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Bonding in the hills

Date Published: May 19, 2002Publication: Hindu, TheLink

LANDOUR, I am told, is where Mussoorie's most acclaimed resident lives. I decide to walk up the Mall and to Landour beyond. The shops at the Mall are tempting and, as I mull over a red-bordered black woollen cap, a chic sardarni gives me the exact location to where Ruskin Bond lives. Bobby, who runs a hotel and a prosperous shop, even offers to take me half-way up as she is headed in the same direction. Grateful at having been spared quite a walk, I hop off and proceed to Ivy Cottage. Huff-puff and a lot of trudges and window-shopping later, I knock feebly on a seasoned door. It proclaims in a neat black hand that Ruskin Bond is indeed its resident. I hear the opening of a bolt, and with a book on indoor gardening in hand, Bond himself answers the door. I apologise for my unannounced visit, but he says it's okay and asks me to come the next day as he is just about to step out.

The next morning finds me at Ivy Cottage once again, albeit in a taxi. Mr. Bond is there, all bright and sunny in a sweater as red as the geranium on his windowsill. He answers the door once again. We sit in his little living room, lined with books, books and books on almost all the four walls. There's a collection of essays by Belloc, a Georgette Heyer — not romance but detective, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, Seigfreid Sassoon's The Wield of Youth, Satyajit Ray's Indigo, books on flora... an endless list.

Simple, almost Spartan, just like his works, his living room. He calls himself a disciple of Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify, simplify is my rule." Well-worn cane chairs, pictures of his father and extended family and a poster of his favourite Nelson Eddy atop a shelf. The room in which he has penned most of his works has a splendid view of the Himalayan ranges; Dehra Dun is a haze in the distance. An austere chair and wooden table has some papers, a 1960 Olympia typewriter and a pen. Bond still writes in long hand: "I never really took to the computer. I don't think I can work on it the way I do with a pen in hand. It is like my old schoolboy habit. I write more with the pen."

With as many as 20 Penguin titles from his pen and many more by publishing houses like Rupa, Bond is still a prolific writer. "In toto I don't know how many titles I have published," he says, adding, "unlucky to count." Come May and another title by Penguin, Landour Days will hit the stands. "It will be light and entertaining ... more like a memoir with extracts from my journals, some of which have been expanded."

Another book in the pipeline for Rupa is about children staying in a village. Called Long Walk for Bina, it dwells on how the Tehri Dam has affected the life of the villagers. "I have been there several times, spending time in the villages in both Tehri and Pauri Garhwal. The book is neither anti nor pro-dam, it just portrays a realistic picture." Bina is, of course, a member of his extended family, totalling a cricket team at last count after Bina's sister got married to her husband's brother.

I ask him why he never married. "I was a fickle fellow," his eyes gleam. Then a thoughtful look as he voices his doubts: "I don't think I'd have made a good, steady sort of husband. Whatever success has come to me was quite late when I was in my fifties and sixties." But, the twinkle is back in the eyes as he says: "I still fall in love occasionally. The last was a nurse a couple of years back, and thankfully she married a doctor."

Contemplative again, he feels the trauma of his parents' broken marriage. "It must have been in my mind. I was only about seven. I lost my father quite early too and then had to go to my remarried mother. I had to adjust a lot, which I managed to pretty well. Anyway, my brother has more than made up for my single state by marrying thrice. Now he says he can't afford a trip to India as he is paying alimony for the other two."

The family he has adopted and now lives with, began with Prem, who came as a 17-year-old from a village in Garhwal to work for the writer. The family — after Prem got married — has continued to grow. "It has been 30 years of family life for a chronic bachelor."

Midway through our conversation that has now lasted an hour or so beyond the promised half an hour, a breathless father-daughter knock themselves into the room. The little girl is more than excited to meet the man who has spun many a wonderful tale for her. "I have read this and I have this," she says excitedly pointing to some Bond covers on his bookshelf. The charge of the fan brigade gets particularly thick during the tourist season, says Bond.

"I am normally quite happy to say hello. People don't bother me too much. But as people get to Mussoorie, the summer comes in," he smiles his sweet crooked smile. "So once in a while I tell Dolly (Bina's daughter) to answer the door and say I am in Delhi."

"There was this little boy with his mom," chuckles the bespectacled writer, "who said he had read all my books. I asked him which one did you like and he replied Huckleberry Finn. When he extended the paper-pen for my autograph, I signed Mark Twain! He was quite happy with it." Another girl was happy to walk away with a signature that said Enid Blyton, for she too had exclaimed her pleasure at reading his books on the Famous Five or some such tale.

Unassuming, did I say? Little wonder then that he hardly ever attends those huge dos for writers and authors. "I wouldn't feel safe locked up with a bunch of temperamental writers in a room. All that's not for me. Writers should be read, not seen," he says softly. Writing for this wizard of words is never cathartic. "I enjoy it. I am often asked what I do when hit by writer's block. My answer is: keep a wastepaper basket nearby."

Quiz him on what he thinks has been his best piece of work and he says, "When I am working on a story or book and if I am enjoying it, then that's the best."

However, having said so, he does reveal a "soft spot" for his first novel The Room on the Roof, written when he was just 17. "It has stayed in print all along, without it ever being a bestseller. Then there are some stories, that I thought would be forgotten, but they continue to live on. I have far more readers, both young and old now, in spite of all the rival attractions."