(This is going to be a long one, for who can stop talking about Rusty?)
When I first read Ruskin Bond as a young girl in Doon, I hated him. He made me believe that if I yawned under a peepul tree at night without covering my mouth, a spirit would enter my being. My nani’s house had a peepul as old as the house itself; a century. Without looking up I would hurry my steps and even stop breathing lest a truant yawn escaped my lips. I used this modus operandi while passing under all trees post dusk. Who wanted to risk it? That I was the leader among four inseparable cousins, obliged to instill confidence in the young ones, made me practice much deceit. I wished them away, longing for Rusty instead! Then, as academic fate would have it, my convent school in Dehradun included ‘The Blue Umbrella’ in the syllabus. With every reading I realized what deprivation meant. I lusted to be Binya of the prettiest blue umbrella, minding cows down jealous slopes of Mussoorie, and not just gazing dreamily at them from my concrete balcony on Rajpur Road, a full 30.5 kilometers away.
How dare he, this Ruskin Bond, write about my hometown as if it were his own, and trouble me so? This sentiment combined with burgeoning inquisitiveness and I asked for and read all of him on my eighth birthday. And I am still reading him. (Don’t tell him this, but that hate turned to adoration and then admiration somewhere before Miss Mackenzie slept for the night and just after time stopped at Shamli.)
Today, on his 81st birthday, I am attempting to write about his recently published collection ‘A Gathering of Friends’ – 21 of his short stories cherry-picked by Bond himself. I ask anew - Why have Ruskin’s works unfailingly held their charm over the reader and sit challenging the seed of the writer I carry within? How does he continue to make me feel, like Kiran did to a man in Shamli, ‘a nostalgic longing for childhood – emotions that had been beautiful because they were never completely understood’?
When Ruskin wrote he ‘had to make up some stories to meet the demand’; of fiction, not the market. His characters, as real to him as alive to us, are set in stories which leisurely proceed at the speed of drinking hot tea and then, like the fog blinks and clears on a hill top, that suddenly they end. And yet, we never feel cheated. The characters are very young or very old, or middle-aged men in love with settings as stark as ‘a town consisting of one station, one pony and one man.’ And yet, they are sensually and visually complete. Like ‘the atmosphere of Fosterganj that discouraged any kind of serious work or effort’ are his books, written to be read in similar environs.
But my love for them wants to tease them into threads. Not a review, but more like unwrapping a present knowing whatever it holds within will forever please me. But then again, what makes it so flawlessly timeless?
Characters we put our own faces to
‘My characters were the story. I began with a character, and ended with that character, and the story belonged to him or her.’
The narrator in ‘Love is a Sad Song’ tells us how ‘adults are much slower than children at sensing the truth.’ Ruskin’s fiction is teeming with the laughter of many children . We remember Rusty, and we also remember Ranbir and his friends who ‘forgot ... the problem of the next meal’ while playing Holi with him. There is the ambitious Bisnu who walks five miles to school because he wants to see the world beyond and there’s Suresh, the most beautiful ‘crooked and bent … boy in the world,’ tugging at our heart’s strings.
There are adults of course; some like the ‘Diabolical Sushila!’ or the ‘amoral scamp’ Sudheer of ‘Friends from My Youth’, while others like Roberts are invented by invented characters themselves (meta-characterisation?) as ‘a dream of myself'. Miss Mackenzie of ‘The Prospect of Flowers’ is ‘far from being the typical frustrated spinster of fiction’ and Susanna of the seven husbands fame was in a movie! Ram Bharosa is the shop keeper who covets an umbrella’s ‘beauty to be mine!’ and a few pages later you meet the beauteous Gracie, ‘a terrific combination of genes and hereditary traits.’
So human, in thought, deed, desire and variety.
And how does Ruskin give them breath and shape before our eyes?
‘She was not young. And she was not old. She must have been over thirty, but had she been over fifty, I think she would have looked much the same.’
Through the slightest of whispers and details, habits and confessions, they reach us. Like the narrator in ‘Time Stops at Shamli’ who ‘never had the patience to wait for second thoughts’ or Kiran, the talkative girl in the same story, who ‘seemed to be in a hurry to grow up’; unlike Sita of ‘Angry River’, who ‘put herself last … only with great difficulty.’ Much is left to our mind’s eye too, like the passer-by in ‘Hassan, The Baker’ who ‘was less than beautiful but more than pretty. A face to remember!’ And we would remember all of them. After all, we were made to paint their faces with our own imaginations.
Some characters are also drawn from real-life figures – met by happenstance or connected through genes. But mostly, Ruskin turns the lens on those dwellers of villages and bustling cities who remain invisible to our naked eyes. Including, actually, the elusive writer from the cottage himself!
Have you noticed how even objects are characters in some stories?
Like the ‘lonely little platform’ the narrator feels sorry for in ‘The Night Train at Deoli’ or the moaning river in ‘Angry River’, which ‘was a good river, deep and strong, beginning in the mountains and ending in the sea.’ The charming blue umbrella ‘casts a spell’ over a whole village, becomes a “character” revealing humans to us. The tunnel, the cherry tree and even ‘Foster’s home-made brew’ are nothing short of central figures. With Nature being the grandfather of them all!
