The clock at the newly constructed Tower in the place of the old one at Landour Bazaar, Mussoorie, chimed five times, indicating the onset of dusk as we, my daughter and I, entered the famed Ivy Cottage, the abode of Ruskin Bond, after almost seven years since my last visit.
The access to Ivy Cottage is not uninhibited anymore. You now have to, after mounting 21 or 22 steps, go through an iron gate, complete with a doorbell on the right, and a small plaque carrying the writer’s name on the left. The gate remains locked from inside to prevent not just jackals and wild dogs but also casual visitors — who are more insistent than the stray leopards — from entering Bond’s retreat unannounced.
When the bell rings, it’s not Ruskin, unlike in the past, who responds. The caller is first checked by his family members, mostly Rakesh or Beena, before the visitor could see Ruskin Bond in person.
“Where have you been so long”, Bond asked me, before I could settle down. “I was thinking of doing a story when you called me up the other day. Somebody phoned after five or six years and I thought it had been a long time. He would come and see me tomorrow. And then tomorrow comes right now. Then the bell rings. I get up, go up to the door. There’s nobody there. I come back. There comes another knock on the door. I get up, open it. Nobody there again. Like Walter de La Mare stuff. He comes and becomes invisible! I just made it up!” I asked Souromi, my daughter, to take random notes as the conversation was being recorded in my Android.
But often Ruskin, with his great sense of humour, had both of us in splits, and, as a consequence, she missed the boat frequently, laughing as she did to her heart’s content.
When our conversation came to an end after one and a half hours, he called Rakesh, son of Prem with whom he first took occupation of Ivy Cottage, “Baba, please give us some water, tea and juice.
Mr Banerjee makes me talk too much!” When we were leaving, I casually told Bond how the eight or nine hours of continuous journey from New Delhi to Mussoorie took its toll resulting in a splitting headache, he stopped me on my track, went to his study cum bedroom and handed me two tablets, one to be taken immediately, and the other before going to bed.
“I sometimes play the role of a doc, you know,” he said chuckling a bit. Believe me, my headache beat a retreat that evening and has not come back since. He then escorted us out to the Iron Gate. As Rakesh opened it, Bond sensed someone’s presence on the other side “Is somebody out there? Or am I seeing my own reflection”, he said.
The person turned out to be his driver. We bowed and rode off into the sunset. Bond is recipient of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Sahitya Academy Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Lifetime Achievement Award and Popular Choice Award among others. Excerpts from the interview:
You are the most famous writer in India at present. You are often mobbed by your countless readers whenever you attend any lit-fest or book fair. Any funny incident you recall?
Well, it got out of hand in Delhi, a couple of years back at the World Book Fair. They hadn’t made proper arrangements and there was this rather small tent where I was launching or releasing a book of mine, Looking for the Rainbow. A vast member of people got in, both kids and others, and the proceedings ran into a chaos. Then they took me to a little cubicle to do the signing and it was just a wooden partition with frail sort of plywood and there was such a crowd outside and people suddenly started fighting with each other. Amongst them there was a good amount of hair pulling. Two ladies were pulling each other’s hair; fortunately they didn’t get to my hair which has already thinned down quite a bit! Then they started collapsing though the cubicle.
Things again went out of hand. There were finally some security people who rescued me because I only had two girls with me from the publisher. We were then taken away to some distant corner. But I could not sign the books for all those people out there.
Such craving all over the land to hold your hand, does it sustain you as a writer?
The other day I was sitting on the parapet wall down the road when a person came on his scooter and said, “Mr Bond I could recognise you from behind.” I said, “Thank you, it’s better to be recognised from behind than not to be recognised at all!”
Think about the years I didn’t get any recognition. After 60-70 years of writing, it comes my way a bit. So at times you feel well. It sort of balances out.
You are invited to attend lit-fests across the country and possibly beyond. Does it not make demands on your precious time and intrude into your privacy?
Well, I keep them to a minimum. Because otherwise they would, as you say, take up too much time. So I am very selective. I am quite mercenary about it! Either I like the people very much or they have to make it attractive for me and not all of them do. So I say “sorry” to a lot of people. Kolkata is good to us. I am happy in Kolkata and Victoria Memorial is a nice setting.
