a writer, so I thought I’d also grow up to be a writer. I wasn’t much good at anything else. My other ambitions were to be a football player or a tap dancer. But I don’t have the figure for tap dancing, and as far as football goes, well, at 75 you can still write, but you can’t really play football.
Loneliness seems to be a recurring theme in your books. Why is that?
I had a very lonely childhood. I think many writers who have made a lifetime’s vocation of writing have had lonely, disturbed or traumatic childhoods. I was a shy boy who didn’t make friends easily. I’m the opposite now, I don’t have a problem making friends and I get on with all sorts of people. But it took a long time to make that transition. And I’m still a solitary person: I’m happiest sometimes when I’m on my own just taking a walk in the woods.
How do you retain your optimism and sense of wonder about the small things in life?
Photo: Sunil Saxena
I guess it’s in one’s nature. Small things affect me. The other day, it kept raining and I was really restless. I randomly put some seeds in a large pot. Later they started popping up one by one. It gave me so much pleasure, just watching them every day. I’ve always loved gardens, but never had a garden because I’ve lived in small rooms or flats. But in a way it’s good. If I had a garden I would probably not be doing any writing.
Tell me a bit about your recent book. What was the impetus?
I was looking for something else and I came across these old back numbers of the Lady and other magazines and in them I found these essays I had forgotten about. There were some other old essays that hadn’t been published and over the last year I had written quite a number of new essays. I was sitting with Ravi Singh of Penguin a few months ago and it was his idea to do a book of essays.
Do you have a favourite story from the collection?
I think the one about my father, That Day, is a favourite.
Do you have a particular kind of reader in mind when you write — children perhaps? Sometimes it almost seems like you’re writing for yourself.
In a way, I write for myself. It goes back to my old habit of keeping a diary or a journal. But my books are for anything — and anyone. I’m not targeting children except in three or four books where I was asked to write for children, like The Blue Umbrella.
How much is your writing influenced by your British lineage?
Certainly I’d say, from my environment, that it’s India that influences me. But I grew up on English literature. My style is still pretty old-fashioned — it’s the way I wrote 60 years ago.
As an author, particularly one whose work is so detached from technology, how do you feel about the Internet and other technological revolutions?
I don’t use all this technology myself. I still write with by hand. The Internet hasn’t had a bad effect on my books or writing. My books are probably selling much better today than ever before in spite of rival attractions.
Have you ever been accused of being parochial?
Perhaps just occasionally; not very often. Somebody might have said I’m a bit limited in my range but there hasn’t been any large criticism.
Who are your favourite authors?
I grew up on many of the well known writers such as Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, HE Bates, and of course the classics. Nowadays I don’t read that much fiction. I enjoy reading a good biography or autobiography or a well-researched book.
I just finished working on a book called Mr. Oliver’s Diary. There was a Mr. Oliver when I was at school and he was fairly eccentric. Of course an eccentric schoolmaster will become a target for mischievous boys. So the book is about Mr. Oliver keeping his diary and describing all the things that happen to him and the trouble he has with this boys’ school. I’ve located a girls school next door just so we can have a few girls in the story.
It’s a funny book: Mr Oliver has a wig and the wig keeps disappearing and comes back painted green. It also gets a little sad, because he’s a lonely man, a bachelor. He falls in love with a young lady teacher from the girls’ school but she doesn’t reciprocate. Anyway, it has a nice ending. They’ll probably publish it around the time of the Delhi Book Fair by the end of August.
Now I have to start something else. I thought I’d do a group for three or four long stories. And I’d call it Quartet or Trio or something.