Have you ever wept while reading a book? Not because you have fallen in love with the hero and he is dead, or because the heroine has cancer and she may not live – but, because the words have touched your soul. Have you sobbed after a book has ended? Have you ever agonized over passages that seem to have been written to break your heart – or to make you break into a wide smile? If yes, dear reader, then I am sure like me you too are a Ruskin Bond lover.
Everyone who knows even a little bit about Indian literature today knows Ruskin Bond. Some know him as Rusty from the TV series of the 90s, some know him as the cherubic children’s writer; yet others see him as the grand old man from the hills who also writes film scripts. There are Fanpages, Instagram accounts, Twitter handles and websites in his name, and chances of missing him or his books are close to nil. But none of this existed when I fell in love with Ruskin Bond, sometime in the 90s, long before it became fashionable to do so.
Back in the day there were hardly any of his books available. There was, of course, no Flipkart or Amazon and bookstores, when you asked for him, would point you to the kids’ section. The intellectuals meanwhile would scorn at you for reading kiddish books. “You’d never get a good vocabulary by reading a children’s author’ they’d say. But I was no child looking for fairy tales; nether did I feel the need for a flowery vocabulary (which still eludes me, by the way), I was a grown woman who could look beyond big words and complicated sentences, at things far more meaningful – the emotions behind his simple prose.
I hadn’t grown up reading Bond. My childhood was peppered with local vernacular comics like Chacha Chaudhry, Chamapak, Nandan, and an occasional Tinkle. I did not read him in my youth either, for that was when I was trying to fit in by reading, or pretending to read, Sidney Sheldons and Mills and Boons. The titillation they promised was reward enough for a 20 year old: who cared for subtle romances? It was only much later as an adult trying to make sense of life that I chanced upon his work in a remote corner of children’s section (there were just about 4-5 of his books as opposed to the dozens we see now). It was also the first time I fell in love with reading. Until then books had only been passing acquaintances, now they became intimate friends. And he became a constant in my life, which he remains until today.
But am I the only who feels so strongly about Ruskin Bond? Most certainly not.
“I first picked up The Night Train at Deoli at the school library and have since been hooked to his work. I can easily say that my love-story with the mountains and my dream of living in the hills was actually set into motion by Bond’s works. His books became my window to the life in the mountains, and even outside of them,” feels Sohini Mishra, a communications professional and an avid Ruskin Bond fan. “His stories make me want to go back to simpler things – living in a small house, travelling in public transport, eating basic food and carrying less material belongings.” She quips.
It is this quality of subtly unraveling the emotions of his readers that makes Bond a master of his craft. Insecurity, dilemma, loss, grief, rejection, longing, failure, pining — things that are hard to understand, let alone put forth, are brought out by his prose with great ease and effortlessness. Something even the greatest writers find hard to achieve. The reason, I reckon, are his real life characters and their mundane stories that reflect our own trivial yet beautiful lives.
In the introduction to one of his masterpiece collections, Friends In Small Places, Bond writes, “Somerset Maugham liked writing about the people he met. So did Maupassant and Chekhov. That is why their stories are never dull. They wrote about real people.” He further says, “I find most people interesting, the dull ones are those whose lives are too orderly or those who are forever boasting of the ease with which they have succeeded in life.” And so, book after book, story after story, Bond gives us characters like Uncle Ken, Aunt Ruby, the Ayah, Bibiji, Somi, Ranji, Daljit, and of course Rusty and Daddy, and mother – real people from real places who could be anywhere. It is not surprising then that all his readers see a little bit of themselves and their lives in his writing.
For the longest time I believed my affinity for Bond’s work had to do with the familiarity of his canvas. I was born in Dehradun, where most of his work is set, and grew up in small towns with dusty lanes, large homes with big families. I had eccentric relatives and crazy friends; I moved a lot and lost them every now and then. Things we see very often in his stories. Much later, only after I myself began writing, did I understand the complexity of this familiarity. It is not his canvas but his words, their simplicity, depth and their meaning that made his stories seem like my own. I could have been anywhere and I would have been touched all the same. In the larger scheme, it is the smaller things matter more.
“Ruskin Bond’s words help me find my own words. His attention to minute details of everyday life encourages me to make time for small pleasures — to observe a wildflower growing in a creek and hear the chirping of a bird. This internal process of appreciating life drives me to live fully,” says Nandita Aron, an entrepreneur, who like Bond, has made the hills her home. “Live close to nature and your spirit will not be easily broken, for you learn something of patience and resilience.” These words, from A Book Of Nature, are her life’s mantra, and an inspiration to live in the hills.
Hills or plains, India or England, small towns or big cities, Bond’s work breaks across all demographics and phases of life. As a child you read his books with wonder and delight – learning, exploring, imagining; as a young adult you see in them the endless possibilities of life – the agony of a broken heart, the ecstasy of finding love. As a grown up you reflect on deep profoundness of his deceptively simple prose, as a middle aged reader you find yourself nodding every now and then sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. And sometimes, amidst all this, you notice a teardrop escape your brimming eyes.