A Slice of Life

Ruskin Bond’s books show that the art of happiness lies in the capacity of looking anew at the old and the familiar.

New Delhi | Published:September 29, 2013 5:15 am

Ruskin Bond’s books show that the art of happiness lies in the capacity of looking anew at the old and the familiar.

The United Nations finally announced a Happiness Day; philosophers are grappling with the oldest questions about who may be the final arbiter of our individual happiness levels; positive psychologists are propagating their young discipline with exercises on how to make ourselves fit for happiness,how to learn it; and travelogue has a new genre chasing down geographic zones of happiness. What use then of a novelist’s opening remarks (Carol Shields in Unless)? “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head: it takes all your cunning just to hang on to it,and once it’s smashed you have to move on to a different sort of life.”

Or maybe,happiness is simply the examined life,the life of careful focus on the little things too,amid appraisals of momentous events and moral dilemmas,of finding the capacity to look anew each day at the very familiar. This is a good time to find answers to questions about happiness — and its twin,contentment — in the writings of Ruskin Bond. Because,with the monsoons leaving northern India,it may not be too self-indulgently fanciful to believe that there is a particular quality to reading during the last rains of the season,providing a narrow window during the changing seasons to discern unusual sentiments between the lines. The light is different,everything sounds just that bit different,somewhat muffled,and even in these times of endless distractions,suddenly there is no greater indulgence than to curl up with a book. Who knows what it is in the air that marks out this season for returning to familiar books,and for finding new narratives oddly familiar in a way we would not at any other time.

What better time than this,then,to pick up an old favourite,Bond’s Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas. Having made his home in Mussoorie for decades,and having lived by his writing,Bond has made this Garhwal hill station familiar to readers through an amazing body of work,both fiction and memoirs. In this,in mapping a place in our imaginations,he shares a similarity with that other great writer,RK Narayan. But the process is inverted. While we scan Narayan’s Malgudi stories to obtain a map in which to locate the goings-on,we take a map of an actual place to Bond’s stories — fiction and non-fiction — to have it increasingly detailed. And if there is any one book that captures the essence of Bond’s work — a difficult task,given how prolific he is and how versatile — it is this one. Its portraits,for one,are a reminder that Mussoorie’s eccentrics and the inherently cosmopolitan eccentricity of life in its neighbourhood — in the crumbling hillside villas and busy roadside teashops — so vividly captured in his latest,and strikingly dark,novel (Maharani,2012) are not that removed from reality.

Rain in the Mountains is best read to the sound of falling rain. For this is how he gets down to introducing this collection of entries from a diary in the 1970s and scattered articles: “All night the rain has been drumming on the corrugated tin roof. There has been no storm,no thunder,just the steady swish of a tropical downpour. It helps me to lie awake; at the same time,it doesn’t keep me from sleeping. It is a good sound to read by — the rain outside,the quiet within…”

In these recollections of life in the ’70s,the community that forms around Bond — and one that he becomes a part of,difficult to say which dynamic is stronger — is made up of individuals who know their minds. Sir E,once the British resident in the Kathiawar states; Prem,the cook who teaches his wife the alphabet with the kitchen door as blackboard; the lonely peanut seller near the Clocktower; Miss Bun,not her real name,the baker’s daughter,who gets the better of him; Devilal,an independent candidate in local elections determinedly carting voters like Bond to the polling station in Barlowganj,lest they get lost on the way; Vinod,the local good-looking ne’er-do-ell keen to get by with just enough work to fund evenings at the pictures,who accepts Devilal’s hospitality but votes for another. They,in Bond’s telling,are of their place.

As were the breweries that once made Mussoorie famous. It so happens that in 1876 a local brew earned extraordinary praise: “The source was traced to Vat 42 in Whymper’s Crown Brewery [in Barlowganj,and the beer was retasted and retested until the diminishing level of the barrel revealed the perfectly brewed remains of a soldier who had been reported missing some months previously.” Did it cause a storm in this town of scandal? Bond,as always loath to be judgmental,suggests not.

Certainly not,when the lived everyday lives are there for observation and examination. Want to learn the art of happiness this way? Follow Bond’s example: set out on foot,take a zigzag path — that is,one that your feet improvise and the rest of you follows — and just look around. Or just reread him.

by Mini Kapoor

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