The mystery of Ruskin Bond is that he is unknown in the UK. Yet if you were to ask any Indian of conservative tastes and a certain age: “Who is the best-loved Indian writer in (or of) English?”, you would be told “Ruskin Bond”. You’ll find nothing by him in Waterstone’s, yet we are fond of things Anglo-Indian.
The picture is the cover of Ruskin, Our Enduring Bond, a biography and scrapbook by Ganesh Saili, New Delhi, Roli Books, 2004.
Ruskin Bond (Hindi: रस्किन बोंड, born May 19 1934) is still alive and an exemplar of Anglo-Indian sensibilities you would have thought had died out in the ’50s or ’60s. He has spent most of his life in the foothills of the Himalayas.
He was born in Kasauli (Himachal Pradesh). He had an older sister and younger brother. His parents were English and born in India. His father, Aubrey Alexander Bond, was a tutor at various princely courts. Ruskin spent his early years at Jamnagar in Gujarat.
Aubrey joined the RAF when war broke out. His mother moved to live with her mother at Dehradun (Uttarakhand, previously Uttar Pradesh), and Ruskin was sent to a dismal boarding school nearby, in Mussoorie.
His parents then officially separated. Ruskin was taken out of his school and sent to join his father in Delhi. He stayed with him there in 1942 and ’43 and happily attended boarding school at Simla. When his father was transferred to Calcutta in early ’44, they could only correspond and no longer see each other. Then his father died of malaria.
“It did not occur to anyone,” Saili writes, “to arrange for Ruskin to attend his father’s funeral, which made it all the more difficult for him to deal with this irreparable loss [...]. Years later, the feeling has not left him as he says: ‘As there was no evidence of my father’s death, it was, for me, not a death but a vanishing, and to this day, I subconsciously expect him to turn up (as indeed he often did, when I most needed him) and deliver me from bad situations.’”
He does not even have many letters from his father. Saili says, even more poignantly: “After his death, the headmaster [at Simla], Priestley found him poring over [some] and took them away saying he could collect them at the end of the term. When Ruskin finally went and asked Priestley for the letters, he looked confused and couldn’t remember having kept them. For a ten-year old, this was a cruel blow.”
He did not discover his father’s grave in Calcutta until the winter of 2001.
Ruskin now had to spend his vacations with his mother and stepfather, a Punjabi Hindu businessman whom he resented, in Dehradun. He was already writing. He seems to have had a biological need to write.
He finished school at Simla in 1951, and that year at the age of seventeen decided to visit England, sailing from Bombay to London, and from there to Jersey, where he had an aunt. He moved to London. Saili’s account of his exiguous circumstances there reminded me of VS Naipaul’s descriptions of the life of immigrants in London in the ’50s. He sailed back to India in the spring of 1955. But André Deutsch did publish his first novel, The Room on the Roof, set in India, and it won a prize, though he was no longer in London to receive it.
He spent years working in an office in New Delhi, writing much but publishing little, and moved to Mussoorie at the end of 1963, where he still lives and where an adopted family looks after him.
Most of his writings are influenced by the life in the hill stations where he spent his childhood. He has a strong feeling for children, plants, animals and ghosts. His characters, on the whole, lack a certain drive. There is always a gentle melancholy.
The Penguin Ruskin Bond – from Penguin India (a whole universe hidden from us) – is a book of nearly 1,000 pages, containing stories, novels and novellas. He has written a great deal for children (sometimes one isn’t sure whether the intended audience are children or adults) and has edited one or two anthologies for Penguin and, more recently, many for the Indian publisher Rupa. There are some interviews with him online. In one, he says something like: “I may not be a great writer, but I hope that some readers will pick up and hold my works like a round pebble they have found on the beach.” But there’s more grit and talent to him, I think, than to Alexander McCall Smith.
Of the novellas, I have read Delhi Is Not Far, about the town of Pipalnagar, not far from Delhi, and a strange triangular relationship between an aspiring writer, a poor epileptic orphan teenage boy and a prostitute.
Here is the introduction, Soot Gets in Your Eyes, dated Mussoorie, January 1994, from The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories, Penguin India, 1994 (Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Jim Corbett, Khushwant Singh, Ruskin Bond, Satyajit Ray, RK Laxman, others). Here he calls himself a nature writer.
“My anthology of ghost stories for Penguin India, roundly condemned by several critics, almost immediately went into a second edition. And so I feel cocky enough to indulge myself in compiling an anthology on another favourite subject, the Indian railway.
“But what is a nature writer doing, putting together a collection of train stories? Who is this upstart Bond, who has been meandering along like a bullock-cart all these years, and now sets himself up as a railway enthusiast? Just what are his credentials?