Last time, we were stationed at a Park Street Cemetery with ghosts in the evening. Unfortunately I could not conjure up any ghosts! But there was a big crowd there. Last two years I have not only been to Kolkata, we went to Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Bhubaneswar. Which is interesting is that I enjoyed being to Ranchi, and Jamshedpur is very well looked after.
Do you still keep a punishing schedule, rising very early in the morning and getting at your writing desk?
No, no, not at all! I have never kept a punishing schedule. I have always been a very lazy person. But I usually do most of my writing in the morning before breakfast. After breakfast I get drowsy and take a pre-lunch nap. After lunch I usually do some more writing or reading or letters and then I get drowsy again and I take a post-lunch nap just to recover from the previous nap and then I might do some more reading or writing before the afternoon nap, and wake up may be around 4-4:30 pm.
Today I wanted to linger a little while longer, but then suddenly remembered, “Yes Mr Banerjee is coming to see me today and I better get up!”
I remember you went on record saying that the Nobel Committee didn’t do justice awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan,the musician …
That comment didn’t make me popular in Assam. I was in Guwahati at that time. Everybody there plays the guitar. So, they didn’t like it. I didn’t say he shouldn’t have got the Nobel Prize. I just had a different opinion. They might have given it to him for music, but not for literature. Later it transpired that even his acceptance speech was plagiarised and later on it started coming out that some of his lyrics too were not genuine …
Late Vinod Mehta, then illustrious editor of Outlook magazine, wrote in his memoir how crossing a busy intersection or going up or down an escalator always put you in a tizzy. Is that true?
I am very careful in crossing the street. When I lived in Delhi, I would wait for two stout ladies to come around and get between them. When they cross the street, I cross too. I felt then quite protected! In Delhi there are lots of stout ladies; in Calcutta, they’re all slim! I won’t get into a lift alone. I am very scared of it.
Again I wait for somebody else to get in. Whichever floor they go to, I go too. When they come down, I too come down till somebody is going to my floor.
When I was a small boy, I was terrified of haircuts, you know why. I was scared of these scissors and tweezers. It doesn’t scare me anymore …
Just when our train was passing through the tunnels in Haridwar, my daughter asked me if it was here where the story Tiger in the Tunnel was situated …
No, while writing Tiger in the Tunnel, I was thinking about the tunnels going up from Kalka to Shimla. Well, I wrote two stories, one about a leopard in the tunnel and the tunnel where the Khalasi saves the leopard. That was on the Kalka Shimla railway. Tiger in the Tunnel could be anywhere actually, any forest in Madhya Pradesh.
In your railway short stories we find rather obscure, little wayside cute stations like Deoli, Shamli et al. Are they all real or fictional?
Well, if you look at the map of India, there are five Deolis all over but, mine is a fictional one. I had found a little station between Haridwar and Dehradun, called Kansrao, which is right in the midst of the forest. You would have passed Kansrao about may be 10 in the morning. Some trains stop there very briefly to change the line or to wait for another one to pass, otherwise they don’t stop there normally. One train, however, does stop there and picks up passengers. The station has just two rooms and the station master. He used to stay there because trains pass at night too and lot of wild animals come including elephants and I went and met him once, the station master, a couple of years back.
The Muslim gentleman was the lone man running that station; he had often to try to frighten elephants off the line because the elephants come on the line sometimes. There have been incidents and there is quite a lot of wildlife there. I have been there two to three times. I don’t know if the station master is still there. There is a Shamli but it’s not the same Shamli as I wrote. The real Shamli is a big, crowded city now beyond Saharanpur. Most people don’t know about these little stations because fast trains don’t stop everywhere while the passenger trains do. Yes, I used to mix up stations.
Your books are now coming out in a steady stream. Is there any due out in May, the month of your birth?
Yes, there will be a third in the short series of childhood memoirs, Coming Round the Mountain: In the Year of Independence, the first two being, Looking for the Rainbow: My Years with Daddy and Till the Clouds Rolled By: Beginning Again. I did it for Puffin. That will be released on my birthday. It’s done for younger readers.