Secrets | Ruskin Bond

Ruskin Bond’s new collection of seven short stories, Secrets, is set in Dehradun, a town around 250km north of Delhi. Derived from his own childhood experiences, the stories recall the Anglo-Indians and the “country-born British" stationmasters, civil servants, irritable spinsters and widows with grandchildren. Theirs was a civilization that had mutton kofta for lunch and Irish stew for dinner. A colony of tea and small talk; people dropped in at each other’s bungalows for badminton parties. The drawing room gramophones played Deanna Durbin, George Formby and Gracie Fields.

Bond keeps to a class that was becoming less prosperous with every passing year. In Gracie, about a club singer who migrates to London and becomes a pavement prostitute, the narrator hints at Dehradun’s shifting world: “Sometimes I accompanied Bhim or Ranbir to a Hindi movie, but most of the time I haunted the English cinemas which were still running, although to smaller audiences."

Secrets: Penguin India, 250

The story has another Anglo-Indian character who never returns “home". Just across Granny’s house is the bungalow of Mr Johnson, a retired civil servant. His younger brother lives in seclusion in an attached cottage; his body is disfigured with leprosy. Twice a day the servant goes in with a “thermos or a tiffin-carrier, and sometimes fruit in a small basket." After India is free, Mr Johnson sells the house to a certain Major Yadav and leaves town. His brother joins the Indian beggars in the town’s “leper colony".

A few stories are set during the last years of World War II. Dehradun was designated a “recreational centre" for Allied troops. In the evening, American GIs walked down the tony Rajpur Road singing Sweet Rosie O’Grady. Occasionally there were drunken brawls with the British troops, who would get homesick in the nightclub each time the crooner sang The White Cliffs of Dover. The Italian prisoners of war, who were allowed to walk through Rajpur Road only once a week, were the best behaved. After the war ended, all the soldiers returned home. “A few war-brides went with them. A few illegitimate children were left behind."

At Green’s Hotel is the collection’s most important story. Not for its serial killer who strangles wealthy women and leaves behind a note saying, “Die in a ditch, you rich bitch", but because it offers a perfect metaphor for the collapsing Anglo-Indian society. The hotel is a “bungalow-type single-storey building, standing in fairly extensive grounds, with a neglected garden and a tennis court overrun by dandelions, thistles, and marigolds gone wild". A way of life has been taken over by contemporary events and is being packed into history.

In the same story the narrator advises, “… if you want to study human nature, stay in a small hotel that had seen better days". That could be Bond talking about a world he was born into and which he has so effortlessly conjured up in this book.

His is not the kind of English we connect with ad jingles and call centres, or with magic realism and stream of consciousness. It is the English of a charming old uncle sitting on a park bench and telling the neighbourhood teens about his sad, carefree and mischievous early life.

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