He filled our
imagination with idyllic hill settings and lonely children who made fast
friends, back in our schooldays. As we grew up, we met his ghosts and ghouls,
laughed at his Uncle Ken, and shuddered at his darker stories. Now, 78 years
young, Ruskin Bond is out with a new collection of poetry, Hip-Hop
Nature Boy and Other Poems. The author launched his book at Landmark stores
across the country. On his stop in Chennai, he had four generations of
starry-eyed readers in splits, speaking of how Uncle Ken went on to become a
postman in England, and spent the last days of his short career reading other
people’s mail, and telling us how his uncle James Bond was no secret agent, but
a dentist on whose gravestone a young Ruskin had inscribed, “James Bond is
filling his last cavity”. When asked by one of the many aspiring writers in the
audience, “What does it take to become an author?”, he quipped, “A pen and
paper”. When I meet him at his hotel, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m
actually face-to-face with the Ruskin Bond. Within minutes, I realise I’ve
known him all my life, and begin to chat about his poems, friends, the kindly
ghost in his room, and the notorious Susanna.
You’ve said in your author’s notes that you do a little jig to your poems at times. Do your poems have tunes in your head?
Yes, sometimes they do. Or maybe when I’m writing one, an old tune might come into my head, from my childhood days or something, and then I sort of write it to the rhythm or beat of that particular tune or song. If by chance, they coincide or run through my head, that happens, yes.
Are all those adventures in the title poem autobiographical experiences?
Well, I have not actually been chased by a crocodile, nor have I slept with a bear. It’s just a funny poem. What I wanted to show was that being a nature-lover isn’t roses all the way. It can also be hazardous. (Laughs) But, of course, the boy escapes every time.
On the last page, the mood changes suddenly, and becomes introspective. Was it written at a stretch, or did you revisit and rewrite it?
I did write it all in one stretch, about a month or two back, just before we went to the press. I write all my poems at a stretch. About the rewriting, yes, a little bit. You see, on a poem, I work quite a bit, more than I would on a story or a prose work. If I write a short story or an essay, I would write it out and I would hardly make a change. But somehow, with a poem, one is never satisfied. You can never reach perfection, but you have to, of course, try for it. So, one is constantly going back and changing words or lines around, adding something, taking something out, trying to take out the rubbish and make it sound meaningful, or at least beautiful. (Laughs) Until it is actually printed and you can’t do anything about it, one keeps on working on a poem, more than on a story or a book.
When I was reading your poem “The Demon Driver” in this particular collection,
it struck me that in almost all your books, cars or motor vehicles of some kind
suffer a sad fate. How bad a car driver are you?
Oh, I’m prone to those mishaps. You see, I’m completely helpless and impractical when it comes to machines, or anything technical—from telephones to cars to computers. So, if I handle these things, there’ll be an accident. (Laughs)
In the days before this interview, I thought I should perhaps re-read some of your stories that I’ve read when I was a child, like The Blue Umbrella and The Hidden Pool. But then, I found there was no need, because I remember everything so well—Binya, Bishnu, Ram Bharosa and how he gave them extra sweet, extra milky tea. And all the characters down to Anil’s beetle Moocha from The Hidden Pool. Do you remember your own stories as vividly as your readers do?
Sometimes, the readers remember them better, if they’ve read them fairly recently. And if I haven’t read a story of mine for many years—because I don’t keep re-reading them, but now and then I might just come back to one, if it’s being reprinted somewhere, say, I might look through it, to see if it’s done all right— some things would seem fresh to me, or I might even say, ‘Oh, did I write that?’, you know. (Laughs) So, I do forget things, and sometimes the reader reminds me. Someone asks a question pertaining to a story or a poem, and then I have to jog my own memory! The novels you speak of, I wrote some time ago! (Laughs) The Blue Umbrella was one of my early children’s books, and that one came off nicely. It’s been reprinted quite often over the years. It was made into a little film too, recently.
