This month, 78-year-old author Ruskin Bond makes an appearance in the form of two books. One is a short novel by him, the second, a coffee-table book on his life and times.
According to the dust jacket of his latest offering, Bond has written more than 500 novellas, stories, essays and poems. His recent work, Susanna’s Seven Husbands, a story about a woman and her seven husbands, was adapted into a Bollywood production, 7 Khoon Maaf, starring Priyanka Chopra.
Published by Penguin, Maharani, Bond’s new novel, is about H.H., the vodka-drinking Maharani Sahiba of a fictional land called Mastipur. Called Neena by her close friends, H.H. lives with her dogs and a caretaker in a large old “palace” in Mussoorie, a hill town that has been home to the novelist for many years.
An eccentric character, H.H. has already made several wills (in one she leaves her property to a godman in Mauritius). The worst sort of former royal, she believes in the caste system, is convinced about the inequality of people, and feels that black people are inferior to those with fair complexions.
Indeed, there is no reason to like this woman. Bond portrays her as a person whose “mission in life was to make life as unpleasant as possible for all those who had any claim on her purse or affections”. She is also nasty to her teenage sons—the princes—one of whom is an alcoholic and a bed-wetter.
Was Bond inspired by real-life royalty?
Talking on phone from his cottage in Mussoorie, Bond, who is suffering from fever, says: “No, no, no, it is not like that. My heroine comes from the characters of various people I have encountered over the years. She is many women composed into a single person.”
Despite disapproving gently of her traits, he manages to present a woman who can also be endearing, and even gain our sympathy. One of the more moving passages is about the bed-ridden Maharani: “She was looking haggard. Her cheeks had fallen in, there were dark circles under her eyes, and her lips were dry and colourless.” Speaking to the narrator friend, the ex-royal dispenses her wisdom: “Kings and queens should die in their palaces. But this one is full of rats.”
The Maharani eventually dies of a rat bite. Her body, firmly strapped to the roof of a car, is taken down to a cremation ground in Dehradun.
Bond’s conclusion: “And if, at the end, the times weren’t so good, it was probably because the party had gone on for too long.”
Bond’s party, however, continues, and the times are good. Ruskin Bond: The Mussoorie Years…, published by Niyogi Books, is a homage to the writer and his town. Written by his close friend Ganesh Saili, the book consists of photographs of Bond: as an infant at the Military Hospital in his birthplace, Kasauli, as a young man strolling on the Delhi Ridge, as a middle-aged man holding a pink stuffed elephant. There is a photo of Bond aiming at us with his father’s dwelling pistol, Bond walking in the Himalayas, and Bond signing his books.
In one picture, Bond poses for the camera sitting alongside Saili, the book’s author. The caption: “Are you guys gay?” a myopic journalist once asked Ruskin and Ganesh. “No! We are not… we are just happy!” was Ruskin’s prompt reply.
In another place, the author quotes Bond saying: “When I die, our local church-going types won’t let me be buried in the cemetery here. Never goes to a church they’d say! Take me to the Lakhibagh crematorium in Dehra when I am done.”
That’s probably the place where Bond’s Maharani was cremated.