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Literary Review

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Literary goal-keeper

Vijay Nair in conversation with Ruskin Bond finds his responses as delightful as the stories he tells.

‘Dickens for sure. David Copperfield grows up to be a writer. I read it when I was a child and wanted to be a writer when I grew up.'

Photo:S. Subramanium

Living it up:Ruskin Bond.

He is a childhood hero. I must have been eleven when I read Room on the Roof. An older friend had it as a prescribed text in school. It was the first book I was allowed to read that had a passionate kiss between a boy in his teens and an older woman. Bond's first novel turned into a guilty pleasure that I revisited many times in that pre-adolescent year. That was almost four decades ago and even in those early years, the prize winning novel had been in circulation for nearly two decades.

Ruskin Bond is the most enduring literary icon of India. He has been writing for over 60 years now, delighting one generation of avid readers after another with a repertoire that comprises novels and novellas, short stories and poems, memoirs and ghost stories. He has straddled different and divergent forms and genres, writing for adults and children with equal ease and felicity and has been an inspiration for countless aspiring writers. But despite all the awards and laurels that have come his way including the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Padmashree Award, Bond remains elusive, preferring the privacy of his cottage where he lives with his adopted family to the media glare of high profile launches and literary festivals.

It is an arduous task to get him to agree to an interview, but once I have him pinned down, his responses are as delightful as the stories he tells, suffused with gentle charm and humour. He is rather matter of fact about his writing. I only detect a trace of immodesty when he is telling me what a good goal-keeper he was when he played football in school. The interview turns out to be more of a free-wheeling chat.

Despite all the acknowledgements that have come your way in your 60 years of writing, do you feel somewhat short-changed by the Indian literary establishment? We don't come across news reports of you inaugurating or being a part of high profile literary festivals.

Not at all. I have not made any effort to be a part of such events. I have always kept out of the mainstream. There are writers who enjoy all that. I don't. It's as simple as that.

You have always earned a living through your writing. Do you think your unique circumstances compelled you to write prolifically and did not give you the luxury to focus on say a novel, to which you could have dedicated a year or two?

May be. It's true that I have always had the pressure to earn through my writing. Apart from a couple of years when as a young man I lived in England and worked in dreary offices, I have always paid my bills by writing. Later I was an editor in The Illustrated Weekly and The Imprint for a couple of years but those were jobs at my own terms. I worked out of Mussoorie. Perhaps, like you say if I had been wealthier, I could have taken a year or two to write a novel. But I have always preferred the shorter forms. Even my novels are more of novellas. So I am not all that sure my writing would have spanned out differently.

I recently went back to The Room on the Roof, and its sequel Vagrants in the Valley. On one hand they play out like adventure stories. But this time, I was also conscious of the underlying sadness and poignancy in the stories. Both the books have a strong autobiographical element, don't they? Are the characters in the books based on real people?

Yes. They started off as diaries and journals that I later fictionalised. And yes, most of the characters are based on real people. It's meeting real people that give you your stories.

Are you in touch with the real-life counterparts of Kishen and Somi, Devinder and Sudheer?

Yes. Some of them. With others, I have lost touch. It's been so many years now. Kishen grew up and did rather well in life. He died in a drowning accident 10-12 years ago. I was also in touch with Somi. Then in the book Mina dies, but in real life it was Kapoor who died. Mina is still alive.

Are you still in love with her?

Yes. I will always be a little in love with her. She must be 90 now.

You negotiate different forms and genres with ease. Which is your favourite?

The shorter form. I like writing short stories.

For adults or for children?

For myself.

I also came across this pictorial biography that credits you and Ganesh Saili as the writers in char dukan.

Penguin brought out an autobiography of mine Scenes from a Writer's Life. This one is pretty much the same thing. It includes some pictures.

I wasn't aware your autobiography is out. books just slip quietly into bookstores without much fuss.

You seem to hold your identity of a goal-keeper with a lot of pride. Can we extend the metaphor to your literary life as well?

I was a pretty good goal-keeper when I used to play football. You can certainly extend it to my personal life and since that's all about writing...

In your biography, I was particularly moved by an account of the school headmaster misplacing the letters your father sent you when you were in a boarding school and when you go to ask him for them after your father's death, he can't remember taking those letters from you. Your life appears to be full of emotional and material deprivations, but do you think these very deprivations has been the wealth you have mined for your stories.

Yes. Very much so. Not just me but many of the writers I admire like Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham have had similar lives with deprivations and all that has flowed into their writing.

You have been a role model for so many of us. Who are your role models?

Dickens for sure. David Copperfield grows up to be a writer. I read it when I was a child and wanted to be a writer when I grew up. He runs away and I also ran away a couple of times in my childhood. Somerset Maugham was another favourite. And then all the P.G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves series. I have been criticised occasionally for writing mostly in the first person. I think that style has come from all these early classics I read that were written in the first person.

What about Indian writers?

I like some of the earlier writers. I like R.K. Narayan. Some of the works of Mulk Raj Anand. There is another writer who is not so popular today — G.V. Desani. Attia Hosain is another writer I admire.

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain is one of my favourites too. What about contemporary Indian writers?

Of late, I read a lot of detective fiction. They have a lot of insights into human nature. There is a British writer Peter Robinson whose novels I enjoy a lot. I picked up a collection of his works from the local bookstore. You should read his books.

What can we look forward to from you in the coming year?

Penguin has put together a collection of my short stories. Some of them are long enough to qualify as novellas. It's called Secrets and I have gone back to writing about failures with these stories. Most of the characters are outcasts. The collection should be out sometime next year.

We also read a lot about your cinematic collaborations with Vishal Bharadwaj of late. There has been an earlier adaptation by Shyam Benegal's “Junoon” based on A Flight of Pigeons. Were you happy with that?

The acting was very good. My only problem with the film and I shared this with Shyam Benegal, they made the setting more affluent, upper class. My story had working class characters. They were changed to some kind of elite.

What has been the experience while collaborating with Vishal Bhardwaj in “The Blue Umbrella” and “Saat Khoon Maaf”?

There wasn't much of collaboration with Vishal Bhardwaj for “The Blue Umbrella.” He took a story of mine and turned it into a lyrical film. There has been a greater collaboration while working on “Saat Khoon Maaf.” We have worked together in expanding the story Sussana's Seven Husbands into the screenplay. He has also made me do a role in the film.

Are you playing one of the seven husbands Priyanka Chopra bumps off in the film?

No, no. I am not one of the husbands. I survive. I am a survivor. I have survived 60 years of freelance writing.

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