Many moons ago, as a 12 yr. old bookworm, I was allowed access to a cupboard full of books in my school. My father was posted in Jowai, a little town in Meghalaya where the marketplace, school, movie hall and police station were at walking distance from each other. If one decided to walk for an hour, one could easily be out of town and on to a highway leading to some village. I was an adolescent, bored and without friends. Apart from nature, the only other things that gave me joy were books. With the nearest bookstore some more than 60 kilometers away in Shillong, that joy came occasionally. So when Sister Rose allowed me access to that cupboard, my joy knew no bounds! Her kind soul must have noticed my hunger for the written word and she decided to go out of her way and allow me this luxury.
Among the old books, mostly donated from schools in the US and UK, I found a copy of The Room on the Roof. Thus began my tryst with Ruskin Bond. To the pre-teen with a troubled childhood the book said-“you are not alone”. I became curious about the author and wanted to peer into his life. I wanted to ask him so many questions. His writing was so comforting. I will not deny that I have had many imaginary conversations with him.
But it wasn’t until many years later that I had access to other books written by him and knowledge of where he lived. In the year 2008, my husband and 11 yr. old son in tow, I went to visit the old man of the hills. When the taxi left us at the base of the 22 steps to his abode, I thought we had come to the wrong house! Surely Ruskin Bond, the celebrated author, did not live here! This was a humble abode, much like mine. We climbed up the stairs and I called out, “Mr Bond”. “Yes?” came the answer!! The rest of the memories come in slow motion. Getting our books signed, a short conversation and a photograph. For me, it was like meeting a long lost relative. I hold on to the memories of that day very fondly.
I went back to Landour twice later, but sadly, he was out of town.
So when his autobiography Lone Fox Dancing was published, I pre booked a copy, and waited impatiently for it to arrive.
Yesterday I dreamed again that I was lost in a large city of blinding lights and traffic. I was feeling quite helpless, until a small boy took my hand and led me to the safety of these mountains that I know so well. I wanted him to stay— I was certain I knew him— but he turned and walked away, whistling, hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, and as I called out to ask his name, I woke up.
The prologue starts with these haunting words and I am unable to put the book down for the night!
The book is divided into four parts but most of it is dedicated to his enchanting, fun filled and yet painful childhood. As an avid Bond reader, I have always known that most of his writing was ‘autobiographical’. But this book brings together all those stories and also helps the reader see fact from fiction.
The first part paints a picture of his early childhood memories of the people and places he grew up with. He talks about his mother’s family and his siblings. (I am curious about his sister, Ellen, who seems to have had Cerebral Palsy).He vividly describes his experiences of his first years of prep school and his friends. He allows the reader to peer into his life, even into the details of his parent’s failed marriage. In my mind’s eye, I can see the images of his Jamnagar house, and almost see the objects he describes and smell the aroma of the food he so enthusiastically talks about. He talks at length about his father, his short and enriching relationship with him and the pain of losing him so early in his life.
My world was my father, and it was when he fell ill and had to be hospitalized that I had my first moments of anxiety.
While his father was around, he dealt with parent’s failed marriage with ease, finding solace in one parent who spent quality time with him. From his narration, the reader is given to believe that he was his father’s favourite child and he spoilt him well. So, when his headmaster, Mr. Murtough broke the news of his father’s death suddenly one day, it came as a huge shock to him.
And, so the bottom had fallen out of my world.
The second part starts with his struggle to deal with his father’s demise. A reader like me can almost step into his shoes and feel his pain.
If everything begins and ends with love – and I believe it does – my world had ended.
Bond emerged from this loss with great difficulty and goes on to narrate his life after that with his mother, siblings and stepfather. We are introduced to the interesting tenant, Mrs Kellner, who he spent a great deal of time with and Dukhi, the gardener. Both of them later became characters in his stories. He writes about his school days in Shimla and holidays in Dehradun and the first experiences of love and infatuation in his young heart, till it is time for his voyage to England at 17. In his first book The Room on the Roof, we see glimpses of his life during this period.
