My dreams are improving in lockdown, says Ruskin Bond
Ruskin Bond, one of the most loved writers of our times, speaks about his life during Covid-19, recalls his trip to the UAE and gives out his plans about new books
Ruskin Bond, one of the most loved writers of our times, is a sweet ol’ grandpa. Or so you think. Don’t be taken in by that gentle smile or the cherubic face. When you get to know him, Bond can be very mischievous. And I have fallen for his pranks again and again. Like the time he had almost convinced me that he’d witnessed a murder in Kolkata in the dead of night. Or when I had visited him in his home in the hills on a stormy night and confessed to being scared of ghosts — after which he proceeded to narrate all kinds of spooky tales, the winds howling through the pines outside.
Bond lives in Landour, Mussoorie, with his adopted grandson Rakesh and Rakesh’s wife Bina. This May 19, he turned 87 years young. When I dialled him a couple of days later to ask him if he would like to do this interview, he immediately perked up. “I must tell you, years ago, I wrote quite regularly for Khaleej Times. They had a magazine for children and young readers, Young Times. I used to give them a lot of my children’s stories, they would publish them regularly. This was in the ’80s and early ’90s.”
So, he was happy to talk, comfortably settled in his armchair in a living room filled with books, books and more books, apart from photographs of his dear father and his adoptive family. But he warned me he would get hungry soon, because he had had only fruits for lunch. “The last few days I’ve been having only fruit salad for lunch. I’m dieting. I had a banana and mango salad.”
A belated ‘Happy Birthday’ to you. Are you dieting because of all the birthday excesses?
Thank you, thank you. This time, only the family was here, naturally we couldn’t have any guests over. So, it was a nice, quiet birthday, which I enjoyed because, in the past, on my birthday usually the local bookshop gets involved and I end up doing a book signing or releasing a new book. It becomes an event, whereas this was a real birthday where I just stayed home, just like any other day. I did a little reading, a little writing, lots of sleeping, and yes, eating! Of course, I had a birthday cake.
While lockdown means isolation for most, for you it means houseful!
That’s true. In a way, it’s brought us all together. Otherwise, over the last two or three years, they were a bit scattered. So yes, Rakesh, Bina and their three kids (Siddharth, Shristi and Gautam) are all here.
You posted a picture [on social media] of the kids doing yoga. Are you joining them?
Some years back, I got into yoga, but I don’t have the figure for it. I got into a tangle! And I had some difficulty getting out of that tangle (laughs). So, now I do a few simple morning exercises… just swinging my arms around and pretending to kick an imaginary football. I dash around the room kicking this imaginary football… that gives me some exercise.
After your 67th birthday, you had noted in your diary, “Time to pare down to the basics of doing what I have to do and what I want to do.” Has that changed after your 87th birthday?
Now that I come to think of it, I have always done what I wanted to do. I was doing it then and I was doing it before that. In other words, I was living my life the way I wanted to. I was living up in the hills, in a quiet corner, writing full-time, reading as much as I wanted to. I was living the life that I wanted to and I’m still doing that.
Yes, you have been doing your own thing right from when you were a boy. Your mother wanted you to join the army but you became a writer…
Yes, I refused (chuckles). Then I said I want a room of my own, can’t share a room with a brother, two half-brothers and a sister, I need some peace and quiet because I am a writer (laughs)! I was saying this when I was 16 years old. And I got a room of my own. So, sometimes you do have to insist on things.
But in the last 10-odd years, your life has hardly been a paring down… You’ve been jet-setting to literary festivals all over India and beyond…
(Laughs out loud) You’re right. I guess the opposite happened. You see, the times changed too. Twenty years back we didn’t have lit fests and book fairs and book launches and all the things that now go with marketing and publicity. Everything has changed so much. And because I write and I want people to read my books, I’ve had to go along with everybody else. And at times it’s been fun too. I’ve rather enjoyed some of the lit fests and some of the places I’ve been to which I hadn’t been to before.