“Few know that my maternal grandfather, William Clerke, was Assistant Station-master at Karachi in the 1920s, or that my uncle, Fred Clark (they spelt their names differently), was Station Superintendent at Delhi Main during World War II. Occasionally, during school holidays, I would stay with Uncle Fred in his bungalow near the station. He had a wind-up gramophone and a large collection of the records of his favourite band, Spike Jones and his City Slickers. This was the noisiest, most irreverent little orchestra in the world, and it deliberately set out to murder any popular tune that took its fancy. Thus, ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ became ‘Sloppy Laggon’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ became ‘Romeow and Julie-cat’. Uncle Fred liked it because it was the only band that made enough noise to be heard above the shunting of engines, the whistle of passing trains, and the constant clamour from the railway yards. Some of the instruments used by the band had, in fact, been improvised out of scrap metal picked up in locomotive sheds. As music it was horrific, but I was to remain a Spike Jones fan all my life.
“The bungalow had a little garden. But the plants and flowers were usually covered with a fine layer of soot from passing steam engines. So much for the romance of railways! No, railway stations and goods yards never were and never will be the haunt of nature lovers.
“A few years ago I travelled by a slow passenger train from Dehradun to Bombay: two days and two nights over the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. My ‘nature notebook’ was not idle, and although the proposed essay proved abortive, I kept the rough notes for a piece that was to be called ‘Wild Life on a Railway Journey’:
1) Myna-bird gets into the compartment at Hardwar and, ticketless, gets out again at Roorkee.
2) Fat, obviously well-fed cockroach lurks in washroom basin.
3) I feed platform dogs and freelance crows with Northern Railway thali lunch.
4) Frogs along the west coast – a continuous chanting from the fields as the train rushes by. You can hear them quite clearly above the sound of the train.
5) By the time we reach Bombay, six hours late, washbasin cockroaches have multiplied and look as though they are ready to eat the passengers.
* * *
“To be honest, I am not a great railway traveller. I am a poor traveller altogether, being prone to any water-borne infection, unfamiliar food, skin eruptions caused by bugs lurking in the upholstery, suffocation from cigarette and engine smoke, and vertigo from riding in escalators. I am also prone to have things stolen from me. The train stopped at Baroda in the early hours, and a lean hand shot through the window, removing my watch from under my pillow, along with my spectacles, which could have been of no use to anyone, my lens-strength being -7 in one eye and +5 in the other. I had to appear in a Bombay court the next day (having been dragged there to face charges for writing an allegedly obscene short story), and I appeared wearing editor Vinod Mehta’s glasses, which were only half the strength of mine. I looked so owlish and helpless that the judge must have felt sorry for me, for the case eventually took a turn in my favour.
“But I love railway platforms. I spent a great deal of time on them when I was a boy, waiting for connecting trains to Kalka or Saharanpur or Barrackpore or Rajkot. The odd incident stayed in my memory and when, in my late teens I started writing short stories, those memories became stories such as ‘The Night Train at Deoli,’ ‘The Woman on Platform 8,’ ‘The Tunnel,’ and ‘The Eyes Have It.’ And when I wasn’t sitting on platform benches watching the world and his wife go by, I was browsing at those station bookstalls which were such an institution forty to fifty years ago.
“Over a hundred years ago, the Railway booksellers were among the pioneers of publishing in India.
“Take A.H. Wheeler & Co. In the 1880s they started the Indian Railway Library, which saw the first publication of Kipling’s early story collections – Plain Tales from the Hills, Wee Willie Winkie, Under the Deodars, Soldiers Three – all stories he had written while working for The Pioneer of Allahabad or The Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore. And what Wheelers was to the north, Higginbothams was to the south. [I’ll say something about Higginbothams myself in a post soon.]
“Kipling was fascinated by the Indian railways, and his in-depth study of the railway headquarters and colony at Jamalpur (E.I. Railway) in City of Dreadful Night is a tour-de-force of early investigative journalism. It was considered to be rather too long for inclusion here. The railways are ever-present in his fiction, and although some might cavil at ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ being included in a collection of train stories, that opening scene at Marwar Junction sets the tone and impetus for one of his finest stories. His description of a railway journey in Kim is just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the century:
‘As the 3.25 south-bound roared in, the sleepers sprang to life, and the station filled with clamour and shouting, cries of water and sweetmeat vendors, shouts of policemen, and shrill yells of women gathering up their baskets, their families, and their husbands ….’
“Elsewhere he wrote, ‘Romance brought up the nine-fifteen,’ but it was really commerce that led to that historic occasion in 1853 when India’s first railway train steamed off in an atmosphere of great excitement from Bombay to Thana, a distance of 34 miles. Within ten years the Great Indian Peninsular Railway had opened up the cotton-growing areas of the Deccan plateau. Soon the country was criss-crossed by an extensive network of railway lines, bringing north to south and east to west, enabling the mass of Indian people to discover the length, breadth and diversity of the land for the first time. In pursuing their commercial interests so effectively, the British rulers had created unity out of diversity and sown the seeds of nationhood.
