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Tales of Fosterganj: By Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company, 141 pages, Rs 295
Tales of Fosterganj: By Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company, 141 pages, Rs 295

Quick Lit | Familiar charm

India's best-loved English-language storyteller is back with a new novel

Ruskin Bond is Indian publishing’s safest bet. The country’s best-loved English-language storyteller may not be known for strikingly original books, but he seldom disappoints his readers and publishers. Bond, who has been published by almost all the major publishers in India, is that rare writer who combines an innate literary gift with an ability to translate it into respectable sales figures.

His tales, whether for children or adults, are invariably charming, though by now somewhat predictable. But they continue to sell in decent numbers, which is remarkable for a country with a readership that is leaning, with a vengeance, towards commercial fiction of a more sensational variety.

Set in quaint hilly towns, Bond’s stories usually feature a familiar cast of eccentric characters. A typical plot by him involves adventure, often pertaining to the hunt for treasure or a maneater, and features vagabonds, conmen and aristocrats fallen on bad times. Lyrical grace and gentle humour are in plentiful supply. In his novels for “adults", the jokes tend to have a mildly risqué edge, though they are always far from being lewd. In a country where the formula for best-selling fiction includes unintelligible prose, a profusion of slang, and ungrammatical sentences, Bond’s crisp and elegant style hits the reader like a breath of fresh air.

It doesn’t take long to tick all the boxes in the case of his latest novel, Tales of Fosterganj. Set in the early 1960s, it is the story of a young writer trying to get on with his work in a remote hamlet near Mussoorie. Fosterganj, Bond points out in the prefatory note, is an imaginary locale. It could well have been any of the sleepy little towns in Uttarakhand where his stories usually begin. The narrator, who escapes Delhi in the hope of finishing a book or two in Fosterganj, is distracted by some strange happenings around the place.

Perpetually inebriated and in debt, a Scotsman called Foster, who traces his lineage to those who gave the town its name, appears early on. Vishaal, a kindly bank manager, ever-ready with overdrafts and loans, is on a mission to kill a man-eating leopard. And in the vicinity, a supposedly mother-and-son duo live as caretakers of a dilapidated palace, soon to be transformed into an elaborate luxury resort by avaricious promoters.

The plot, which includes murder, theft and violence, is meandering, though it moves nimbly. The narrator lands up in bizarre situations but is largely unfazed even when he meets a bloodthirsty quadruped. “The wrong bus or the wrong train can often result in interesting consequences," he says at one point, paraphrasing the mood of the plot. “It’s called the charm of the unexpected." We find him sharing a ride with a group of smelly goats in the back of a pick-up truck and being taken hostage for failing to deliver a stash of precious stones, which he had carefully hidden in a biscuit tin (it turns out that his landlord’s children had replaced the gems with marbles).

A master of understatement and anti-climactic plots, Bond plays his cards deftly but whimsically, forgetting characters along the way and introducing twists that are less than credible. But if you want the simple and transient pleasures of a good story, you can’t go wrong with Bond. Like comfort food, this is fiction that always picks you up for a while.

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