by Deepika Srivastava
Ruskin Bond is an author whose career spans five decades, whose stories have captivated children and adults alike. Marked by lucidity and perceptual clarity, his stories celebrate the travels and travails of the common man; the protagonist is the common man. A Gathering of Friends and Upon an Old Wall Dreaming (both by Aleph, India, 2016) contain a set of carefully chosen stories that sum up the different phases of his entire career. For a first-time reader, it’s the best introduction to the highly acclaimed author, and for a seasoned one, it’s the best recipe for nostalgia.
Geographically displaced, the Anglo-Indian author found refuge in the Garhwal hills of Uttrakhand. These hills form the setting in most of his stories. The familiarity of the other settings used — like the railway station, Delhi, the villages — engage the reader on an emotional level, allowing him to establish a deeper relationship with the prose; the familiarity of the setting creates a familiarity of experience. This is one of the prime reasons as to why his stories hold up so well today. They deal with broken hearts, being alone, living in penury, about strangers who turn out be angels, the flowers which blossom — experiences that almost everyone goes through in their lifetime — encouraging the reader to relish the joy in these little things, because happiness can be found in them too.
A Gathering of Friends opens with “Rusty Plays Holi” from his first book, The Room on the Roof. While most fiction thrives on plot, here it is the character who leaves an imprint. In “The Blue Umbrella”, one instantly falls for the girl Binya when she leaves the umbrella for the greedy shopkeeper without his knowledge. In “The Night Train at Deoli”, one’s heart is filled with sympathy for the author, and while reading “The Woman on Platform 8”, one wishes to go back in time and meet such an angelic stranger, Sushila the girl of his dreams, who reminds us of our lost love.
“Love is a Sad Song”, written in the second person is more like a love letter for Sushila. The author had said in an interview that it had played out in a similar fashion in real life too. The use of second person makes it feel like it is addressed to the reader; well, “love has been a sad song” for many. A mention of her again in “Time Stops at Shamli” makes the reader’s heart pound. “Gracie” encompasses two phases of the narrator’s life and is one of the stories that talks about the lifestyle of the British lifestyle while they were in India.
“Most Beautiful” and “Angry River” are inspiring reads and evoke a sense of optimism; they encourage one to find beauty in the worst, to find hope even in the bleakest situations; Suresh’s struggle to find peace with his destitute self and Sita’s struggle to cope with the floods reminds the reader of his own struggles. Some like “The Tunnel”, “The Cherry Tree” and “Dinner with Foster” celebrate the beauty of one-to-one, deep bonds while some like “An Evening at the Savoy with H.H”, “Friends of My Youth”, and “Hasan, the Baker” celebrate the commonalities of certain relationships that one encounters and forms in a lifetime. “Susanna’s Seven husbands” (on which the Bollywood film, Saat Khoon Maaf is based) is a dark comedy, a genre that Bond is not known for. With a touch of humour, mystery and horror, it is bound to amaze the reader.
“Remember this Day” can make the reader teary-eyed. The nostalgia, the despair, the shock of the author comes through as he talks about the day he met his father for the last time, and his advice to him, “Ruskin, remember this Day”; a day which had seemed like another regular meeting with his dad became the last day, the most memorable one, a fact that he realized later.
The tale which stands out is “Eyes Have It”; the surprise ending chokes the reader.
A Gathering of Friends is indeed a reunion of friends — some forgotten, some distant, some recent, but none lost.
Upon an Old Wall Dreaming is a collection of fiction and non-fiction containing some pieces that are being published for the first time; here it is the non-fiction that overpowers. The title of the book comes from one of his essays, “Upon an Old Wall Dreaming”, which brings to the forefront the habit, the hobby for which every writer, or for that matter every creative being is reprimanded — the habit of just staring blankly at a wall, sitting and navel gazing. It can make the non-writer understand the feelings of his writer friend. Essays like “And Suddenly It’s Summer” and “Stories to Tell” come across as random musings — musings that can satiate one at a time when nothing else can. “Life at my Own Pace” and “A Good Philosophy” are his reflections about life. His reflections are simple thoughts that most people delve into in their alone time.
“Green Trees of Garhwal”, “A Night Walk Home”, “A Fright in the Night”, “Birdsong in the Hills” and “Once upon a Mountain Time”, are narrations and observations of nature that we blissfully choose to ignore in this mundane, city life. They serve as subtle, sharp reminders of a world that lies beyond our threshold, a world whose responsibility we can never shoulder.
The fiction here begins with “Bus Stop, Pipalnagar”, which talks about the author’s friendship with Suraj, an epileptic boy with a never-say-die spirit, and his struggle to make a living. The ending is not a surprise, but one that makes the reader twinge; s/he is left hoping for the author and Suraj to stay together in Delhi as well. “The Skull”, “The Thief’s Story”, “The Fight” form a better read than some others like “A Face in the Dark”, “Tiger in the Cemetery”. The story of Mrs. Roberts and her legacy combines solemnity with a touch of humour; the legacy that she leaves behind is sure to make anyone chuckle.
His stories revoke a lost time; the simple prose layered with complex, deep messages are applicable even today, and would be applicable in the future as well. They are a celebration of friendship, the most beautiful bond because it does not come with the burden of legacy — we form it on our own. The stories are lullabies, they are smooth, loving fingers that wipe away the tears of a lonely person, that cosset him, though for just a moment. These are stories that can be read time and again to rejuvenate, between hectic meetings, at a coffee shop waiting for a friend, or in bed; these are stories of which at least one part will get engraved on your heart.
Deepika is an interior architecture student in Ahmedabad, with a passion for writing. Very quiet, her unspoken thoughts often find expression through her crafty manipulation of the alphabet. Her entry was shortlisted for the Jaipur Literature Festival and a few of her articles have appeared at Youth Ki Awaaz as well. Follow her at her house of reflections-