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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Till the trees grow in Dehradun

For many decades, writer Ruskin Bond has gazed out of his window in Landour and invited the world into his books. On the 60th anniversary of The Room on the Roof, the novel that began his journey, a look at the life of the gentle colossus of the Indian publishing scene.

Updated: January 24, 2016 3:21:34 pm

In the room, this morning, the January sun is a generous presence. It streams in through the windows, and holds the few possessions in a warm embrace: a bed in the corner, a large table stacked with books, a chair, a few cupboards and a sturdy potted vine that has trailed all across the wall. It is a small space, more a narrow long corridor, but for its 81-year-old inhabitant, this little room is an everywhere. For 30-odd years now, Ruskin Bond has gazed upon the world — the unchanging hills, the shape-shifting sky, the bird on the windowsill and the eagle soaring high — from this windswept room in Ivy Cottage, Landour, and invited them into his books.

In the beginning, too, was a room on the roof — a barsaati in the Old Station canteen in the Dehradun of 1950s, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. It had a window looking on to a bottlebrush tree and a litchi orchard, and he could see as far as the foothills of the Himalayas. He had just finished school at Bishop Cotton, Shimla, and he wanted to be a writer. “‘Don’t be silly, go join the army,’ my mother said…I didn’t know anyone in school or anyone of my age who wanted to be a writer. They all probably thought I was a nutcase,” he says. A few months later, the 17-year-old young man was in Jersey, Channel Islands, England in pursuit of his ambition.

He had no money, he had not been to college, but he wrote, even as he worked through soulless jobs — first in Jersey and then in London. Bitterly homesick for the sights and sounds of India, for its trees and birds, he began converting a journal he had kept the year before in Dehra into a novel. The Room on the Roof, the novel he wrote when he was 17 and published when he was 20, has had a long, cherished life — 2016 marks 60 years of its publication, six decades of writing for India’s most popular and beloved author.

The Room on the Roof is a novel of friendship as well as contemplation, attentive to nature and pervaded by a sense of loss and transience. Set in the years just after India’s Independence, its starting point is the rebellion of Rusty, a young British boy, who walks out of the white quarter of the town and crosses over into the bazaar. “I was a very intense person at the time. Perhaps, that is what gave the book a longer lease of life — the intensity of a young man just out of adolescence, writing about his own adolescence. Friends would often say I was too old for my age. I am now not as serious. I take things very lightly now. As I grow older, life seems to me to be more ridiculous,” he says, as we chat in a living room crammed with books.

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Ruskin Bond has been a gentle colossus of the Indian publishing scene for so many years now that one often forgets the audacity of ambition that went into his first literary success. The author looks back with fondness on that young man in London, working by day as an accounts clerk for a salary of £6 a week and hammering out a novel by night. “Looking back on it, I was brave,” he says, but refusing to make much of it. “It was difficult to break in…But you could approach a publisher directly, they were ready to consider books even by young/new writers. Nowadays, you have to go through an agent in the UK and the US,” he says.

His first editor was the legendary Diana Athill, who worked with Andre Deutsch, the independent publishing firm that had agreed to take his book up. Athill suggested that he convert the first-person novel into a third-person narrative, and fictionalise it further. In a letter written in 2002 to the writer Ganesh Saili, Bond’s friend and biographer, Athill recalls being struck by the teenager’s resolve. “I had read The Room on the Roof…and been charmed by it but not till I met him did I realise how young he was, how alone he was, and how he had no money at all but what he earned. And the combination of courage and common sense which had brought him to England…seemed to me to be quite heroic,” she wrote.

The hills of Mussoorie have been home to the author since 1963. (Photos: Ravi Kanojia/ Indian Express) The hills of Mussoorie have been home to the author since 1963. (Photos: Ravi Kanojia/ Indian Express)

Those rooms that he lived in — in Belsize Park, Haverstock Hill, Tooting — were little more than dispiriting garrets. “It was lonely, for a young man who didn’t know anyone. I did make friends, some Indian students who had been in school with me. Even so, you came home late in the evening and you were alone. Diana Athill had me over for dinner sometimes, and she would do the cooking. I responded by taking her to a couple of Indian restaurants and made her eat paan once, which she didn’t appreciate at all,” he says with a chuckle.


Despite Deutsch showing an interest in his book, it would be quite a while before Bond earned any money from it. Tired of waiting for them to pay an advance, in August 1953 he sent off a miffed letter, asking them to publish it or return his manuscript. He also mailed back a cheque for 2 shillings, 6 pence for any expense they might have incurred. “I do not ask any favours. I only want business,” he wrote. “That was wicked of me. But I used to fight with publishers from the very beginning, I still do. I might have been intimidated to begin with, but once I got to know them, I wasn’t intimidated at all,” he says.

