There is a room on the roof.
(Well, sort of.)
Somewhere in the mountains above Mussoorie, where the clouds come knocking at window panes, is a house that you could easily miss. To its left stands a restaurant, with a wall of painted murals, and signposts that tell you the distance, whimsically, to Ulaanbaatar (and the nearest tea shop). Along the narrow meandering road that hugs the mountainside, local cars and motorcycles either go hurtling downwards, in that mildly manic manner they adopt on such roads, or push ponderously upwards.
In that house, with its steep steps of red tiles and white walls, has lived a man who has—for the past five decades—immortalised pockets of the real world, wrapped in warm and fuzzy layers of fiction; worlds that have enchanted the imaginations of generations of readers, who could never quite tell where the facts ended and where the imagination took over.
And so, on a misty morning in August, a bunch of excited children (see box ‘Read aloud, meet Ruskin Bond’), and their equally (if not more) excited parents, crowded into a room crammed with bookshelves, to meet the man who has shaped the imagined worlds of their childhoods.
They are there to meet Ruskin Bond.
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As he settles down, like a good old raconteur, in his armchair, Bond, 82, begins to recall the various elements in his life that have shaped, and found shape in, his writing.
Born to Aubrey Bond and Edith Clarke in 1934, Bond’s childhood was not always as idyllic as his stories. His parents separated when he was four, and he lived with his father, who was in the Royal Air Force, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, and Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. Life with his father was good, although he would be left alone for long stretches. It was his father, in fact, who was the first real person (as opposed to fictional, as would be the case later) who inspired him to write. “My father would come home and ask me to write ‘How was your day?’,” Bond remembers.
But life with his father was shortlived. He passed away in 1944 and Bond, at the age of 10, went to live with his mother and step-father, and was sent to a boarding school in Shimla. It was at this stage in the young boy’s life that reading (not yet writing) became an escape from reality; as did the movies.
“After my father died, I came to stay with my mother and step-father. And when I came home from boarding school, I took to reading and watching films,” remembers Bond. But books were not plentiful in the Dehradun of the 1940s. So he got his hands on the books that were in his grandmother’s house, in second-hand book shops, and at the lending library that cost Rs 2 a month. A lot of the films that came to town were also based on the books of authors like Daphne Du Maurier and Somerset Maugham, he recalls.
The inspiration for writing was never far away, and, at this stage, it came from within the pages of books. Like David Copperfield. “David grows up to be a writer,” says Bond. “He also ran away from home.” Which inspired Bond to run away as well. “But I didn’t take enough money with me. And so I came home the next day, feeling hungry. ‘What’s for lunch, mummy?’ I asked when I got back,” he laughs. “My mother never wanted me be to a writer, and would have preferred me to join the army… I would have been like Beetle Bailey if I had joined the army!”
Writing did, eventually, become a form of escape when he was older, and sent to live with his aunt in the Channel Islands, in the UK. “When I was living in the Channel Islands, writing became important, and it was a way to keep alive my relationships from my last year in India. And although it was a lot about nostalgia, by then I also knew that I wanted to get my writing published.”
And thus was born, The Room on the Roof.
Recreating the life that he had left behind in India was the beginning of the recreation of a much-loved world—part real, part imagined—that has lived on in the minds of generations of readers. Many of the characters he brought to life—Uncle Ken, Rusty, the Four Feathers—have their origins in reality. “As boys, we were a group of four friends, and we called ourselves the Four Feathers,” he says. “We thought we were very brave.” However, it was a while later that he learnt of a film called The Four Feathers [based on a 1902 novel of the same name by AEW Mason, the film was released in 1939], where the feathers were symbolic of cowardice.
“I often wrote about real people,” he says. Uncle Ken, for instance. An endearing character, Uncle Ken has appeared in many of Bond’s writings, frequently arriving in grandmother’s house and bumbling his way into unending episodes of hilarity and mirth. “We’ve all got an uncle or aunt tucked away who is a little eccentric. So when you write a funny story you can get them in.” Moreover, he believes, children like to read about adults who are not very bright, and not too good with math. But, he adds, the people he has written about rarely recognise themselves in his stories. “They usually think, ‘That can’t be me!’, when they read about themselves. People usually see themselves differently from how others see them.”
“But I would not do something that [Somerset] Maugham did… write scandalous stuff about friends and close acquaintances,” he says. “He made a lot of enemies that way.” Reading about the lives of well-known writers—“biographies that deeply probe into their lives”—is something that Bond enjoys himself; Maugham’s biography is a favourite. “But I would not want every detail of my life to be published,” he says, talking about the ongoing work on the story of his life, which is set to be published in the form of a comic book. “I am clearly no superhero!” But, he admits, “I have been lucky to make a living doing what I like doing best.”