But what are all these concocted characters doing in his stories?
Those wildly invented situations, in villages and in cities
Give Ruskin an empty dining room and he will fill it up with the most unimaginably delightful characters. Give him an empty platform and he can show you how love looks through two pairs of eyes, or how motherhood is born, one of a different kind. Give him a running bogey and he’ll make parallel lives meet, in the darkness of sight or of tunnels. And make him climb a hill to show you what wrinkled loneliness lives among the flowers. Or, just give him a tiny flower-bed and see a cherry tree bloom in your mind’s garden, ‘taller than Grandfather, who was older than some of the oak trees.’
There’s humour, for two lovers of the same Sushila are wondering aloud together – ‘Do we both wait and let her make a choice?’ and there’s ‘untrammelled cruelty’ because there’s a boy somewhere who ‘likes to be teased and beaten.’ Oh! There’s uninhibited laughter too, when you encounter the grandfather hanging on to the wing of an enraged ostrich or sit with Her Highness pit drunk at an empty bar in the Savoy, Mussoorie, with a hungry birthday party in tow.
Those who have read him as much as I have will visualize each story above. Those who will read now will realize how pregnant with emotion simple imagined acts, like of willfully forgetting an umbrella at another’s table can be, or how joyous to read that a brother finally got bangles for his sister.
Wacky or wild, somber or serene, the situations around the characters involve you till you get transported right where the action is. It could be the city, or it could be a forgotten village with a still smaller hamlet in the hill and a jungle beyond. The watchman in ‘The Tunnel’ knows ‘it is safer in the jungle than in the town. Nothing happens to me out here. But last month, when I went into town, I was almost run over by a bus.’ And what is Ruskin’s choice?
‘In Delhi, you grow old. In Deoli you are trapped in a time warp and stay young forever.’
Ruskin’s heart is where his hearth is, and it shows beautifully in all his works and through his characters’ situations. What also makes his stories unforgettable are relationships, a theme that strings these 21 into a garland of winter lilies.
Love, friendship, and a bit of loneliness
‘Remembered passion grows sweeter with the passing of time.’
I have looked at Ruskin Bond’s stories with a little girl’s eyes and now as a woman’s. What makes his fiction ‘rust-free’, as David Davidar calls it, is more than just delightful characters in delicious situations. There are emotions involved, and how. Love is not ringing bells, but tip-toeing towards carriage doors to peep at a girl or telling us its sad tale in the calmest of voices, like still pond waters, disturbed now and then by a falling leaf. Friendship is giving a ‘wrestler’s hug’ to the fair-skinned boy and a moment later, the gentlest pat. More often than not, the reader is left to label on his own the nameless feeling of simple ‘tenderness and responsibility that I never felt before,’ which so many of his characters, across ages, feel. And this, dear readers, surpassing it all …
‘Have you been in love before?
Many times. But this is the first time.’
When characters are central, their relationships become important portrayals. But in times of solitude, the poignancy of loneliness creeps in. Why did Anil come to see Miss Mackenzie so often? ‘Sometimes a boy of twelve can sense loneliness better than an adult.’ But was Miss M lonely? ‘It was lonely, but at her age it would be lonely anywhere.’ But Sita, floating on a tree in the flood waters thinks it ‘better to have a crow for company than no one at all.’
Bond’s stories have made the young meet the old, white meet brown, city meet town and love meet solitude in variously touching ways. Imaginative ways. Involving ways. And evergreen ways. Who can escape unmoved, then, visualizing …
‘And then the old English lady and the small Indian boy sat side by side over cups of hot sweet tea, absorbed in a book on wild flowers.’
From an 8-year-old girl to four times that today …
Where was I once? Yes. How dare he, this Ruskin Bond, write stories about my hometown as if it were his own? Maturely rephrased, I wonder what makes his voice the voice of an Indian writer? Simply put, because he belongs where he sits and writes, and it shows. When he writes he is ‘leading me by the hand along old familiar roads’, like his father led him, in Dehra or elsewhere. We follow in kinship because we see in him a loving understanding of what it means to feel one as you become old; with the milk-sellers and shop keepers, pretty little girls and rugged men, gardeners and panthers, trees and streams, birds, cottages and writing desks.
Just like my gang of cousins, Rusty has been family. He found his "gathering of friends" in us, and he found his home amongst ours.
‘His fair hair was tousled and streaked with colour, and his eyes were wide with wonder. He was exhausted now, but he was happy. He wanted this to go on forever, this day of feverish emotion, this life in another world. He did not want to leave the forest; it was safe, its earth soothed him, gathered him in so that the pain of the his body became a pleasure …
He did not want to go home.’
A collector’s item, this book, for those who want to relish the eternal freshness of the favourite stories of their favourite author. I did. And I know I will continue to.
'A Gathering of Friends' by Ruskin Bond is an Aleph Book Company publication, 2015.
[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]