Not just in The Hidden Pool, but even in short stories and other novellas, you often write about secret pools tucked away in the forests. Do you remember the first one you discovered?
That would be the one I’ve written about in The Hidden Pool, actually, the one I used to go to with friends, just outside Dehradun. It’s vanished now. It’s got filled in, and there’s a school there. I’ve been to it. But they say that that particular corner, where the pool is, is haunted. The schoolchildren are seeing the ghosts of boys playing in a pool, which is no longer there. So, they’re perhaps seeing my ghost, in advance of my going into the next world! (Laughs)
I won’t ask you if you believe in ghosts and yetis, because we’ve seen so many of them in your books. But tell me about the most interesting ghost you’ve met.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I keep seeing them. (Laughs) Well, the most interesting ghost... hmm, actually, real ghosts, you don’t see. You simply sense their presence. And a lot of my ghost stories are made up, they’re not true. But there is a ghost who visits me sometimes, late at night. I’m a very restless sleeper, so my blanket or razai slips off the bed, and I’m conscious then of somebody picking it up, and putting it back on me, and tucking me in. And when I switch on the light, there’s nobody there. So, I think it’s a rather motherly ghost, who wants to look after me and make sure I don’t catch a chill in the night! (Laughs) So I don’t mind it at all.
There are several recurring names in your books—especially Bishnu. Was there a real life Bishnu?
I’ve often used the real names of people who I might have written about, or who come into my stories. You see, when I went and lived in a village in the hills— that was donkey’s years ago, when I was much younger—my friend who took me there had a little brother called Bishnu. So, sometimes when I write stories with a hill setting and I want a small boy there, I visualise him and automatically use the same name.
People who’ve read your books have almost met your friends—Somi is from real life, so is Prem who looks after your house.
Prem, well, Prem’s son Rakesh is with me right now. He’s come along to keep an eye on me, to make sure I don’t get lost. I’m terrible, I get into the wrong train or the wrong plane—hard to get into the wrong plane now, they won’t let you in, but trains, yes. I once got on the night train to Delhi, and woke up in Lucknow, because I’d got into the wrong compartment. It was all right, because fortunately the stationmaster in Lucknow knew me, so he put me back on another train and sent me off the next day. (Laughs)
A lot of people seek you out in Mussoorie, and apparently, they’re quite surprised, because though you’re reputed to be media-shy, you welcome people into your home.
No, I don’t welcome people into my home! They barge in, they force their way in! (Laughs) I go into hiding if I can. But if somebody does want to meet me or see me, and gives me fair warning, of course I’ll make time for them and they can come into my home. But so many people turn up at odd times, at 4 in the morning or 5 in the morning, when you’re still in your kachha banyan and want to sleep a little longer! (Laughs) Or, while you’re in the middle of composing a poem or a story, it’s a bit off-putting. Because it’s a tourist place, after all, and people sometimes feel the local author is on their list of things to see, even if they’re not readers! (Laughs) But readers, of course I’m happy to meet. And I go to the local bookshop on weekends. Every Saturday, when I’m there, I meet readers, I sign their books if they want me to. They always want photographs taken with their kids and things like that, so a general sort of picnic happens there. So, like that, I meet a lot of people.
Is there any one particular experience that you’ve found memorable, of a reader seeking you out?
Oh, yes... yes, there was a lady who came to see me and demanded to see me. And I got up from my afternoon siesta because she’d been banging on the door, and I said, “Look, I can’t see you now. I’m not well, and I’m sleeping.” And she got very upset because I refused to see her. She said, “I’m going back to Delhi. I’m a friend of Khushwant Singh, and I’m going to report you to him, and he’ll put you in his column!” So, I said, “Well, I’ve always been trying to get into Khushwant Singh’s column, without any success. Maybe now I will, at last!” (Laughs) But I never did see that complaint turning up in his column!
You started writing as a child, and never stopped. Are there any unpublished early works, from your schooldays, maybe?
