Ruskin Bond according to the publisher’s jacket cover is “one of India’s greatest writers.” Born in 1934, he has written “over 100 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry,” and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2014. I confess to reading none of the hundred books and I felt it better to begin with this autobiography, with an open mind, following the advice of the greatest literary critic of all time, Charles Saint-Beuve, who wrote “you judge the tree by its fruits.”
“No life is more, or less, important than another…It is the story of a small man,” writes Bond appealingly, though he is undoubtedly a considerable Indian celebrity. He has the remarkable ability to recall accurate memories from a very early age, and remembers details even form the age of five, and the names of his preparatory school teachers.
It is hard to deny he seems to have been disagreeable if not obnoxious as a child. Obviously spoilt by a doting father, he was self-obsessed. Studying in two boarding schools in hill stations in India from the age of six till class X, he had a confrontational attitude to teachers, and gives them little merit for his education. Only Mr Jones, a Welshman with literary tastes, is credited with some influence on Bond wishing to be a writer.
His devoted father died of hepatitis at age of 46 when Bond was 10, but he and Bond’s mother, who was Anglo-Indian and was what would then be called “flighty”, had separated before that. In fact Bond suspects there might not have been a marriage at all, and he was born out of wedlock. His mother subsequently married an Indian Hindu, always described for some reason as “Mr H”. Apart from the father, Bond is severe on all his other relatives. “I made no effort to be close to them, or to my brothers”. He had one brother and one sister, and two half-brothers and one half-sister.
Bond’s account of English and Anglo-Indians who stayed on in India in near-penury is the most interesting and poignant part of the book, though not central to the narrative. Bond had a lonely childhood, a broken home and boarding schools he did not like. Sent to a maternal aunt, he was in England from age 17 to 21, first in Jersey and then London. This was a period of “four years of dreary office work” and loneliness and homesickness for India, but also his highly-rated first book, an autobiographical story published by Andre Deutsch, before Bond was 23.
The author returned to India which to him was “a land of acceptance”; the “intimacy of human contact” was what he missed in England. “I wanted the freedom of being my very own person.” He is attracted by loners without prospects; a village boy sleeping with a flute by his side, on another occasion by “a boy huddled in a recess, a think shawl wrapped around his shoulders.”
From age 25 to 29 he stayed in Delhi. At 29, he moved to Mussoorie, welcoming the solitude, the surrounding nature, and leisure. By page 200 and over 2/3rds of the way through the book, Bond is still only 25. At page 243 and thirty pages form the end, he is only 30. The narrative therefore is heavily tilted towards his early years, and ends at page 258 because the rest of the book is episodic. He provides no context of the Indian societal/political scene for his life and work, and except for fleeting mentions of Partition, Gandhi’s assassination and the Emergency; other events seem to have had no impact on his life.
He achieved financial security only in the late 1990s, when he was in his 60s. He does not use a computer or cell phone but says nothing about his methodology or technique for writing. He describes himself as celibate but not as virginal. He now makes his home at Landour above Mussoorie with the descendants, to whom the book is dedicated, of his one-time cook.
He is at times self-deprecating but with the ring of truth — “Some people get by on their charm and their wits. Not having much of either..” and goes on to say that “bachelors and kittens are suitable objects for compassion.” He himself, however, displays no sign of compassion whatever even for his handicapped sister “neither child nor adult” whose mind “would remain that of a five-year-old,” who was unable to see or walk properly and died at the age of 78 apparently without any support from the celebrated author. Both half-brothers died in traffic accidents. There are no generous words of gratitude for those who helped him in his days of struggle — not even for people who lent him money or his first editor, the remarkable Diana Athill. Nor is there any praise for any contemporary writer, and he must have known many of them personally.
Bond’s few efforts at humour fall flat and the book lacks an index. Perhaps an admirer of his books would be pre-disposed to affection for the author’s autobiography and sympathy for his early struggles. But for a newcomer to Bond’s work , the author seems to take satisfaction, or at least lack of remorse, in his failings and especially his callousness.
The closer the family relationship with Bond, it would appear, the greater his alienation, always excepting his father. Does reading this book draw the reader to the author’s many works? Not