Ruskin Bond’s latest memoir takes readers on a nostalgic trip to the Doon of his adolescent years
By Reya Mehrotra
In his latest book, A Song of India, an 86-year-old Ruskin Bond peers out the windows of his top-floor room in the hills of Landour, reminiscing about his 16-year-old self: “Sixteen! What a wonderful age to be. It comes only once in a lifetime… Treasure it, remember it, hold it close to your bosom. I’m glad I remember it so well, and that I can bring it to life again…” he writes.
And bring it to life he does in the memoir, pulling out tales from his bag of stories and taking readers on a nostalgic ride to the Doon of his adolescent years. A Song of India, which has been beautifully illustrated by Mihir Joglekar, describes Bond’s “last year in Dehra, of love, friendship, writing, teaching, learning, playing games, hoping, dreaming and just being sixteen!” For the author, Doon (which he calls his “paradise”) is “the land where I had grown up and couldn’t get out of my system”.
Seven decades would make for a blurred past, but not for Bond who pens down the memoir from the mind of a 16-year-old. “I do have a good visual memory for people and places, especially childhood and boyhood days, and that helps me in my writing. Maybe writers do have a good memory for childhood. I can think of many writers who wrote vividly about childhood, but not about their grown-up days because they did not want to reveal too much. At times, I might remember some things differently from what others do, but that’s okay,” he tells us on phone.
This was the time when his parents were thinking of serious career choices for him, but the young Ruskin dreamt of visiting the land of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, of having tea with the King of England, of becoming a famous author. He would stroll alone along the hilly paths, sometimes observing, sometimes thinking, most times daydreaming of going to England. No wonder, he was the “road inspector” of his time. The solitude, however, is something that the writer still loves. “Solitude helps me think… to sort of withdraw yourself from the hurly-burly of things around you, see things in perspective. I don’t say that one should be looking for solitude all the time. In fact, with my adopted family, I am not often alone, but sometimes it’s good to be alone. After all, writing is a lonely profession. When you sit down to write, you are doing it alone and not performing, like an artist,” he says.
From celebrating his first big paycheck of Rs 50 to having a life today that feels like a party, he tells us what has changed. “I still celebrate, but I am usually quite happy to sit at home and just read or write or enjoy some music. Rather my adopted family, friends and even the local bookshop arrange a party with every success. So now, whether I want it or not, I am in the middle of a party. But there were times when I was in my 20s and 30s, living alone abroad and no one even knew it was my birthday,” Bond shares.
So how is writing a memoir different from writing a novel? For starters, he says, one has to be factual. “One can use facts to write fiction, but that’s not the case with memoirs. It would be human nature to gloss over a few things, but one must try not to do that and, anyway, I am sure if a writer does make a mark, 50-60 years down the line, someone else is going to come and dig up what you had tried to cover up,” he says.
It is perhaps true that memoirs are more than just recollections of personal history, as they also serve as windows into the years gone by. Bond, on his part, labels the 1950s the “Bicycle Age in India” when the middle-class thrived. “Motorcycles were rare and the scooter was yet to be invented. Only the rich could afford cars,” he writes, remembering tongas that populated the roads in the mid-20th century in India.
Bond’s narrative style and colloquial approach to the language appeal to all age groups, especially when the epicurean talks about food. He labels India a ‘great country for fruit’ and recognises months by way of what grows on trees during that time. He also yearns for the stuffed paranthas and achaar that his teenage crush Rajeshwari would feed him. Like a hero, he pledges to become famous and marry her. One wonders, though, if the people he writes about recognise themselves in his work? “All the friends I write about would either be long gone or be my age or have lost touch. It is only occasionally that someone says, ‘Oh, you wrote about me’. But nobody has objected to my putting them in the memoirs or stories. In fact, friends often complain why I didn’t include them. I don’t show the unpleasant aspect to any character. Of course, if it’s a love affair with a girl that I am writing about, I would change the name, as I wouldn’t want to embarrass anybody. But in this little book, there are real people and real names,” he reveals.
A Song of India is the fourth in the series of memoirs that capture the journey to his destiny (the first came after his 2017 autobiography Lone Fox Dancing). The fifth and final in the series—which will talk about his years in London, becoming a published writer, his first novel and coming back to India—will come out some time next year. So what prompted him to record his life in books? “I guess, when one gets older, one likes to look back on life and that’s quite a lot to write about. I want to capture parts of life and give them a little permanency for myself, if not for the reader, but at the same time, I also want to write fiction. Right now, I am in the middle of a pure fictional work about a girl who turns into a leopard at night. So that’s not a memoir. I have never known a girl who turned into a leopard!” he laughs. “Sometimes I am writing two stories at a time. If I get bored with one, I do the other. That process of learning should continue with every writer.”
At the ripe old age of 86, one would traditionally expect someone to be leading a retired life, but Bond says writing does not come with a retirement age. “I don’t think writers should retire and they normally don’t. Maybe sometimes, they run out of steam or get writer’s block or dry up… otherwise I am sure they would like to continue writing till the end of their days. I have been writing for 70 years now and stories have accumulated into books. For most of the time, I have made a living from my writing. I have taken odd jobs, but only occasionally. From the early days when my book sales were very limited and small to today when they are pretty good, it has been a long, but a good journey, and I hope to write a few more books in whatever time is left for me,” he signs off.