Yes, my first book—well, not book, but attempted literature—was written when I was about twelve, I think, in my school. And I filled up an exercise book with anecdotes about teachers and friends, over nine months, because that was the length of the school term. And my class teacher found it in my desk, and started reading it, and didn’t like what he saw, because it had funny remarks about teachers including him. So, I was summoned to the headmaster’s office, and he said, “Bond, you’ve been wasting your time, I see.” And he tore it up, and put it in his wastepaper basket. So that was the end of my first masterpiece! (Laughs) In those days, they didn’t appreciate literature very much.
People who’ve studied in boarding schools have usually seen the worst of cruelty in children. But your child characters tend to be generous spirits. Do you think children are usually crueller or kinder than adults?
Children can be cruel, of course. I’ve seen children being cruel to animals, or even bullying younger children, in boarding schools too. But, basically, I think, the boys and girls I grew up with were all warm and generous and full of fun. Maybe the odd child might have a cruel streak, which might not be his or her fault even. You know, it could just have come about because of family circumstances or economic circumstances. But by and large, I think, children aren’t really cruel. They’re easily frightened, so sometimes, out of fright, they might do something which might be cruel. You know, they may be frightened of an animal or reptile and start throwing stones at it. So it might seem cruel, but it might be done out of their own insecurity.
Do you think of yourself as a children’s author?
Well, most people now call me one, whether I like it or not. (Laughs) I do write for all ages as well, and for adults too from time to time, and some of the books are not meant for children. But I’m quite happy. If they want me to be a children’s author, well and good, I’ll be a children’s author, because I think it’s more worthwhile in the long run. And if I’m turning young kids into readers or book lovers or even writers, well, that’s something.
When we were children, I think strangely, most of us could relate to the likes of Laurie and Rusty and Binya because of their loneliness.
Yes, because I had a lonely childhood, perhaps I’m maybe more sympathetic towards children who are on their own, or inclined to be outsiders, or standing on their own, as individuals. So some of the characters do seem to be without much family support.
You grew up at a time when even second generation Anglo-Indians would call England, which they had never even seen, ‘home’. On the other hand, you were of British parentage, but always considered yourself Indian.
That’s true. Maybe it was different for me. I know a lot of my relatives, uncles and aunts and cousins, who would talk of England as ‘home’, and when independence came, most of them left. We were the exceptions. My mother had married again after my father’s death, and I had an Indian stepfather. But nevertheless, they sent me off to England after I finished school. I was restless, though, and I was always wanting to come back. Emotionally, I was definitely attached to India, and to friends, and to the life I’d got used to here. So after two-three years, when I’d saved up enough money, I came back. And in the meantime, I’d written my first novel, so that helped me come back too. And when I came back, I just started freelancing, and bombarding newspapers and magazines with stories and articles! (Laughs)
All your characters go through some loss or death, or get thrown into economic difficulties relatively early in their lives, and become stronger and more independent for it. What was it that first alerted you to suffering?
Maybe it was again, out of my own childhood. I lost my father when I was ten, and he’d been very close to me, a very good companion. And then perhaps, being very much on my own—not in the financial sense, because my mother and stepfather did look after me, but at a sort of distance. I was very much left to my own devices, as far as finding things to make me happy went. So books were the main thing that gave me companionship, you could say. And I would also go off on my own to the pictures, to the cinema—I was quite a movie buff as a boy. And then I would take long walks—I would walk for miles and miles into the surrounding fields or forests, Dehradun then being a very small town, compared to what it is today. On these long walks, I would dream away, and probably that’s when I started writing stories in my head and became very introspective.
From your early novels, the one you wrote in your teens and twenties, one gets the sense you never expected you’d settle down, that you’d always lead the life of a nomad. What made you stay in Mussoorie for so long?