The letter worked and Bond was richer by £50, the standard advance those days. Three years in Britain had made it clear to him that he did not belong, that he needed to be among the friends and foliage he had left behind. In the spring of 1955, he sailed to India on the SS Batory with a suitcase and his typewriter. “They kept delaying the publication. So I said, to hell with it, and I came back to India. The book appeared in England almost a year after I came back. I got six copies of The Room on the Roof in my mail…and that was it. Those days, there were no book launches or any publicity,” he says. In 1957, the book won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial prize, awarded to a Commonwealth writer under 30.

In the 1950s, publishers of Indian writing in English barely existed in the country. Bond returned to this literary wilderness, determined to make a living from writing. He took up a room in Astley Hall, Dehradun, close to the original room on the roof. “There was no electricity. The owner had not paid the bills for about 10 years and it came to an astronomical sum, around Rs 50,000. So I used to read and write with a kerosene lamp, though I usually finished my writing in the day. I still do,” he says.


Bond had stories to tell, but who would publish them? “There were no publishing houses here, or a readership. There were lots of magazines and newspapers. I would bombard them with stories. The best was The Illustrated Weekly,” he says. The magazine was then edited by an Irishman, CR Mandy, who had published Bond’s first story when he was 16. Mandy also serialised The Room on the Roof in the The Illustrated Weekly, each instalment accompanied by illustrations by Mario Miranda.

In those two years in Dehradun, Bond’s stories were printed in magazines of all kinds, from the mainstream to the little-known like Sainik Samachar and Sport and Pastime. “ This was before the age of TV. So the magazines had something of everything, news and fiction. For each story, they would pay Rs 50,” he says. Some of his most evocative stories were written in this period — such as The Night Train at Deoli and The Eyes Have It — when he made do with Rs 300 a month.

Writing has always been a solitary enterprise. But at the time, it was spectacularly so — there was neither the group-hug of literary festivals, nor the promise of publishing advances, or the endless oxygen of publicity. You could not network if you wished to. Some authors did find a way around that. “In the Dehradun of the 1950s, there was hardly a literary atmosphere. It was rare to meet a writer. The only writer I met in 1956-57 was at the grocer’s. A gentleman came and introduced himself as a writer. He was GV Desani, who had written a book called All About H. Hatterr, which I had read. He had tracked me down, having read me in The Illustrated Weekly. He had drawn up a petition, putting his own name forward for the Nobel and he wanted me to sign it. He was getting other authors to sign it too. He got my signature. As far as I know, he didn’t get the Nobel,” says Bond with a twinkle in his eyes.

From 1958, Ruskin Bond spent five years in Delhi. He felt he had to get out if he wanted to keep writing. (Photo: Ravi Kanojia/ Indian Express) From 1958, Ruskin Bond spent five years in Delhi. He felt he had to get out if he wanted to keep writing. (Photo: Ravi Kanojia/ Indian Express)

It was an isolation that continued even when Bond moved to Delhi in 1958, with a job with CARE, the American relief agency. “In Delhi in the early 1960s, there was a small group that used to meet at the Coffee House. We had nothing much in common, except that we were writers. There was Keshav Mallik, who was a poet. Then there was a chap called…he was so full of himself. He wrote a bestseller later called My God Died Young. Oh yes, Sashti Brata. A cocky young fellow,” he says.

He recalls attending the first book fair in Delhi in the 1960s. “There were about two stalls, it was on an open patch of land near the Regal cinema,” he says. Having lived through such times, he is bemused by the enthusiasm with which people now believe they have a book to write. “I meet so many young people who want to be writers, even when they have not mastered the language. I tell them: don’t you dare write until you have read at least 50 good books,” he says.


In all, Bond spent five years in Delhi, largely in charge of CARE’s Tibetan relief programme, travelling to Darjeeling, Shimla, Mussoorie, Dalhousie, Dharamsala, and then down south to Bylakuppe, Karnataka. Even though he was earning well — Rs 700 a month — he remembers it as a lean period in his writing life. “I had dried up a bit. Maybe it was just Delhi. I was also fed up because CARE had put me in charge of their publicity. I wanted to do my own writing. And I thought the best way to do it was to get out of Delhi,” he says.

In the 1960s, Mussoorie was a small town, where everyone walked, and where the rumble of wheels was not often heard. It was a cluster of a few villages—Jharipani, Barlowganj, Happy Valley, Library and Landour — where residents kept to themselves. Ganesh Saili was a student at a local college in 1967, when he heard of a white man who had settled in the town to do the strangest thing: write. “So I thought let me meet this mysterious man,” recalls the photographer-writer. He headed to Maplewood Lodge, a cottage in the middle of a forest, near the Wynberg-Allen School, where Bond grew daisies by the hillside and went on long walks. It was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted till today.


Bond had arrived in the hill station in 1963, a struggling writer with meagre means. “One reason I came here is that you could live in Mussoorie very cheaply then. Which is no longer the case. I had a four-room cottage for a rent of Rs 450 per annum,” he says.