“Mark Twain, in A Tramp Abroad, refers to the ‘perennially ravishing show of Indian railway stations.’ There are more than 7,000 of them today, and every one has its own unique atmosphere. The teeming and varied life of the station and its environs has fascinated writers from Jules Verne in the 1870s to Khushwant Singh, Satyajit Ray and other modern writers in more recent times. Here are stories covering almost every period of railway history: chosen not because they are history (which would be to go for dullness) but because they are good stories or entertaining diversions. Jim Corbett’s ‘Loyalty’ tells you something about the man himself, his early days with the railways, and his abiding love for India. ‘The Luck of John Fernandez,’ taken from a 1932 issue of the Indian State Railways Magazine, gives us glimpses into the life of an engine-driver, as does ‘The Bold Prentice’. Unusual encounters on train journeys are to be found in ‘Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment’ by Satyajit Ray, ‘A Stranded Railroad Car’ by Intizar Husain and the contribution of Manoj Das. Intizar Husain is an Urdu writer living in Pakistan, but as his fine story is set in undivided India it sits well in this collection. Manoj Das received a Sahitya Akademi award for his Oriya writing but he is now equally well-known to English language readers. Bill Aitken makes the grade from Janta class back-pack to the Palace on Wheels. Bill and I were both born in May 1934, in the Year of the Dog, but while Bill became a travelling railway dog, I became a platform dog, although we are both quite good at guard duty. R.K. Laxman, the celebrated cartoonist, gives us a glimpse of his talents as a fiction writer. And the extract from A Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh’s famous novel of the partition of India, tells a powerful and tragic story built around a train journey carrying refugees from the communal holocaust. Manojit Mitra’s charming story is about a film star who fails to turn up.
“The stories in this collection have been divided into two sections – Stories Before Independence and Stories After Independence. This has been done for the convenience of the observant reader who would be alive to the changing styles, and attitudes of writers from the two periods.
* * *
“I started out by saying that nature and the railways had little or no meeting ground. But occasionally there is an exception. As a schoolboy I went to stay with a friend of Uncle Fred’s, a station-master at Kalka, where the mountain railway to Simla commences. He had his bungalow on a bare hillside about a mile from the station.
“The station-master fancied himself a shikari and always carried his gun around, giving me colourful accounts of his exploits in the jungles. There was no jungle near Kalka, and the only wild animal I saw was a jackal. My host felt he ought to shoot something, if only to demonstrate his skill, and aiming at a crow perched on the compound wall, let off both barrels of his gun and despatched the poor crow half way to the Solan Breweries on the next range.
“Minutes later we were being attacked by all the crows in Kalka. About a hundred of them appeared as if from nowhere, and, amidst a deafening cawing, swooped down on us, wings beating furiously. My host’s sola-topee was sent flying as he dived for cover. I protected my head with a book I was carrying and ran indoors. We shut ourselves up in the dining-room, while crows gathered at the skylights and windows, pecking on the glass panes. The crows did not give up their siege until late evening when an assistant station-master, accompanied by a fireman, a trolley-driver and several porters came to our rescue. The Night Mail to Delhi was delayed by over an hour, and my host had a nervous breakdown and went on sick leave for a week. As for me, I grew up to have a healthy respect for all crows. They are true survivors and will probably be around long after the human species has disappeared.
* * *
“I cannot take leave of the reader without recounting the story of Aunt Mabel and her Persian cat.
“Aunt Mabel took her cat wherever she went – to tea parties, bridge parties, hotels, shops and other people’s houses, much to everyone’s dismay and irritation, for not everyone is a cat-lover, and the Persian variety is inclined to leave a lot of fluff lying around, apart from making forays into kitchens and helping themselves to the fish course. The cat also accompanied Aunt Mabel on long train journeys, but my aunt had an aversion to buying tickets for her pet. She would smuggle the cat into the toilet of her compartment and keep it there whenever we were approaching a station. On one of these journeys, at a whistle-stop somewhere between Bareilly and Lucknow, the cat made her exit from the train via the toilet seat, and was never seen by us again. When we got to Lucknow, Aunt Mabel sent telegrams and wireless messages to all the station masters on the line, but to no avail. The cat had vanished, much to everyone’s relief. Aunt Mabel was inconsolable and swore she’d never keep another cat. We told her that this was the right attitude to take. Later we heard that a linesman at Hardoi was the proud owner of a strange-looking cat, and that he fed it on the luddoos that were famous in that region.”
Two other posts about Indian writers in English: