Ruskin Bond: His life as a story
You open a Ruskin Bond book almost knowing the sort of atmospherics you will be thrown into. The misty hills; the simplicity of everyday people and their everyday concerns; old loves, unrequited or incomplete, and new ones just around the corner; and the assurance that whatever the situation—a tummy full of food, a heart full of longing, or even a mind full of caroming, restless thoughts—a long walk among birds and beasts will settle everything.
Yet the author remains popular. Bond’s latest is his memoir, Lone Fox Dancing. “Even a fox needs a family,” he says, dedicating the book to Rakesh and Beena, the pahari couple whose family he now lives with and has adopted as his own. Traversing his initially happy and subsequently disturbed childhood, a nomadic, impulsive and turbulent adolescence—from moving to England, so far away from his dear India, to trying to find financial security upon his return—the memoir is a chronological account of a largely solitary life.
It’s highly unlikely that you wouldn’t have read anything by Bond earlier, but even if you haven’t, you’d be on board for the journey with this interesting cacophony of characters—the English in India on the brink of independence, the erstwhile Indian royals, loving ayahs and cooks who were largely the author’s friends through childhood, and a troupe of very normal, everyday Indian families, with big hearts and welcoming homes. If you’ve read him, they all seem instantly familiar, for he wrote about them first, as he reveals in the book, in his personal journals, and later fictionalized them in his many stories.
Recounting one’s own life cannot be an easy task—memory shapes and colours one thing at the cost of another, and sometimes the mind just forgets—but Bond always remembers the authors he discovered at different, and sometimes crucial, junctures in his life. From P.C. Wren (of the famed Wren & Martin grammar books) to A.A. Milne (not for Winnie The Pooh, but The Red House Mystery) and Agatha Christie and Somerset Maugham to Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, the references are many.
He also remembers in casual, passing references the many incidents from his own life that resulted in his short stories. Referencing your own work can backfire into self-promotion, but not here—now 83, and having spent over six decades writing (as he says on more than one occasion in the book), Bond probably has no need to do so. The references serve more as context, and if loyal readers have missed a title or two, they would be dog-earing these for a reading list.
The self-referencing also highlights how deeply observant and open to life Bond is. While the voice in Lone Fox Dancing is comfortable and untroubled, a luxury that looking back in retrospect can offer, you can’t help but wonder how many of his remembrances have merged with his storied versions of specific incidents and how many are as raw and real as he may have experienced them.
In the thick of the book, Bond touches upon this a little. “I suppose most writers, to a greater or lesser extent, base their fictional characters upon real people. Mine come very close to the reality. It is my own response to them that varies,” he says, adding: “The most fictional of all my characters is myself.”
The unmistakable romanticism of his life and work is recurrent. The author, non-confrontational and “not against anything really”, has built his own little world, one which it is easy to relate to. He’d rather not know if his old favourite cinema at Delhi’s Kashmere Gate has been pulled down, happy only to hold on to his memories of his father and him watching films there together. In chapters that recount his childhood, there are deeply affecting lines reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“The promises of adults had ceased to mean anything to me,” he recalls) while others from his adult days are Wordsworthian. In an almost Solitary Reaper-esque observation, he writes of finding a girl “always cutting grass for fodder” and “always singing to herself”, during some months of hiking.
What makes him a sustained success in India is his deep understanding of the country—of Indians as a people, how they love and how they live, how everyone is a brother or an uncle, and how his stepfather’s first wife could rent out her home for him when he had no place to live (“It is the kind of thing that can only happen in India,” he writes).
For Bond, “the larger home” of India is “a land of acceptances”. And it is for this return to the country, even if you have never left its borders, that this book becomes an essential read.