Ruskin Bond: The grand old man of Indian letters

Unlike many writers of children’s fiction, Ruskin Bond does not try to teach them moral lessons.  (Hindustan Times)
Unlike many writers of children’s fiction, Ruskin Bond does not try to teach them moral lessons. (Hindustan Times)


Author Ruskin Bond recently turned 90. For readers, he remains an unguilty pleasure, the man who brought magic to realism

The room on the roof is my sanctuary, my escape from the world.The Room on the Roof, Ruskin Bond

It’s been almost 70 years since The Room on the Roof, a coming-of-age story about Rusty, a lonely young Anglo-Indian boy, was first published. In those seven decades, its author Ruskin Bond has himself become a sort of sanctuary for generations of Indians, their place of escape from the world.

It’s a place of whistling night trains, whispering deodar trees and wistful ghosts. I grew up far away from all that in crowded noisy Kolkata. Yet if I had to imagine childhood as a place, it would feel a lot like a Ruskin Bond short story.

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Bond just turned 90 on 19 May with a grand party in Mussoorie. He has lived in nearby Landour for over half a century. “The amazing part of Mr Bond’s birthdays is that the whole town celebrates it," marvels Malavika Banerjee, the director of the Kolkata Literary Meet, who attended the celebrations. “Schoolchildren flock for a glimpse, the premier hotel hosts a party, and there is such a wave of good wishes that surround him."

In the photographs from that night, the cherubic Bond in a red sweater looks slightly bemused by all the attention. “He did perk up when he heard the band play Autumn Leaves," says Banerjee.

Banerjee has invited Bond to six consecutive literature festivals. And each appearance has been a thumping success. Banerjee, also a director of Gameplan, a sports management company, says, “We are used to a lot of adulation and crazy fans around cricketers. Mr Bond elicits the same response from all age groups. It’s a challenge sometimes to manage the crowds."

I remember walking into the literary festival and seeing snaking queues of children (and quite a few adults) waiting patiently for Bond to sign their book. The man with the golden pen, obliged them all. One year, Bond, then in his mid-80s, was a little under the weather. He nursed a hot toddy but still gamely signed books, gave interviews and posed for selfies. He might just be the hardest working writer in the business. He still writes everyday though his eyesight isn’t as good as it was.

In a world where writers routinely fall out of favour, our bond with Bond has been remarkably enduring. “Parents grew up on Ruskin Bond and they often pass on these books to their children. He is a household name and a publishing staple," says Bijal Vaccharajani, award-winning children’s book author and editor with . Banerjee says it also helps that “even the most reluctant reader has read him in curriculum" and every year a new batch of readers discover him.

“I sold his book for the first time in the year 2000 in Kolkata," says bookseller Mayura Misra, who now runs the Storyteller bookstore in Kolkata. “Now we host more than 60 book fairs in a year. You can imagine how many of his books we sell. We have an entire rack devoted to him in our bookstore." Each year there are new Bond books, sometimes fresh material, sometimes re-anthologised, sometimes repackaged. Bond is a gift that keeps on giving.

Yet come to think of it, there’s no reason Ruskin Bond should have remained such an evergreen favourite in post-independence India. The son of English parents, he was sent to live with an aunt in the Channel Islands in the UK after India became independent.

“No sooner had I got there than I realised I was in the wrong place," Bond told me in 2019. “India was home. England felt so formal." He remembered arguing with an uncle, “a colonial type" who dissed independent India. But Bond had no money for the return fare. He worked odd jobs, scrounged and saved. When his first novel was accepted for publication, he got an advance of £50 (around 5,300 now). “I came back by sea, it took three weeks and I have never regretted it," he said.

In hindsight what is most remarkable is he sustained himself as a full-time writer at a time when the English publishing industry in India was minuscule. He freelanced for magazines and newspapers. He also wrote some adult fiction until a story that was published in Debonair magazine in the 1970s got him and his publisher hauled to court on obscenity charges. “The case dragged on for two years until the judge said he’d enjoyed the story and gave us an honourable acquittal," recalled Bond. “But it was a bit of a bother. After that I thought I’d stick to children’s stories."

But unlike many writers of children’s fiction, Bond does not try to teach them moral lessons. The stories are simple, the language unfussy and even his crocodiles are friendly. His books are often like the promise of a lazy summer holiday. Nothing dramatic might happen but we look forward to them unfolding all the same.

Yet the stories are deeply rooted in the India in which he lives. “As a young person who grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton books, Ruskin Bond’s writing transported me to the Indian mountains," says Vachharajani.

If Blyton existed in a kind of Neverland for us Indians, Bond exists in Everland. “I think that sense of place, the gentle humour and that respect for nature is something I admire a lot," says Vaccharajani. Bond’s work, she says, is suffused with what ecologists now call soliphilia—a sense of interconnectedness. The tug of the mountains, the chirp of the cicadas, the stories of mountain people, all come together effortlessly in his prose.

Of course one eventually grows out of Ruskin Bond and the publishing ecosystem rightly has made room for many other kinds of writers with other life experiences. I have not read Bond in years. Neither have I read an Enid Blyton in decades. But while I am a little embarrassed about my childhood love for Blyton’s world of scones, potted meat sandwiches and children who ran away to live in hollow trees in the wood, I feel nothing but affection for Bond. He remains an un-guilty pleasure, the man who brought magic to realism.

That’s what makes him timeless because times might change but we still all know that kooky aunt, the oddball school teacher, or a little boy who loves a cherry tree he plants. “I think young people always like reading about eccentric adults or schoolmasters making a fool of themselves," chuckled Bond. But he also remains curious about the world while many writers of his vintage find themselves cynical and tired. As a lonely boy he made friends with his grandmother’s tenant, a disabled old lady who would feed him biscuits. “But she gave me stories as well," remembered Bond. Bond isn’t just a storyteller, he remains a story collector.

Unfortunately there is a tendency to pickle Bond in a sort of simple syrup of nostalgia. But he is more complicated than that. Years ago, while guest editing a special issue of Trikone, the oldest South Asian magazine for LGBTQ+ issues, I wrote to Bond on a whim asking if he might have something to contribute. I never expected a response, but weeks later, a handwritten letter arrived from Ivy Cottage in Landour. Bond graciously suggested a short story of his that might be appropriate for the issue and congratulated us for putting the magazine together. He had no qualms about being in a magazine like Trikone.

“I fell in love with all sorts of people," he later said with a smile. “Some of the characters I’ve written about are based on real people."

“He writes simply but there are layers of sorrow and joy," says Banerjee. In The Eyes Have It, two visually impaired strangers encounter each other never knowing they are blind. In the Night Train at Deoli, the young girl selling baskets at the station simply disappears. Bond tells disarming stories like the time he thought a young woman was interested in him but then discovered she just wanted to improve her English. He recounts these brief encounter stories with a chuckle but there is an unmistakable undercurrent of wistfulness that lingers with the reader. “I often seek solitude because it’s different from loneliness," he told me. “Loneliness is imposed on you. Solitude you choose for yourself."

At 90, Ruskin Bond is the grand old man of Indian letters, or perhaps a Great Uncle Rusty. He’s won many awards, including recently the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship. He’s such a legend, he’s even been mistaken for Rudyard Kipling. “A mother and son came and asked me when will you write another Mowgli story," he remembered. “I said not in this incarnation but thank you."

That’s quintessential Ruskin Bond. Unlike James Bond’s martini, our Bond is neither shaken, nor stirred, just ever twinkling.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr

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