When I was a boy, I would go to any lengths to avoid speaking at any sort of function… even disappear so as not to attend them. It’s only in recent years that I’ve got involved in lit fests and events, maybe lost my shyness or learnt to talk more. As we get older, maybe we become more talkative.
Last year, there were plans of taking you to London for a lit fest… Once the world is better and you do make that journey, would you consider a stopover in Dubai?
I’ve been to Dubai a couple of times. My publishers, DC Books of Kerala, took me there five or six years back. I went to two schools, I attended a lit fest in Sharjah. They kept me pretty busy… But I did a lot of eating. I remember we went to a place called the Irish Village. There was lovely fish and chips. To be diplomatic, since it’s called the Irish Village, I ordered an Irish drink. The barman poured me one, and I started talking to him about Ireland, but he stopped me and said, “It’s alright Sir, actually I am Scottish.” (Chuckles) So I had to start saying nice things about Scotland. But there’s a limit to how diplomatic one can be (laughs some more).
The last time I saw London was in 1955, when I came back to India. My two years there weren’t very happy. I was very lonely. So, I’ve never felt the urge to go back.… Can’t say I made any friends there. Except my original publisher, who worked with [publishing house] Andre Deutsch, her name was Diana Athill, a very nice lady. But she passed away last year at the age of 101. She’s the only person I would have cared to see again, but she’s now gone.
Born in 1934, you have witnessed World War II, the Partition of India, other wars, natural disasters… what is different about this pandemic?
As you say, I’ve had a long life and I’ve gone through a lot of changes, but, yes, this is different. Most unusual. It’s in a way a natural calamity but a different one from the usual cyclone or something that is so obvious. It’s invisible. It’s not something that you can see, therefore, it’s not something you can understand. There’s something almost supernatural about it, you might say. It’s an invisible enemy, something that is not answerable to anyone. It’s, in a way, maybe Nature in revolt, you might say.
It’s also been very isolating….
That’s right. I am fortunate in a way, because I have always worked from home. Every writer does. But all the same, it’s nice to get out sometimes.
But you’ve been writing every day. What have you been writing of late?
Well, I’m not too strict about it. I might miss the odd day. It’s like keeping a journal or a diary… I might jot down two or three pages. Some of it might get used sometime in a story or a book or a memoir... but it’s good to keep a record of one’s own life. I’ve had a couple of books published this year in spite of the lockdown. Of course, you can only get them online because, unfortunately, all bookshops are closed. But I keep writing.
I’ve already got two or three more books ready for publication. One is a children’s novella called The Enchanted Cottage. It’s a spooky tale, but a lyrical one… part-Nature, part-supernatural, set in the hills. Then I’ve got some stories, called Tales From My Heart. There’s a story about an owl. A friendly owl. It’s a grumpy owl, but friendly, if you can imagine that. It’s partly an owl and partly one of my schoolmasters when I was a boy. He can’t read it, poor chap, he’s gone long ago.
Then, a short memoir about my boyhood. It’ll come out in winter. Then, what I jot down every morning. That’ll come out as The Bedside Bond. Is that a nice title? It’ll be a bit humourous, a bit reflective… something of everything.
You’d once written that ‘a sense of humour will get you through the worst of times’….
Yes, definitely. What’s happening is not funny, of course. But we must try to, in our personal lives, enjoy ourselves and be philosophical and humorous about the world at large. This virus is dominating our lives, but still, something funny can happen. Like the other day I opened my bathroom door and there was this monkey sitting on the potty. Can you imagine that!
Monkeys, too, are having a hard time because there’s not much food around. So, this fellow had come in from the bathroom window, probably looking for food... he had just found himself a comfortable place to sit. Now, it is a comfortable place (laughs). So, I have to keep that window closed. I need my toilet to myself… I am not going to share it with monkeys! I draw the line at monkeys. I don’t mind the squirrel, it peeps in through the window, but it’s a very well-behaved squirrel, it does not hang around too long. Even in the animal kingdom, there are polite creatures and impolite creatures (laughs).