The characters from his stories that have never really existed in real life are ghosts. “I have never seen a ghost,” he says, conclusively, when asked if his old town has its share of supernatural residents. And given his absolutely fearless disposition towards darkness—going for walks at any hour of the night has never been unnatural for him—he should know. So, unlike his other autobiographical characters, none in Ghost Trouble (1989) is actually inspired by the real. “I think children like feeling a little scared, but a safe kind of scared,” he says. The message in Ghost Trouble, he adds, is more about the fact that you can’t run away from your troubles; they tend to follow you if you take to your heels. (There are more ghost tales in his latest book, Whispers in the Dark. “But it’s not too upsetting,” he adds.)
But what he has, perhaps, immortalised the most through his writings are Landour, Mussoorie, and Dehradun, where he has lived for 50 years of his life. “Well, you have to live somewhere,” he says, when asked why he picked the mountains, “and this is not a bad place.” But it was also not the first place he chose to live in: On returning from England in 1953 after living in the Channel Islands for two years, Bond had briefly taken up a job in Delhi. “I gave it up because I wanted to live in the hills, and yet not be too far from Delhi, where I would have to go knocking on the doors of publishers to get my royalty,” he says.
Echoing his early struggles with getting published is a yellowing newspaper cutout of the Peanuts comic strip pasted on the wooden door to his room: Snoopy, the beagle, and the untiring author of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, receives a letter from a publisher stating they are willing to publish his book. “First printing will be one copy,” the letter says, adding “if we sell it, we’ll print another.”
For Bond, however, it was many years till his writing was picked up by publishers of books. Newspaper columns are where he first found his space. “I became more of a short story writer because of the amount of space available in newspapers. Sometimes I would have to write four or five stories a month to earn enough money,” he remembers, speaking of his contributions to publications such as The Illustrated Weekly, The Statesman, Sainik Samachar and film magazines in Bombay (now Mumbai). It was not until the 1980s and ’90s that English publishing came to India. “And then they had this huge backlog of writing to work with, all the columns and stories I had written over the years,” he says. Bond’s first book The Room on the Roof was published in India in 1956, and is his highest selling title.
That Bond’s books are incredibly popular among children is obvious from the clutch of excited kids in his living room. But his universal appeal is evident in the fact that the parents accompanying the children are as eager to meet the author they have loved since their own childhood.
But, Bond says, he never really wrote with children in mind. “Publishers,” he says, “are the ones who started slotting books into various categories. I simply wrote about my surroundings, and created a world out of them—I am a very subjective writer in that sense. I wrote for enjoyment, and about things that people may not be particularly interested in. I have never really written a bestseller!”
The key to writing, he says, is a genuine interest in people and your surroundings. “I once spent a long time watching a snail cross a road,” he says. “There were a lot of cars, and even trucks speeding up and down the road. But the snail did manage to get across!” The result was his poem titled ‘The Snail’. Similarly The Blue Umbrella (1980) was borne out of his walks along the mountains. “I would set down the road, and near Tehri Dam, I would stop by a village,” he remembers. “There I saw a girl who was looking very proud of her new umbrella!” Life, he adds, can never be boring, unless you make it boring.
Another trick to writing is to, simply, keep writing. “Write as much as you can,” he says. “Jot things down—else you might forget them—and work them into stories later. Write down your dreams as well; I have written stories based on dreams.”
After all these decades of putting pen to paper—and he still does put pen to paper, “typing gave me a stiff neck”—he feels his writing has changed a little. “Recently, I picked up a copy of my first novel, and wondered, ‘Why are there so many semicolons?’” His style of writing may not have changed, but the prism through which he views the world is not as rosy as it used to be. “I am not so romantic any longer,” he says. “I am not cynical now, but I am not so easily bowled over either.” As he seemed to be in The Night Train at Deoli (1988). “People still ask me about that girl in that story.”
Bond also admits he has become lazy of late; he does not write as much as he used to. On his desk, in his room, are piles of manuscripts, books, and papers. At one end of the long room is his bed. His home, up that steep flight of red-tiled steps, is crammed with books to the rafters (quite literally, as each step of a wooden ladder going up to the roof is stacked high with them). “I get up in the morning and write a bit,” he says. “That’s the best time to get things on paper.” His to-do list of writing includes more detective stories. “Later in the year, there’s Death Under the Deodars coming out,” he says. “It’s a detective story, with an old lady. But not quite like Miss Marple.”
He rues not getting out as much as he used to, or going out for his walks. But all he needs to do to let the world in, and his imagination loose, is look over the lush mountainside, cloaked in clouds, by opening the windows.
The windows of the room on the roof.
(The writer travelled to Landour on the invitation of Landmark)
(This story appears in the 28 October, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)