There is a popular quote (falsely attributed to Buddha) doing rounds on WhatsApp circuit for a while: “In the end only three things matter, how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you”.
People may have a contrary take on this philosophical stance. However, Ruskin Bond seems to be a living epitome of this impossible ideal.
Reading his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, one couldn’t help but wonder about this man, who has regaled generations of readers and their children with his absorbing stories of the hills, pangs of adolescence, lives of the ordinary and not so ordinary people and their ghosts in the hills.
This is the story of a man who was born in British India, to an English father and an Anglo-Indian mother, but made the newly-independent India his home. A man whose first and most enduring love of his life remained his father and with whom he lived his best, very short years in an army tent near Nizamuddin in Delhi. A man who could witness, from the very early days of his childhood, the withering away of his parents’ marriage while he watched the stars sitting outside his home. A child who was lugged around like many other uncomfortable belongings which his family couldn’t decide what to do with, especially after his father’s untimely death due to repeated bouts of malaria.
He got sent to boarding schools in Dehradun and Simla, made some amazing friends and memories, discovered his love for literature and a flair for writing. He then decided to try his luck as a full-time writer even as his mother was building a new life with another partner. A man, who constantly remained in search of a home, never giving up that longing despite the fact that people whom he called his home gave up on him very often.
He persisted in his gentlest manner, just like his prose, in the end winning them all, creating a family, the members of which have grown so large that he could never have imagined it to be.
And while doing all this, he almost became a hermit, living a life of solitude in the hills of Dehra and Mussoorie, away even from the local population. In the Prologue Bond writes, “I had a lonely childhood growing up in a broken home and a boarding school in the hills. Later, companions came into my life and went away, often never to return. Or it was I who left them behind and moved on.” A little later, he goes on to say, “Hope, love and pig-headedness. Without these, I would not have survived into my eighties and remained in working order”.
So, this is not the story of a writer in search of his creativity, different milestones, or how he evolved as a writer for adults and then later for adolescents and children. He himself admits that that may be a separate book, for some other day. This is more like an intimate story of his loves and losses, and his undying optimism amidst all this.
Yet, in many ways, those who have had the fortune of reading his stories, very often thinly veiled memoirs, will obviously see how many of his characters appear in these, whether his very first Room on the Roof or later ones like Susana’s Seven Husbands. At places, he mentions some of these characters and how he got inspired to write particular stories e.g. Flight of Pigeons.
But the point of a writer’s autobiography is not simply to re-read his/her characters through an intimate memoir. That would be a lazy thing to do.
To come back to the central narrative of this tale, it can be divided broadly into two halves of Bond’s life (though I wonder if it was by design). The first half consists of his short stays, right from the days of his infancy, where he was born in Jamnagar, then a princely state; and then to Delhi, when his father joined the Royal Air Force; then to Dehradun, where he stayed with his mother at grandmother’s place; then back to Delhi, with father after his parents’ marriage fell apart; then to hostels in Mussoorie and Simla, where eventually, he faced the news of his father’s death that he never came to terms with; then back to Dehra, to stay as a semi-independent member of his mother’s new family and her new husband.
His decision to undertake a writer’s pilgrimage to England followed (a short, struggling stint despite his first major love and its quick loss and his conversations with Diana Athill, the publisher of his first book, The Room on the Roof, where you do get a glimpse of the way this book evolved even though it was published after he had returned to India) his return to Dehradun and then to Delhi. It was where his mother was trying to resettle her family with his two younger siblings and a new husband, while he worked for CARE, an American Charity. Here you get the first glimpse of the evolving social sector in India. You also see a glimpse of expanding Delhi through his walks, and his forays into his another short-lived love.
This rapid fire journey of different places, different struggles, has a common thread running through it: the search for a lost home. After which he chose wilderness.
And then you have the second half of this journey, almost frozen in time, primarily divided between two houses in and around Mussoorie. He eventually comes to terms with his solitude, not in resignation, but with a determined step to focus on his writing, while living in an isolated cottage off Mussoorie with very few neighbours or visitors, and later to Dehra with his adopted family members which continues to grow till date.
He writes almost wistfully, “One way to get over a failed affair is to get married. Another, is to trek into beautiful, deserted places”. This is the phase when his journey becomes almost metaphorical. Here you are running all over, desperately seeking friends, family, companions, losing them again and again — and, then, one day you decide to sit almost in a trance with sheer determination and then your family becomes so large that your solitude looks just one side of the same coin. Then random visitors barge in any time of the day even when you are in your towel, half-shaven to get a photograph clicked with you, he recalled in a brief Landour diary in the Outlook a few years ago.
As he writes himself, “As a boy, loneliness. As a man, solitude. The loneliness was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found”. This is also the phase which gave him strength to make peace with his mother even as she lay dying of cancer, laying out his barely hidden sorrow of being abandoned and getting to understand his mother’s viewpoint.
But his decision to be a full-time writer after leaving the well-paying job at CARE (barring one short stint with Imprint in between) had to be managed with some meticulous planning and work. While he had begun to contribute to weekly and monthly magazines for a while, it was at this moment that you also get a glimpse of what goes into the hard determination to be a writer where he made an extended list of all the English magazines, both in India and outside, carefully rating them at their paying potential and pursuing the same with a doggedness that gave him enough to survive in a cottage where he had only an old British woman as his neighbour.
Mussoorie has been home to some of the British people who chose to stay after the Raj bid its farewell, including the famous Alter brothers as well as Bill Aitken (about whom Bond has some interesting anecdotes to share, rather more on his lover, a Maharani). Through his eyes, you see an entire generation of such people who simply couldn’t call Britain their home even as others kept leaving. His life is an ode to all of those people. You almost wonder at times, how can one remain so dogged in claiming India as a home, when racially, legacy-wise you are branded as a foreigner. He mentions this too, almost in passing through an anecdote, in his signature gentle style. In the words of another such character who chose to retire to Mussoorie, “I don’t mind being dead, Ruskin. But I shall miss, being alive”.
By Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Price: INR 599