Sometimes, when Ruskin Bond wakes up in the middle of the night in his nearly 200-year-old home, Ivy Cottage, it’s not the stillness of the Landour nights that greets him. Instead, he insists with a twinkle in his eyes, it’s the comforting hum of conversations that lulls him back to sleep. “I hear conversations going on, like a tea party in the next room, except there is no adjoining room in my home and I am alone in mine. They are very old-fashioned, very mundane conversations — some of the things I hear are related to what happened over 100 years ago. I don’t believe in ghosts and I have never met them, but I can’t say I haven’t heard them either. They make for undemanding company,” says the 83-year-old writer with a laugh, when we meet at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel before the launch of his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing (Speaking Tiger, Rs 599).
He might not believe in ghosts, but this world of undemanding camaraderie that one of India’s literary giants has embraced for over five decades is one where each moment is a celebration of time and every emotion is lived out deeply. Watching the sunshine change patterns on the floor can take up the better part of a morning and an evening’s work might involve reading from one’s favourite novels. It’s a world that has nurtured and fortified him, and, in turn, generations of his readers. “I had lived in Delhi for about five years in the late ’50s. It was the new capital, a city in the making, but I found myself getting increasingly restless. When I first moved to the hills, I wanted to be at a place not far from Delhi for practical reasons. I was familiar with Dehradun. I had spent parts of my childhood in these hills. Mussoorie seemed to be just the place to settle down. I have to say that I wasn’t mistaken. I have spent days simply lazing about in my room or going for long walks, even at night. I love the silence and the solitude. It’s hard to come by these days. We’ll all be one big city one day at the rate we are going, but this is still a place where a fragment of the old life lives on,” he says.
Many years ago, after one of his nocturnal strolls, he had written a poem that he had nearly forgotten all about: As I walked home last night/ I saw a lone fox dancing/ In the cold moonlight. I stood and watched. Then / Took the low road, knowing/ The night was his by right./ Sometimes, when words ring true,/ I’m like a lone fox dancing/ In the morning dew. When publisher Ravi Singh and he were pondering over a title for his autobiography, Bond says, the poem popped into his mind. Divided into four sections, Lone Fox Dancing is “the story of a small man, and his friends and experiences in small places,” Bond writes in the Prologue. These experiences of a lifetime, much of which he has distilled into his short stories, novels and novellas, have also mellowed him down. “I used to be rather intense as a young man. As I get older, life seems to get funnier. You also get more philosophical when you look back, you are prepared to be more forgiving,” he says.
Last year marked 60 years of his first book, The Room on the Roof (1956). Six decades later, it’s still a book he holds close to heart. “It reflects me as I was when I was 17 or 18. It was a novel about adolescence by an adolescent. There are mistakes in it. There’s immaturity in it. But then, that’s how I was at that age. I wouldn’t change anything. The only thing is that I was looking at it again after a long time and I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, I was obsessed with semi-colons.’ Now, I don’t use semi-colons that much. I still use a lot of commas, though,” he says.
Age might have slowed him down — “I think I should have called my autobiography, Twenty-Two Steps. Those are the number of steps that go up to my room. It’s getting more difficult every day to climb,” he says — but Bond is still a storyteller par excellence. At the launch later in the evening, he goes on to regale the audience with stories about being mistaken for Jim Corbett and RK Narayan over the years. “I have been asked when I am writing the next installment of Malgudi Days… A few years back, I had the honour of receiving the Padma Shri and I came down to Delhi. I was put up in the hotel behind the Ashoka (Samrat Hotel). The middle-rung bureaucrat, who was there to receive the various awardees and welcome them, came up to me, shook me vigorously by the hand and said, ‘Sir, I have always wanted to meet the man who shot those maneaters of Kumaon’. I said, ‘Sir, I have never shot anything in my life, not even a human being,’” he says, as the crowd bursts out in laughter.
In the Epilogue to his autobiography, Bond notes: “The lone fox still dances occasionally, but at eighty-three he is not as agile as he used to be.” But, for his many readers and admirers, even the slow waltz of the fox is a thing of joy.