Sunday, October 08, 2006

In praise of a gentle chronicler of the hills

For most of us who grew up in India, Ruskin Bond's books were magical. Written in impeccable English, they spoke of the Indian experience when other children's books talked of distant, exotic, realities of the English boarding schools (aka Enid Blyton) or the young pioneers of the revolution - Soviet books about Nikita, Mishka, Timur and other Russian children who were ever so good and concerned about the community!
Of course, it helped that Dehradun was one of the places I spent my childhood along with army cantonments higher up in the mountains. Ruskin's writings literally unfolded around me, in the shadows of the deodars, in the cheeky pranks of the monkeys, the majesty of the hills covered with green and sudden flashes of colour where some wild flowers had taken root. Ruskin wrote my world in a language I was growing to love. More than any other writer, Ruskin taught me that my Indian experience could be clothed - no, embodied - in English. And to this day, I remain grateful to him for that. Of course I never met Ruskin while I was growing up, even though he lived just across the valley. He seemed a creature of myth and legend then, someone far beyond the reach of children and mortals: a real writer who lived high above the clouds, up the hill in Landour.
Then in 2001, soon after my first novel was published, Pramod Kapoor of Roli books organised a festschrift for Ruskin up in Mussourie. It was intended to pay tribute to Ruskin, the gentle chronicler of hill life and beauty, whose stories bring to life all the mystery and grandeur of the Himalayas. The project would take a smattering of writers and journalists up to Mussourie for a weekend retreat replete with food, wine and literary talk. Most importantly, however, the retreat would feature Ruskin, who would meet the writers, sit in on the discussions, take the participants on walks around "his" hills. Afterwards, descending to the plains, the writers would contribute a story for an anthology dedicated to Ruskin.
I heard about the festschrift of course from the Delhi literary grapevine. But I was a fresh new writer, known to very few people in Delhi, and hardly part of the grand Delhi scene. So of course I never expected anything more than to read about the programme ipso facto in the press.
Imagine my surprise - and wild delight - then when I suddenly got a phone call from Roli asking me if I was interested in participating in the weekend retreat organised in Mussourie. Interested? Bloody hell, of course, I was interested! Not for the writers who would be participating, many of whom I had met in Delhi any way. Not for Mussourie, a town I knew from my earliest childhood days. Not even for the tacit recognition of being included amongst the participants when I was the rank outsider in Delhi.
I was interested for Ruskin! A chance to meet the man who had told and retold my childhood!
On the first day at Mussourie's old-fashioned Savoy hotel, Ruskin joined us for lunch. After fortifying myself with a few very big gulps of air, I went up and introduced myself: first as a fan, and then very timidly as someone trying to write. Ruskin twinkled at me, his grin re-assuring and friendly. And he said, "Of course I know your book. I make a point to know writers like you." For the rest of the day, I was on cloud nine, my literary abilities re-affirmed after all by someone whose writings I had read and re-read over so much of my life.
At dinner - having overcome my awe - Ruskin and I shared memories of growing up in those hills around Dehra. Much of my childhood had been spent across the valley, in an army outpost, an area restricted for security reasons since mid-1960's. I told Ruskin about the days as a little girl when I would sit on the verandah and watch the happily twinkling lights of Mussourie far across the Doon valley. He told me about his earliest trips across the valley to "my" hills, and how he had finally managed to return to them in recent years, for a brief visit despite the security restrictions. With that conversation it seemed that we had found common ground: we were two people in love with the same mountains, adoring of the peaks, the harsh winters, the breath-taking altitudes. We had loved the same hills from our earliest days and would continue to cherish them to our last breath.
Back in Delhi, I thought hard about what I wanted to write about. I wanted the story to reflect that common love, so that it could be a true tribute to Ruskin's life-work of bringing the Himalayas alive. Finally, I settled on a story about a little girl who watched the lights of Mussourie, longed for the peace and serenity of the Dehra valley while she grew up in that army outpost where life was far more precarious and dark with unspoken dangers.
And for the first time in my life, I wrote a story with a reader in mind. Actually for only one reader: Ruskin. It didn't matter if anyone read it or published it. As long as Ruskin liked the story, as long as he could smile in recognition at some of it, I would have achieved my aim. The result of my efforts was: Bungalow Number Nine, published in Days of Innocence: Stories for Ruskin Bond, by Roli in 2001.
Ruskin came down to Delhi for the launch of the anthology. And we met as friends, with mutual warmth and affection. He took my siblings and me for dinner afterwards - all three of us were starstruck fans of his work. He regaled us with stories of his "gol-guppa-eating" competitions.
The next day it was our turn to take him out for dinner. At the time, none of the three siblings - Rashmi, Siddharth or me - was particularly flush with cash, and taking Ruskin to dinner seemed height of folly. Where would we go? How would we pay for the food bill when our joint reserves wouldn't manage even a few drinks at Delhi's posh bars.
We debated and discussed all day and finally came up with a daring plan. We picked up Ruskin in our battered old Maruti 800 - the one that couldn't accelerate and provide airconditioning at the same time. And we asked him if he would like to have chaat for dinner, since he obviously loved it so. He was surprised and pleased saying that "no one ever invited him for chaat anymore." I suppose most people felt he was too venerable for such lowly repasts.
So off we went to Bengali market. He caused quite a flutter when we walked in, with a little child exclaiming: "Mamma, mamma, look its Ruskin Bond." There were shy peeks and wide grins but no-one bothered us as we stuffed ourselves full. I guess the sight of Ruskin relishing plates of aloo tikki, gol guppas and bhalla chaat just reconfirmed all his stories for his fans that night.
A funny thing happened that night. Something that none of us realised until a couple of years later. My brother, Siddharth, and Ruskin had long conversations about books, the hills and the bird life in Doon valley. Siddharth - the all the ferocious precocity of a young adult - asked Ruskin if he could be included in a book sometime. And Ruskin promised that he would write something about Siddharth one day!
Imagine our surprise when the next Ruskin book came out - an evocative, mysterious volume of writings on life in the hills. On the back cover, where some key text is highlighted for marketing purposes - was a passage about a boy named Siddharth and a blue bird. Ruskin had been true to his word!
We parted as friends that night. And with a profound recognition of the privilege we had been granted - to know such a wonderful writer and magnificent human being.
I will be posting that story I wrote for Ruskin on the blog. Its one of my favourite stories not because its a great piece of writing, but because it always reminds me of Ruskin, the Dehra, the mountains, my siblings, chaat, in short, all that is good in the world....

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