Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Stories of Ruskin Bond

It is merely a surmise on the part of the present writer but he supposes that his favorite Anglo-Indian writer Ruskin Bond was so named, Ruskin, after the great John Ruskin, another favorite of the present writer. It is an unconfirmed surmise, but really, why else would an English couple name their son Ruskin in 1934? In any case, true or not, it remains a comforting thought, and it always enhances the experience of reading the many tales of the voluminous Mr. Bond. Indeed, he has – they say – written no fewer than five hundred or so short stories, along with poems and travel writings, and so it is entirely proper to speak of his “many tales”. The present writer has delved into some of them during his travels around the wide lands of Hindoostan. The sole purpose of this current post is to celebrate these stories and to recommend the works of Ruskin Bond to any readers who are not thus far familiar with them.

The biography of Mr. Bond is readily available. Many of his stories are also wholly or partially autobiographical. He is not, therefore, a figure of mystery. His parents were English and lived and worked in British India. At an early age, however, they separated and his mother married an Indian gentleman and so Ruskin was raised with an Indian step-father. He is not of Anglo-Indian genetics, but he is certainly so by culture and by upbringing. This accounts for the charm of his stories. He is counted as an “Indian author of British descent” – he brings a distinctly English sensibility to a distinctly Indian experience. This is all to the good. The best things in modern India are always so. The present author, at least, has a self-confessed fondness for the synthetic fusion of things both British and Indian. Things Indian are usually much enhanced by contact with things British, and things British are certainly made more interesting by a touch of India. The British are stuffy, formal, cold. The Indians are raw, rowdy, alive. It is an unlikely coupling. That a people so reserved and utilitarian as the British should ever rule anywhere as ungovernable as India is one of the great ironies of history. Ruskin Bond is a very English writer, to be frank about it, but he is very English about India, and writes wonderful stories about the life, manners, customs and peculiarities of Hindoostani society as seen through his English eyes.

He might, perhaps, dispute this assessment, yet it is true. As one reads his stories one realizes that this is a man who – by the very circumstances of his life – cannot not be British. (How could he be anything else with a surname like Bond?) And thankfully he never attempts to be. He writes very honestly about himself and the world in which he grew up and has lived most of his years. A pervasive quality of his work is that he is a writer who is true to himself. He is very naturally both British and Indian. There is no ideological agenda, least of all a post-colonial one such as infects so much Indian fiction. He is writer who is very comfortable in his own skin, and who displays a great compassion for his characters. That is, for all their Britishness, his stories are throughly Indian as well. They are some of the best and most compelling evocations of Indian life – especially Indian boyhood - you will ever read. One can only think of someone like Rudyard Kipling as a storyteller after this pattern. Ruskin Bond stands in that company.

Where to start? Start with any of the collections of short stories. He won an award early in life for his novels, but he is essentially a short story writer – and this is very much in his favor as well. He may have written over five hundred tales, but they are short and sweet, lovely little gems. (The present author attended a bargain book sale in Enarkalum in Kerala of late and was confronted by the dozens and dozens of chunky spy-thriller novels by John Grisham, always popular with literate tourists. But, frankly, any man who writes that many long-winded novels and that many words and pages deserves to be beaten with a stick! The present writer confesses to having a long-held horror of superfluous novels and regrets living in an age beset by them. If a fiction writer has any real integrity he will recognize the short story as the essence of his art and the novel as a grotesque indulgence. Mr. Bond understands this.) Any collection of Mr. Bond’s stories – say, Potpourri, will do. Or The Best of... Or any of the themed collections. Stories and travel writings concerning the Ganges River – All Roads Lead to the Ganga, or stories concerning the Indian railways, or the jungle, or the mountains. He has been writing so long, Mr. Bond, that he has anthologized his own works according to a dozen different themes.

He is sometimes categorized as a children’s author. (Such is the fate of many short story writers. It seems that to be taken seriously as an adult writer one needs to write novels. Big books for big people.) Mr. Bond has certainly pioneered and developed the genre of children and young adult fiction in India, but the categorization is unfair if it is taken as a limitation. Readers of any age will find cause for delight in the stories of Ruskin Bond. (His books of light verse are fun as well.) Defying the label of ‘children’s writer’ is a novella entitled ‘The Sensualist’ – a study of nascent erotic obession, Mr. Bond’s most controversial work, but also one of his best. Few writers handle the erotic with as much insight and sensitivity as this. 

It was certainly a delight for the present writer to discover the works of this "Anglo-Indian" and to have them as a companion during the five and more months he has travelled from Calcutta, to the mountains, to the Ganges, to Delhi and southwards. There are, no doubt, many fine Indian writers about, but Ruskin Bond has been a steady contributor of excellent stories for many decades and surely stands as one of the great writers of modern India. Others - Salman Rushie, Arundhati Roy and co. - may be more the darlings of the Leftist literati and may tackle the supposed burning issues of our times in incendiary novels, but Ruskin Bond's unpretentious, understated tales have a directness and freshness that make him the better storyteller in the traditional sense. There is an innocent charm in the writings of Ruskin Bond not found in other contemporary Indian writers.

Readers of this blog might be aware that the present author - in another incarnation - is himself a dabbler in the short story – his own style and subject-matter is very different to that of Mr. Bond, but he nevertheless feels an affinity with him and admires him as a writer and aspires to be even remotely as lucid and prolific as he. It is a pity that he was not able to fulfill his ambition of visiting Mr. Bond in his aged solitude at Landour, near Mussoorie, amidst the hill stations north of Delhi, the familiar territory of some many of Mr. Bond’s stories. Hopefully, on some future journey. 


Harper McAlpine Black

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