Home >opinion >blogs >BETWEEN THE LINES: A singular bond

Two new books by Ruskin Bond usher in his 80th year: Love among the Bookshelves (Viking, Rs299), published in late April, and The Very Best of Ruskin Bond (Rupa, Rs395), which is due to appear in June.

The latter seems to be one among the many standard-issue anthologies of selected fiction and non-fiction by Bond that have kept his publishers happily solvent, while cementing his reputation as a much-loved story-teller among generations of readers. The former is of more interest though, as it gives us a glimpse of Bond the reader, who selects excerpts from his favourite books, crisply introduces them in his inimitable voice, while weaving in personal reminiscences. The result—part-memoir, part-literary appreciation—is compelling, not just for what it reveals of Bond the writer but also for reminding us of books we may have forgotten about or never knew existed.

Along the way, we also learn of his literary adventures—the early years of living in exile in England, a series of odd jobs to pay the bills, and having Diana Athill, who later went on to become a legend in the world of publishing, as his first editor. In an endearing aside, Bond tells us of his attempts to introduce Athill to the glories of Indian culture—by taking her to watch the Hindi film Aan in London, and then treating her to a paan at a local Indian restaurant, neither of which particularly took Athill’s fancy.

When he speaks of his voracious appetite for reading as a young boy, Bond does not lapse into easy criticism of the decline of such a practice among the present generation. “If reading is a minority pastime today it was even more so sixty years ago," he says wisely. “And there was no television then, no Internet, no Facebook, no tweeting and twittering, no video games, no DVD players, none of the distractions that we blame today for the decline in the reading habit." Apart from reading, he lists cinema and comic-books as his other two youthful addictions.

A cursory glance through Bond’s choices would not leave his devoted fans really surprised. P.G. Wodehouse, William Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens—these are writers whose influence is palpable on Bond’s prose. The somewhat surprising names are H.E. Bates and Richard Jefferies, neither of whose styles particularly resonates with Bond’s. Bates, who was commissioned to write stories by the British Armed Forces during World War II, was a master at capturing the nuances of earthy, rustic dialects. Bond points out, with his characteristic understated brilliance, that Bates was one of those writers who impressed with their fragility rather than strength, a remark that is just as true for Bond himself. Jefferies, on the other hand, was keenly absorbed in the delicate rhythms of the natural world, something which Bond tries to engage with in some of his lyrical poems, though with not as much success as he has with prose.

Even the passages Bond chooses from his favourite writers are rather unusual: from Wodehouse, for instance, he picks the second chapter of Love among the Chickens (1926), a comedy featuring the relatively less-known Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a typical Wodehousean eccentric though not readily representative of the British writer’s creations. Bond puts in a sexy scene from Maugham’s Cakes and Ales (1930), its potential steaminess tempered by the latter’s Edwardian reserve. Only in the excerpt from Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1837) do we detect a whiff of Bond’s natural humour, walking a tightrope between gentle comedy and sharp caricature.

At the end, Bond lists some other writers who are equally important to him but whose works do not find a place in the collection. Again, I was struck by the mention of Honoré de Balzac and André Gide, whose gravitas and risqué themes are quite apart from Bond’s typical concerns. Yet, it is his ability to inhabit several modes—and shift between them, often within the space of a single narrative—that makes Bond such a singular voice in Indian writing in English. He is not necessarily one of the greats, and he is the first to admit that, without a trace of a rancor and with astonishing humility: “Not a major writer, but one for whom literature was religion" is how he describes himself. “In time I was to learn that it’s the onlooker who sees more of the party than the partygoer," he writes poignantly of one of his prime takeaways as a writer, “that it’s the man on the traffic duty who sees more of the passing show than the man behind the wheel."

The contemporary writer whose idea of selfhood seems to be inextricably linked with aggressive self-promotion could take a leaf out of Bond’s book.

This fortnightly column talks about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.

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