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A gentle survivor - Deccan Herald
A gentle survivor
Lalitha Subramanian,
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Ruskin Bond
In the prologue to his autobiography, celebrated Indian writer Ruskin Bond informs that "it is the story of a small man and his friends and experiences in small places.”

Unsurprisingly, in these self-aggrandising times, Bond remains the quintessential quiet observer, chuckling, drawing his readers in through six decades, gathering a loyal readership for his gentle, whimsical writing - stories, novellas, articles, poems.

Eighty-three-year-old Ruskin Bond’s life story is a perfect example of an individual’s successful rise beyond limitations and restrictions, a life lived on one’s own terms, a genteel life of quiet economy, modest ambition, and a disposition that was accepting of an adopted country’s mores, in Toto.

Bond was a 'poor white’ remnant of British India, one of those India-born-and-bred Britishers who could feel at home nowhere but in India. His was a lonely, disturbed childhood, good enough when it started off in Jamnagar, followed by a bumpy ride in Dehra, Mussoorie, Shimla and Delhi, through adolescence and adulthood.

As a hurried product of a quick marriage between an 18-year-old trainee nurse and a 36-year-old bookish teacher of English, young Ruskin learned soon enough that his parents were not really happy together. So he took refuge in whatever worthwhile came his way­ - a loving ayah who told him stories; a father who filled his childhood with all that was good and wise, a companion who let him be, helped him understand music, books, stamps, nature, films, things that mattered, and left him suddenly at age 10, a victim to malaria. The fatherless child was now virtually orphaned, since the mother had remarried; and while she did her duty by her first born, Ruskin now had to learn to pull through boarding school and occasional stays at temporary abodes provided by indifferent relations.

Bond did attempt a stab at living in 'home country’ Britain, from age 17 to 21. But even as he worked at routine jobs in cold, rainy Britain, Bond yearned for warm India, resulting in his first book, The Room on the Roof, published in Britain, courtesy a kind editor at Andre Deutch, Diana Athill. But proper literary eminence and success still lay out of reach for years.

The autobiography, enlivened with photos, is divided into four sections, covering childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and later-life. Selective memory brings people and events to life, provides new details that are already partially visible through his numerous books. Anecdotal, spiced with relevant facts, wit, wisdom and empathy, this is a mega-tale that evokes a sense of time and space, jogs one’s own memories of people, places and events.

Ruskin Bond has lived through profound periods like World War II, India’s independence, the idealistic 50s when young India was united and inclusive… in these cynical, hate-filled times, the concerned reader feels a lump of longing.

Expectedly, the writing is, as ever, wonderfully evocative, delighting the senses: Bond’s earliest memories include 'the rich yellow of Polson’s Butter.’ The ayah of his tender years smelt of Eau de Cologne, 'something called Evening in Paris, distilled in Aligarh, bottled in Bombay.’

Well-known names traipse in and out of Bond’s story. The late Ram Advani, Lucknow’s iconic bookseller, remembered a young Bond being admitted to Shimla’s Bishop Cotton School. Ram had been the bursar of the famed school. Thankfully, Bond spent most of his school years in the congenial surroundings of Bishop Cotton. His early childhood experience of a year-and-a-half at a Mussoorie convent proved traumatic. For instance, any latent love for music was thrashed out of any student daring to get musical notes wrong. And "the nuns at the convent were also determined to save our little souls.” Bond feels that they may have contributed to his becoming an agnostic who preferred trees and mountains to religion.

Two failures in love contributed to Bond’s bachelor status. Money-wise, he managed. Steady payments of Rs 50 per story or article came, courtesy The Illustrated Weekly of India. And for a few years, a well-paid job (with CARE, an American relief organisation) in Delhi, kept the writer in Bond going. Job-related tours through North India helped Bond produce historical fiction like A Flight of Pigeons. And ultimately, it was the CARE connection that enabled 30-year-old Ruskin Bond’s exit from the world of job security to an exciting and uncertain life as a writer, henceforth based in Mussoorie - back among his beloved hills.

In his autobiography, as always, Bond’s language continues to flow gracefully, like the streams around Dehra and Mussoorie. And the buck-toothed lonely boy survives, with a little help from his hill-based-friends-turned-family.Bond writes: "Hope, love and pig-headedness. Without these I would not have survived into my eighties and remained in working order.” Write on, Mr Bond.