Right, back then I had that strange feeling of being a sort of vagrant, a wanderer. And quite the opposite happened in the end! (Laughs) When I did start living in the hills, I sort of forgot to go away. And up to then, I’d been pretty restless. But I think attachments—a family grew up around me, my adopted family, who’re into their third generation now—kept me there. I think my life has been ruled largely by attachments—emotional attachments, friendships, things like that.
Let me ask you about a very non-children’s story—Susanna’s Seven Husbands. What was it that gave you the idea for the original short story?
I had Begum Samru in mind, because she went through a number of lovers. And there’s a real Susanna—Susanna is based on a real character. I have a photograph of her grave, which is outside the old Dutch settlement of Chinsurah, by the Hooghly River. She had a big indigo plantation, and was a very wealthy woman. And the local legend was that a lot of men married her for her money, but when she came to know that their motives were totally mercenary, she got rid of them in various ingenious ways, and though suspected, she was never really accused of murder. And those days, maybe a couple of hundred years ago, it was perhaps easier to get away with murder. (Laughs) That was what set me off.
Your novella is so different from your story, so much darker and more detailed. You’ve even changed the names of the characters, their professions and the manner of their deaths.
Yes, because see, Vishal Bhardwaj liked the short story, but he wanted to develop it into a longer story, which he could then base his screenplay on. So, I had to devise various means for her to get rid of these seven husbands, without being caught. And I wanted it to be a black comedy in a way, along the lines of Bluebeard. Bluebeard went through seven wives, and I sort of turned it around. And I’m not sure if it came off as a black comedy, maybe there was more black than comedy. So, he also then made some changes, changed the husbands around and things. In the end, it was perhaps quite different from the original story, as compared to my other stories that got filmed.
The Blue Umbrella was more or less similar to the actual story, and Junoon, which was a film made in 1978 by Shyam Benegal, was also very close to the story (A Flight of Pigeons). In fact, if you look back at films that have been based on books—I’m thinking of English films —some very fine films have been made without any deviation from the story itself. If you look at all the Dickens novels, what great films they were made into! From David Copperfield to Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist and Pickwick, they’ve all been filmed, and very successfully. So some authors, I think, transfer to the film medium very well—Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene... so many of their books have been filmed successfully. But now, I think, that period has gone, when films were made based on books. Now, it’s more or less original scripts or screenplays. So you have professional screenplay writers.
In this case, the screenplay of Saat Khoon Maaf introduced a whole lot of new characters, even more than you had in the rewritten novella.
Yes, you see, Vishal collaborated with an American screenplay writer (Matthew Robbins), whom I met only once, so he probably looked at it from the point of view of what would make good cinema or good dramatic scenes, and they did turn things around quite a bit. So, I suppose you’re quite right, from the original short story to the final screenplay, there is quite a difference.
But does it feel strange for someone else to be creating characters in your world?
Yes. It doesn’t always work, you see. It’s best to stick to the original characters, as conceived by the original author. And then I think you get a finer film, as in the case of those that I mentioned earlier.
Isn’t it also difficult for you to see the faces that you have in your head change, to see real people with other faces playing them?
That’s true. If I see a film based on a book, I want it to be as close as possible to the original. In the case of my books, it wasn’t so hard with A Flight of Pigeons, because that was a historical film, you know, and most of the characters were fairly close to what I conceived them to be. Even with The Blue Umbrella, the little girl was all right. It was fairly close to the story, except the character of Ram Bharosa perhaps became the dominant one in the film and overshadowed the little girl a bit.
Often, you speak of physically deformed people, of unattractive people, of people with a handicap. There are Goongas in several of your books and stories. And your characters are always kind to them. In Hip-Hop Nature Boy and Other Poems, you speak of your own visit to a ‘Lepers’ Colony’.
