At 85, Ruskin Bond has a new book of stories out, Rhododendrons In The Mist, which harks back to his love for the Himalaya, where he has lived most of his life. Selected from his vast repertoire across the years, the anthology also includes some new work.
Bond’s productivity hasn’t dipped. He usually writes every day, from 7-9am, until breakfast. Sometimes he has a pre-lunch siesta (“I take a pill for blood pressure that makes me a bit drowsy"), followed by lunch, then “maybe another siesta to recover from the pre-lunch siesta". In the evenings, he has a rum or two, reads, watches the news.
Recently, he recorded some of his children’s stories for an audiobook and appeared for a commercial as Santa Claus (“All I had to say was ‘ho, ho, ho’"). Edited excerpts from an interview:
How has the Himalaya changed in your years of living here?
Because I have lived here for so long, the changes feel gradual, not sudden or dramatic. When I first came to Mussoorie over 50 years ago, there were about three cars and two taxis here. Now there are hundreds of vehicles and traffic jams. Otherwise, the mountains don’t change, only the towns grow bigger and cluttered.
Read an exclusive extract from Rhododendrons in the Mist, the title story of Ruskin Bond's new collection of short stories
Is living in the mountains particularly conducive to a writing career?
The air is definitely cleaner and healthier, though, I guess, a writer should be able to write anywhere, whether he’s in a slum or on a train, at sea or on a hilltop. But it’s always good to be close to nature.
You also lived in London and Delhi. Did big cities make a difference to your writing?
I did write a bit in London, not so much in Delhi. Stories are all about people, and in a small town you get to know people much better. There’s a market down the bus stop here. I know quite a bit about the people who have shops there. In a big city, you wouldn’t get to know them as intimately.
The profession of the writer has also changed a lot now.
Yes, there’s so much marketing. If you are well-known, you become a mini-celebrity. But 30-40 years ago, if you were successful, you were known by your name but not recognized in the street. A writer could be fairly anonymous, which is how it should be. He must be looking at the world and not have the world looking at him. I remember once sitting next to Graham Greene in a studio in London in the early 1950s without knowing who he was, until someone told me after he had left.
You have always drawn heavily from your life, even in your fiction.
For me it’s the most natural way of writing. I am at ease when I put myself into a story, whether it’s based on fact or entirely fictional or a mix of the two. I like to be part of the story, observing what’s happening. It’s both a strength and a weakness. Some critics believe a writer should distance himself from his subject. I don’t do that, I get involved.
How did writing for children happen?
Some of my early stories, though they were for adult readers, were found suitable to go into school readers or textbooks. But writing deliberately for young readers happened when I was nearly 40, that too by accident. I had sent a long story to a publisher in England who said it was too short for an adult novel, but if I changed it slightly, it might work as a children’s book. And so, Angry River (1972), my novel for children, came about.
What’s the key to writing for children?
You need a good story and to get into it fairly early because children are impatient readers. You must have strong characters and not be preachy. I have had criticism from kids. A little girl once told me, “Can’t we have more action in your stories?" while another said, “I like your ghost stories, but can’t you make them more scary?"
Do you know from the start whether something’s going to be a short story or a novel?
I usually have it down in my head, before I sit down to write. I visualize it almost like a movie. If I set out without a plan in mind, it could fizzle out in the middle.
You have always had a fondness for movies.
Yes, especially as a boy. I don’t watch many movies now, but I like the old black and white ones. There used to be a channel called TCM that showed such films and then it was suddenly taken off. When I complained to the service provider, they said there was only one person in the entire region who was watching it!
What are your favourite movies?
I like thrillers—Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney—and movies like Casablanca and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, based on good stories.
What are you reading these days?
I usually go back to old favourites or rediscover neglected writers. Recently, I have been reading a biography of Edgar Wallace, a book on the French Revolution, and the novels of Patricia Highsmith.
Any advice to young writers?
Sometimes I feel there are more writers out there now than readers. I never discourage anyone from writing, but I urge them to pay attention to their language. If they are good readers, they would be good writers. I also tell them not to be in a hurry or expect fame and fortune overnight because it very rarely comes that way.