The hills are alive

Time Out speaks to author Ruskin Bond about his new books

Ruskin Bond_new

Stepping into the pages of a Ruskin Bond book means stepping out of the world around you. With every sentence you read, you’re cocooned a little more snugly in crisp mountain air. The noise of traffic fades, letting in the gentle rustle of leaves tickled by a breeze, the chirps of many birds. The city recedes, allowing your imagination to travel to remote lakes and hamlets nestled in the hills.

Beautiful as its setting may be, Bond’s fiction does not always inhabit an idyllic world. Here, there be ghosts (albeit harmless ones) lurking in desolate bungalows, whip-smart thieves with nimble fingers, and tales laced with mel­ancholia. If there’s one thing that you won’t find in Bond’s world, it’s horror. This is something Bond’s young readers have noticed. One observed to him that his stories aren’t scary enough. “I told him, I have never met a scary ghost. Usu­ally they are rather gentle,” Bond said, recalling the incident while speaking on the phone from his Landour home. He paused. “I have never met a ghost.”

This is the sweetness and good humour that has made Bond the most popular Indian author in the world of children’s fiction. The author agreed that over the years, his stories have become less seri­ous and more humorous. “Life seems to get funnier as I get older,” said Bond. “I see that in my 20s I took life too seriously. Now I am going to be 80. There is so much to look back upon, more stories to tell and so many people to write about.”

The lyricism of Bond’s writing lilts through his new books for children – Thick as Thieves: Tales of FriendshipA Little Book of Friend­ship and Ruskin Bond Children’s Omnibus, Volume 2In Thick as Thieves, Bond writes about forg­ing friendship in strange places. In one story, a lonely writer seeks the company of a little mouse. In another, old characters from stories such asThe Room on the Roof make an appearance.

All three books are semi-auto­biographical. They tell the story of a writer who instead of becoming yet another Beetle Bailey in the army, headed to a cottage on the outskirts of a hill station. The nar­ratives intersect with Bond’s own life, his childhood friends and his adopted family in Mussoorie, all turned into fiction that’s distinctive for the dry wit of his storytelling.

In the first chapter of Children’s Omnibus, “the writer on the hill” talks about the stolid mountains and how it was only after he came to live in the hills that he was able to start writing for children. “In a way that’s true but I won’t give all credit to the hills,” said Bond with a chuckle. “My first years of writing were directed to the general reader. Some would have been suitable for children, although they weren’t really written for children. In the mid ’70s, I had written a long novel­la, The Angry River and sent it to a publisher in England. The publisher suggested I trim it for a children’s book. My first children’s book is a story that was meant for everyone.”

More than 40 years later, Bond still writes for everyone, as is evi­dent inTales of Fosterganj. Foster­ganj and its inhabitants exist only in Bond’s imagination, although he admits that “some of the events recorded really happened”. The stories are set in the ’60s, when a young, reclusive writer moves temporarily to “a forgotten hamlet on the outskirts of Mussoorie” named Fosterganj.

“It’s sort of fun and frolic,” said the author. “I guess I like writing about small places, and in a way, eccentric out-of-the way places which are usually overlooked by the world at large. I thought I would go back in time a little, bring this hamlet to life for the reader and myself, and weave a few stories.”

Most of the stories are staple Bond fare – tales of ghostly encounters, a meeting with a leopard and tales peopled with a handful of curious but endearing characters. “Tucked away in a fold of the hills,” writes Bond inTales of Fosterganj, “its inhabitants had begun to resemble their surround­ings: one man resembled a willow bent by rain and wind; an elderly lady with her umbrella reminded me of a colourful mushroom, quite possibly poisonous; my good baker-cum-landlord looked like a bit of the hillside, scarred and uneven but stable”.

In his books, Bond manages to write about everyday occurrences in a way that makes them seem out of the ordinary. “This is all part of my interest in nature,” he explained. “If there’s a ladybird on my desk, I want to know where is it going next. Will it climb up a wall? It becomes an epic in itself. These little things have always interested me. The life of each living creature is an epic or story in itself. A snail crossing the road – is it going to get across or is the truck going to run over it?”

Bond’s love and reverence for nature shines through his writing. He talks about finding inspiration in a stream at the end of a hill, the neighbouring villages and the many rambles that he took in the mountains. “Perhaps, many who have read my stories might have been influenced by my feelings for the natural world. In my stories there is a certain respect for the world of animals, trees, birds and everything that’s part of the natural world.”

Listening to Bond talk about nature is as enchanting as read­ing his stories. “Leopards are good survivors, they conceal themselves well,” he said. “I have had them on my roof looking for monkeys who go to sleep. They eat dogs, picked my neighbours dogs (so he keeps a cat).” The keenness with which he observes the world around him is almost childlike in its intensity, which perhaps explains why Bond is such a favourite among young readers.

“It’s a different sort of challenge,” Bond said about writ­ing children’s books. “You have to catch a kid’s attention straight off. Recently a girl came up to me and said ‘I like your stories but can’t you give more action?’ I told her I will do my best next time.”

A Little Book of FriendshipRupa R295. Ruskin Bond Children’s Omnibus, Volume 2Rupa, R250. Tales of FosterganjAleph, R295.Thick as Thieves: Tales of FriendshipPuffin, R199.

By Bijal Vachharajani on February 14 2014 

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