by Samantha Kokkat
Nestled in an apartment in the hills of Mussoorie, India’s most beloved children’s book author has been religiously stringing together words and sending them readers’ way for around seven decades now.
Ruskin Bond published his first novel, The Room on the Roof, in 1956 when he was a 17-year-old. The novel fetched him the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. He went on to garner praise and prestigious Indian awards such as the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, and the Sahitya Akademi Award for his commendable work in the field of literature. Throughout this period, he kept writing. Today, he has written over 500 short stories, essays and novellas, and more than 40 books for children. He has written a fair amount of everything, from newspaper columns to book reviews, simply because he enjoys putting words to paper.
Born to English parents in the Himalayan hills in 1934, Ruskin started writing at a time when he was one among a handful of people in the landscape of Indian writing in English for young people. While a few writers like R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand wrote in English for a general audience, they had to look for publishers abroad. Ruskin’s first novel was published after herculean efforts, at a time when everyone was only reading academic books, or books from abroad. It only sold a few hundred copies initially, but is now prescribed reading in many schools and is sold in 1000s even after 60 years.
Ruskin went to England briefly when he was a teenager. He returned within 4 years—in India, he said, you never run out of themes and stories. There is never a dull moment, and every fifty to hundred miles you encounter something new. He found that life didn’t greatly vary in England, as opposed to the tremendous variety of languages, ethnicities, customs and lifestyles that one witnesses in India.
Born in pre-independent India, Ruskin Bond has lived through the pain and the joy of events that the nation collectively experienced. He was a young boy when India gained independence and was partitioned into two. Many boys from his school had to leave overnight—friendships were broken and education suffered. His personal life was not idyllic either— he had to adjust to his stepfather’s Punjabi home and come to terms with his father’s death a year after his parents’ separation. But a lot of his stories, seeped in nostalgia, are rarely anything short of ebullient.
As he set out to write, he wrote about his own difficult childhood, and about other children’s lives. In fact, his first novel narrates the story of Rusty, an orphaned 17-year-old boy living in Dehradun. These books were initially written for a general audience. When he started writing books aimed for the young reader at 40 years of age, he went back to his own boyhood and to the lives of the boys and girls he had known. Nostalgia seeps in as he reminisces, and he admitted, “Even unhappy times get a rosy glow when you look back at them.”
Trains and railway stations are images through which nostalgia regularly manifests in his books. Many of his stories such as The Night Train at Deoli, The Eyes Have It, and The Woman on Platform 8 are set in trains or railway stations and reflect his fascination with the atmosphere pervading there. He recalled buying platform tickets to just sit and watch people for an hour or two. He went to where the stories were. All his writing, he said, comes from his own experiences and the lives of the people he has met. He likes to sit at his desk and write about what is happening outside. He looks at his writing as a record of what he has seen in his life. Hence, he didn’t believe he would be any good at writing fantasy stories, and recalled writing a work of detective fiction with little success—since everyone who read it told him they figured out who the culprit was in the first chapter itself!
Ruskin even dabbles in horror, but was once told by a 10-year-old to make his books more frightening! Most of his ghost stories emanated from dreams. To him, horror fiction provides a space for safe fear and entertainment. Like the atmosphere of trains drew him, it was the atmosphere in horror stories written by M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood which he read as a child that he wanted to recreate when he decided to write his own horror stories.
Ruskin says that he is only a writer because he is a reader, and still thinks of himself as a reader first. The young boy who snuck into his school library to escape sports found reprieve and escape in books. He lived vicariously through them and hoped his stories, that allowed Indian children to see their lives reflected in books, would provide a reprieve for children living in difficult circumstances.
His stories put Indian lives on the literary map. India’s natural world is another aspect that has come through in Ruskin’s writing. His love of nature and keen observation of it is one among the fine examples of nature writing in the country. As he grew older, nature started to play a bigger role in his life. Nature has now become inseparable from his personal life, with his recent works featuring animals and trees more than his earlier books.
In his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, published in 2017, he writes:
“As I walked home last night,
I saw a lone fox dancing
In the bright moonlight.
I stood and watched; then
Took the low road, knowing
The night was his by right.
Sometimes when words ring true,
I’m like a lone fox dancing
In the morning dew.”
Ruskin is also a practitioner of the personal essay in the style of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. The form is no longer popular these days, but Ruskin is unperturbed. While his essays have not done as well as his short stories and novels, he thinks of himself as an essayist by nature, and said, “We must write what gives us pleasure, if our writing gives us pleasure that’s the important thing.”
Ruskin Bond has given India stories of childhood and innocence, and adolescence and solitude from a time when Indians had access to few homegrown stories rooted in their culture. His stories, notable for their imagery, continue to provide nostalgia and warmth. They have given today’s children a pool of shared memory to explore and discover, lest we forget where we came from.
He is still driven by the joy of putting words together to make a beautiful sentence. The charm of creating an atmosphere and recording moments remains magical even after six decades of practicing the craft. Ruskin is continuing to explore too—he feels life gets more ridiculous as one starts growing older, and he is trying to put some of this absurdity to words through nonsense verse and limericks!
Ruskin’s adoptive family has grown up around him for nearly 50 years. The people whom he cares about gives him the incentive to write. The writer in the hills was never a recluse, and he feels if he hadn’t known the people he knew, he would have nothing to write about.
Samantha Kokkat is the Reading Community Manager at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and helps organize the Neev Literature Festival. Prior to this, she was part of an initiative which aimed to create a community of 1 billion young readers in India. She has written a children’s book published by MsMoochie Books, and holds a Master’s degree in English Studies.
September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult.
- Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.
- Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School. She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.