The last time we chatted, you said you wanted to fall in love one more time… has that happened?
One thing that’s happened during this lockdown period is that I sleep more and I dream more. I have some very vivid dreams… and some wonderful affairs… too good to be true. I know I can’t hope for such wonderful love affairs as the ones I am experiencing in my dreams. So, there you are… something nice is happening in lockdown, my dreams are improving.
Despite being such a romantic at heart, which comes through in your writing, you never married. Looking back, do you think you would change that if you could?
It’s not that I didn’t want to: at least twice I came very close to it. I wanted to marry this girl in London, Vu Phuong. But that all fell apart. When I came back to India, being so impractical, I wanted to marry someone [in a situation] where there would have been obstacles in the way. Family obstacles on the girl’s side, you know… not on my side, there was no one to stop me. But no one to help me either. In India it’s usually the family that arranges a marriage, there was no one to speak up for me. And I never made much money till I was well into my 60s, so I wasn’t a great catch, to tell you the truth.
But it all worked out in the end. You have a lovely family now….
Oh yes. That’s right. In the end, a family grew up around me [In the 1970s, Bond became default father to a young boy — Prem, Rakesh’s father]. They’ve looked after me so beautifully, and I’ve done my best for them too. So, it has worked out well. I ended up with a large family without getting married, as simple as that. And maybe it’s all for the best. You know, I grew up as a small boy in a broken home, my parents separated when I was about eight. Maybe that also contributed to me holding back when I could have been more daring and gone ahead with marriage.
The other curious thing that happened in your life is that you never really set out to write for children. And yet here you are, the most read, most beloved children’s writer…
I am happy, delighted, to be known as a children’s writer. Even when I was young and writing for the general reader, I wrote a lot about childhood. I was good at writing about children, or about my own childhood. So, when I did come to write stories specifically for children and young readers, I didn’t have to change my style very much. Just that you had to write in a different way. Children are not going to put up with five pages of description or two chapters leading up to the actual story, they’ll throw the book away! You’ve got to get into the story straightaway, you’ve got to get them interested, they’ve got to identify with you either as the narrator or the main character in the book. So, there are many things you learn along the way. And I’m still learning… that’s for sure.
Youngsters are always asking you for writing advice.…
Yes, I wrote a little book on this, it was published about six months back, called How To Be A Writer. It’s humorous, but it also gives some practical advice. Because there are a lot of young people who want to write and are writing. Older people too, but it’s amazing the number of young people who tell me about their writing or send me their stories and poems. Far more writers out there than when I was a boy.
I wonder if there are as many readers today as there are writers!
(Laughs) Maybe there are more writers than readers! Yes, not all of them are readers. But it’s essential. I think you can’t be a good writer unless you’ve been a good reader. I think most well-known and good writers would have been good readers when they were young and continued to be good readers throughout their lives. Read well, write well — I always say.
So, what’s our favourite writer been reading?
I have been reading a lot, even discovering new books and writers. There’s a writer called Robert Harris who’s written some very good books… they’re suspense stories or mysteries. But he gives them a historical setting. Like there’s one which is all about the conspiracies and machinations that go into electing a new Pope, it’s called Conclave. Then, I just finished one called An Officer And A Spy, which is about the Dreyfus case in France, a century or more ago, which involved Zola [Émile Zola, the French novelist-journalist]. I’ve read about six of Harris’s books now, they’re very gripping. Then I’ve been rediscovering old writers who wrote on supernatural themes, like MR James. Wordsworth Editions has brought out a whole series of them. And I read the newspaper in the morning.
Thank you, Mr Bond, I shall not keep you from your evening snack any more!
It’s been my pleasure. I will see you soon, I hope. And yes, I will go have my sandwich now. But that only means I’ll not be hungry at dinnertime. Everything’s topsy-turvy (laughs).
(Samhita Chakraborty is a communications professional based in Kolkata, India. She tweets at @samhita26)
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