There’s also a story of mine in a recent collection of mine called Secrets, which was published last year—not a children’s book, but one for the general reader. And in it, there’s a short story about a leper. An Englishman or an Anglo-Indian back in the 1940s, when I was a small boy, had developed leprosy, and I would as a boy actually visit him in the leprosy hospital. So there was that familiarity. When I wrote the poem, again the Lepers’ Colony came to mind, where the lepers would live in isolation. In those days, they would be separated. I think they still might well be separated, but now of course, it’s curable, at least in the early stages. In those days, it wasn’t curable, and there was a stigma. Especially a European getting leprosy, and getting disfigured, would have been socially ostracised by his own people. And this gentleman, I discovered, was living in this little outhouse, and he never came out of that little cottage. I used to wonder why. And then, one day, I saw food being brought in a tiffin carrier from the main house by the servant and left outside. Then, the door opened, and his hand came out and took it in. So, out of curiosity, I would go and peep through the windows and see who this was, till I discovered that he had leprosy. And he became quite friendly after some time, and so I made this into a story, called Over the Wall.
Another thing you speak of is the right to life of every living thing, from a firefly to a lizard to a snail. You care a lot for animals. But you grew up at a time when shikar was popular and animals abounded. Could you have envisioned a time when we’d be trying to save the tiger?
(Laughs) Everyone was trying to shoot them back then. And we all thought they were a threat to human beings. They were a threat to village people, because if they were not man-eaters, they could be cattle-lifters. And there were many of them then. But I never thought that one day we would be trying to save the tiger. We took it for granted. I didn’t. I wasn’t into hunting at all. But adults of that period just took it for granted that there would always be animals, and jungles for them to live in!
Your characters form sudden, instinctive friendships. They happen to run into each other, maybe scrutinise each other, and become friends for life...
I guess that’s my own nature coming through. It doesn’t always happen that way, does it? Or maybe it does. I don’t know! (Laughs)
Do you think it may be perhaps a connection from a previous birth that causes such sudden empathy among strangers?
Yes, yes, somebody you have an instant rapport with, or whom you feel immediately that you have something in common with, or an attraction for, it could go back, perhaps, to a previous existence, or existences, and it’s somebody whom you’ve known before in another form, as another personality, maybe. And opposites attract, yes, I’ve seen that. A certain chemistry might build up between two people, which doesn’t have any particular reason behind it.
Which is your favourite month of the year? You speak of April and October as particularly joyous ones.
May, I suppose, because that’s my birthday month. I get lots of presents then, so why not? (Laughs)
And is there a favourite year in your life so far, one that you would go back to again and again if you could?
Ah, well, let me think... I’ve never thought about it. There’ve been good years and bad years. I can’t place my finger on a particular year, without going back into my journals and diaries! (Laughs)
Tell me the names of some of the books you’ll never give away.
Achcha, my favourite books on the shelf! There are a few, although one or two have been pinched. There’s an old one that I’ve hung on to since the 1950s—it’s a paperback, The Story of my Heart, by Richard Jefferies. He was a nature writer in England. He died quite young, in his thirties, around 1900. And The Story of my Heart is his relationship with the world around him, the natural world. He was a naturalist, and actually, he was also an atheist. Now, I am not an atheist. But his book, in a strange way, is a spiritual or a religious book, because it describes his intense passion for nature and his interest in it, but he doesn’t believe in God. So, for me, it always raises questions.
The books you wrote when you were young speak of a fear of loneliness, fear of losing friends, and most often, fear of time moving slowly as you grow older. Has any of that happened in your own life?
No. Actually, these things don’t bother me now that I have grown older. (Laughs) They bothered me maybe when I was young, huh? The fear that time was slipping by, and there was so much still that I hadn’t done, promises hadn’t been kept, and friendships had withered. But now when you look back on it all, you realise that the nice thing about getting older is that you have more to look back on, more memories, more stories to tell. [Laughs]
Twice in this one book you’ve said “Never take another’s song from him”. What is your song?
My song is just the right to be, and to do my own thing—to write books, stories, to read, to live my own life, without anybody pushing me around or forcing me to do something I don’t want to. Yes, to live my life in my own lazy, laidback way.