I had come to England with a dream of sorts, and I was to return to India with another kind of dream; but in between there were to be four years of dreary office work, dank and cheerless bed-sitting rooms, shabby lodging houses, cheap snack bars, hospital wards and the struggle to write my first book and find a publisher for it.
These lines sum up the contents in the third part of the book. He talks about his lonely year in Jersey,Channel Islands and two and a half years in London when he missed his friends in India sorely. We are also introduced to interesting (and kind) people like Mr. Bromley, his first publisher and editor Diana Anthill and the love of his life Vu Phuong. Unfortunately, though Vu did love him, it appears that she was unwilling to commit to a young man with an uncertain future and they parted ways. He then makes his way back to India and Dehradun, and tries to begin again as a small time writer for English language magazines. Circumstances compel him to become A Reluctant Delhi-wallah in 1959 and we get to read the descriptions of an old Delhi that has now disappeared under a concrete jungle. This part of the book also has a generous collection of photographs from his early childhood to his present life with his extended family.
Still writing stories, still trying to sell them.
As a boy, loneliness. As a man, solitude.
The loneliness was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found.
In the final part, Bond is finally in the hills he loves so much and we are treated to wonderful descriptions of the natural beauty in and around Mussoorie.
I discover a small stream at the bottom of the hill. An abundance of ferns- dark green and pale- flourish in shady places along its banks, where the grass is moist and speckled with tiny white flowers.
There are several descriptions like these of little nooks in the forests around his home that can almost transport a reader instantly. During my several visits to Mussoorie and Landour, I have tried to imagine where these places could be.
I particularly like the story of his cat Suzie, who he mistakes for a female cat before finally discovering the truth, five months later! Suzie eventually disappeared and a cat lover like me can understand the pain in the lines that inform us of his disappearance and how Bond deals with it.
He falls in love again, in the summer of 1964, when he is nearly thirty and she is sixteen. He lets us peer generously into this love story which ends tragically in Sushila being married off to another man.
He writes a great deal about his mother in this part, and his attempted reconciliation with her before her death in 1969 (strangely, the year of my birth). It is around this time that he meets Prem and his family, who later become his adopted family, with whom he resides till date. He has looked after them and now they look after him.
It is with the help of a member of this adopted family that I manage to get an appointment with him in this October. After he very cleverly manages to brush me off when I call and ask for an appointment, I request her help and call back the next day. I am at Char Dukan, drinking a cup of ginger honey lemon tea, and the voice on the other end tells me to be there in the next thirty minutes! I almost roll down the hill all the way to Ivy Cottage. I meet his grandson at the base of the steps. “He is waiting for you” I am told. My heart is in my mouth! I walk through the front door, and there he is, the grand old man of the hills! He is signing books for a bookshop in Mussoorie. He greets me with a smile and receives my gifts of chocolates and walnut cake. “Just what I need for my figure” he jokes. We talk about me and my life in Shillong. (He has visited for a day in 2016 and I did not know). We talk about my favourite books and his writing. I tell him about my writing and about blogging. He is curious and intrigued. He jokes about the visiting honeymooners who come seeking his blessings (“Perhaps they think I am a Bramhachari,” he says). His favourite food, mutton kofta curry, comes up. He tells me the story of a fan from Dehradun whom he brushed off several times, like he did me. Finally, she turned up at his doorstep with a dabba full of kofta curry and he could not refuse her entry. “Now you know , I am a matlabi”, he laughs. I get goose bumps seeing all the photographs I have seen till date in books, in photo frames on the bookshelves. One has to be extremely lucky to be a Bond fan and have an opportunity like this. I feel blessed. We talk about my failed attempt to visit Gangotri. He says it is wise to not go soon after the rains and tells me about his trip to the same.
I lose track of time, until I realise it is his naptime. As I take my leave, he shakes my hand and tells me he hopes to see me again soon. I request for a photograph with him and he gladly obliges. Beena (his grand daughter in law) takes a photograph. Behind us, on a bookshelf, stands Shubhadarshini Singh’s painting of a Lone Fox Dancing.
I’m afraid science and politics have let us down.
But the cricket still sings on the window-sill.