Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Ruskin Bond: In love with solitude

We know Ruskin Bond as a children’s author. Indeed, he fits the part with his Santa Claus portliness, and the generosity of his grins and jokes. And for the past decade or so, his books have been almost exclusively for young readers. Of these, there are many, since he seems to have become, along with the late Khushwant Singh and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, one of the most dependable names among publishers, one of the long-innings chaps. From Penguin Random House to Rupa Publications to Speaking Tiger Books, there are few publishing houses which don’t bank on him to some extent.

For someone known primarily as a children’s book writer, it is strange that his writings were to be my first experience, as a young teenager, of erotic literature. This was a time when one would secretly devour Jackie Collins, the fear of being discovered adding to the thrill and rush of reading about her tough, glamorous women, their sexuality oozing out of them. Ruskin Bond, considered “safe" by the parents, could in contrast be read while comfortably sunk into the drawing room couch.

The sensuality in Bond’s stories, unlike Collins’ steamy approach, swirled around you in a more suggestive manner. Years later, while the details of Time Stops At Shamli are lost to me, I can still see Sushma, the love of the narrator’s life, through the mist in her garden. Was there really mist? There well might have been, so dream-like were the scenarios that Bond created.

“The more romantic stories were dreams," admitted Bond when he came down to Delhi recently from his mountain home in Landour, near Mussoorie. For instance, The Night Train At Deoli, he says. The mysterious girl on the railway platform of Deoli—“People still ask me, did that really happen? Where is she now?"

“In my dream," guffaws Bond, “she can stay young forever. In reality, she would be my age." 81.

Inverse that number, and that’s about when Bond wrote his first novel, The Room On A Roof—Penguin India will this month bring out a 60th anniversary edition of the book—written in England during the nights he spent at home after returning from the various jobs he took up and gave up with equal ease—with Thomas Cook, the PWD, a grocery store and a photographic firm. The standard advance publishers gave then, says Bond, was £50, “enough to come back to India; £40 was the fare by sea then"—three weeks, from London to Bombay (now Mumbai).

If Bond appears to be one of our most prolific writers now, he is quick to point out that it’s not because he’s a particularly hardworking writer—“I am lazy, if I write 500 words a day, my conscience is clear, and then I can go back to sleep, read or go for a walk"—but because of 60 years of steady writing.

A Book Of Simple Living: Brief Notes From The Hills, a rather inspirational memoir published recently by Speaking Tiger Books, stands testimony to this. Several of Bond’s observations in these pages are about the singular pleasure he derives from seemingly uneventful episodes like watching an army of ants march down his desk, discovering a new flower on the mountainside during his walk, a monkey that comes visiting, perfection in a firefly, and such like.

In the 1970s, Bond faced obscenity charges for one of his erotic stories, The Sensualist, which appeared in serial form in the magazine Debonair that the late Vinod Mehta then edited. “Debonair was always getting into trouble, so partly it was Debonair. Had it been published elsewhere, perhaps I would have gotten away with it," he jokes. One day, during the two years that the case dragged on in court, he was waiting, stressed, at a police station in Mussoorie when he was distracted from the unpleasantness of the situation by the sight of swallows nesting in the eaves.

“You are lucky if you have that ability to see beyond the moment of crisis into something that is very everyday, ordinary. Then you feel life is normal and going on anyway; this, too, will pass. And usually there is something that keeps you going," he says. And sure enough, at the end of two years—during which time the public prosecutor too died—the judge “said he enjoyed the story and gave me an honourable acquittal".

Like Khushwant Singh in his columns during his last years, A Book Of Simple Living—compiled from Bond’s diary jottings, sections of earlier published works and a few new essays—has Bond contemplating the question of death, loneliness and, most importantly, what constitutes happiness. Bond, in real life and from the autobiographical sketches we see of him in his writings, was always alone, not always unhappily so but, as he confesses in Simple Living, as “a lover of solitude".

Remember the little boy who played by himself in the large grounds of his father’s home in pre-independence India, the father who was never present? Remember the lonely young man who lived in small, one-room barsatis, and who took solo train rides, curiously descending on isolated little stations, clearly someone who really has nowhere else and no one else to go to? “I felt a lot of loneliness as a child since my parents separated and I was living with my father till he died when I was 10. Later in life, it wasn’t a question of loneliness. I was looking for solitude. Loneliness is something that is imposed on you, you can’t do anything about it. Solitude is something you look for and you want. It helped me, personally and in my work," Bond says.

It allowed him to “slow down and listen" and to find companionship among the geraniums in his garden and the stars in the sky. “Look at everything as though you’re seeing it for the last time and you will appreciate it more," Bond tells me, quoting from Walter de la Mare’s poem Fare Well: Look thy last on all things lovely, / Every hour. Let no night / Seal thy sense in deathly slumber / Till to delight / Thou have paid thy utmost blessing.

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