Bond had always been drawn to nature, having spent his childhood in Jamnagar and his grandmother’s sprawling garden in Dehradun. “Books made me more receptive to nature. I liked authors who brought in natural backgrounds considerably like H.E. Bates and Thoreau,” he says. But it was the eight-nine years that he spent in Maplewood Lodge that made his love for nature as immovable as the deodars that line the Mussoorie hills.


“The closeness to nature grew stronger when I came to live in the hills. I would go off to find lonely places, explore the streams. I had my little place of power. It was a knoll with a lonely pine tree on it. It is still there on the next hill. I can see it from my window. I would go off on my own and sit there, and feel in charge of everything,” he says.

It was a productive period, and a lot of his early children’s stories were written while in the house. In the 1970s, for a while, he also edited a magazine, Imprint, from his home. “I was always ready to do something, take up a job, for instance, when the going got tough. But as soon as I could, I returned to my independent state,” he says.

The publishing scene would change significantly when Penguin India set up shop in 1987. Rupa, too, moved from being a distribution agent to being a publisher. Prospects began to look up for Bond. “Although over the years books had not been published in India, I had written hundreds of stories. So when Penguin came along, they had all this backlog of stories to turn into collections. There was no shortage of material,” he says. One of the first Bond books it re-issued was The Room on the Roof, published along with its sequel, The Vagrants in the Valley.

The Room on the Roof is a chronicle of a Dehradun irretrievably lost. It was a verdant town, filled with litchi and mango groves, tea gardens and basmati fields; where time went by slowly and friendships were formed with ease. The road from Clock Tower to Rajpur was lined with trees and stately bungalows; the East Canal flowed with fresh water from the Himalayas. Like any other city racing to welcome development, it is now stuck in long traffic jams that will not disappear however much the roads are widened.

In a lane behind Orient Cinema was the room on the roof where young Ruskin began the journal that would become his novel. It was a couple of houses scattered amid a large mango grove. It is now a neighbourhood packed with prosaic nursing homes and doctors’ clinics. A little distance away, on Old Survey Road, gracious old bungalows are making way for the new. Till a few years ago, Bond’s grandmother’s house — 6, Old Survey Road, where he spent hours as a child watching Dukhi the gardener tend to plants— had stood its ground. “It was a nice bungalow, not a very ornate one. It had a lot of space. A flower garden in front and an orchard in the back. Now it’s vanished,” says the author. A search for the remnants of the house leads to Dr Ajeet Gairola’s residence. His rooftop offers a view of the once sprawling plot. It has been carved up into eight houses — only a smattering of trees remain.

Up in the hills, in his retreat in Landour, Bond says he has seen nature change. His beloved cosmos does not grow wild any more; nor does he hear the thrush sing often. “It is, as if, there is something in the air that resists them now,” he says.

A child of a broken home, Bond once wrote of the restlessness he felt as a young man, as he searched for a semblance of emotional stability. His mother, Edith Clerke, born to an old British family living in India, had walked out of her marriage with Aubrey Alexander Bond, a teacher who went on to become an intelligence officer with the RAF. Edith married a Punjabi businessman, leaving seven-year-old Ruskin shattered.

The pith of his emotional life was his relationship with his father. His fondest memories are of a year and a half he spent with his father in Delhi during WWII, moving from camp site to rented houses. “I was happy to be out of school. He would take me to the pictures in the evening. We lived quite close to Connaught Place. We would go to old cinemas, bookshops and record shops. I was on my own as a child quite a lot. I was left to my devices. I’d scribble a bit, make long lists of books or films I had seen. I would keep myself amused and look forward to him coming home,” he says.

Bond has revisited his father’s death several times in his writing. Over the years, he says, he has also come to understand his mother better. “As a small boy, I resented a stepfather and having to adjust to a new family. She had four children after me. As I got older, I came to understand her difficulties. She had a rough life too. She and my stepfather didn’t break up but they were always in financial trouble. She had to surmount them, sometimes on her own. When they moved to Delhi, she had developed cancer. She was 52 when she died,” he says.

It was in the hills that he found not just the freedom to live life on his own terms, but also companionship and love. In the 1970s, he adopted a family — Prem, a young man who came to work for him at Maplewood Lodge, stayed on with his wife and children. “Once I moved up to the hills, I knew I was going to live here. And when this family grew up around me, it anchored me,” he says.

The elements of Bond’s life have remained the same: a spare room and a window; a mind attentive to the minutiae of life, one that has resisted material aggrandizement. The best of his writing is an ode to the intimate and the unhurried; it eschews the grand narrative to find beauty in a pebble on the shore, a flower growing wild; in the music of encounters in small towns like Deoli and Shamli, Shahjahanpur and Landour. He is a much-loved writer of solitude, in a country teeming with people. A writer who walked away from the bright lights of the city and yet found fame and recognition. A writer in whose work an older India survives as an idyll — even if it crumbles away in the present. He is, perhaps, not a writer you turn to when faced with the savagery of the world. But return you will. For, “when all the wars are over, a butterfly will still be beautiful.”