In the warm, star-lit evening of his life, Ruskin Bond has written his autobiography. But the writer and his life have never been separate from his fiction and essays. Bond has returned again and again, like a man seeking the familiar roads of his hometown, to the essential experiences that shaped him — the boy who loved and lost his father; the young man, alone, seeking his place in the world against all odds; and he who escapes the soulless city, his ambition fulfilled amid mountains and nature.
Lone Fox Dancing is a meditative account of that life, lit up by passages of splendid nature writing and warmed by memories of people, both big and small. Like most of Bond’s writing, its truths are not bitter and harsh, but it embraces pain, loss and forgiveness as the inescapable cycle of life. It is a less powerful, but more tranquil work than Scenes from a Writer’s Life, a slim memoir written in 1997, which ended with Bond at the age of 21, having taken a second plunge into the unknown (the first was to sail to England, a boy just out of school, determined to be a writer).
He had done the unthinkable for a “poor white” in the 1950s: made the arduous passage to the Channel Islands, found dreary jobs and a publisher and then chucked it all because he chose to live in India. Bond does not take off from where he left in the earlier book, but circles back to the first two tempestuous decades of his life. But there is more — an account of making a living as a writer in India, when there were as many publishers as bloated SUVs groaning up the hills of Mussoorie, and, finally, shedding his restlessness in a home on a spur on the Landour hill.
For so long has Bond occupied our imagination as a writer living in a pagan idyll amid the deodars that we tend to ignore the courage and sheer doggedness that went into living by his choices. “Financial security would come to me only in the late 1990s, when I was in my sixties,” he writes. For decades before that, there were stories written for the BBC and dashed off to magazines — The Illustrated Weekly of India, edited by an Irishman, CR Mandy, Sainik Samachar, Sport and Pastime, My Magazine of India and Yojana, edited by Khushwant Singh. Each would earn Rs 50 or less.
Forgive him, then, if he isn’t quite impressed by Khushwant’s wife’s dictum: A writer should not write to make money…[but] simply because he loves writing. “I didn’t argue the point. They owned a lot of nice property, and I was sitting in one of these, being fed a nice lunch…I would go back and write a little story and send it to Yojana, and gratefully accept the small fee I would be paid for it,” Bond writes of a visit to Sujan Singh Park. Other literary figures flit in and out of the autobiography: Diana Athill, who, as editor of The Room on the Roof, nudges a journal along the path of a novel; the venerable P Lal of the Writers’ Workshop, who returned an earlier manuscript of Time Stops at Shamli with a note of rejection — after 20 years; and GV Desani, the precursor of Salman Rushdie’s Indian magic realism, who is spotted in Mussoorie collecting signatures on a petition urging the wise men in Sweden to award him the Nobel prize.
In Scenes from a Writer’s Life, Bond had recalled young Ruskin’s vow: “Men and women… forget they once lived in a land where dreams were real. I will not forget my childhood, I will not surrender it.” Despite the deep love between father and son, Bond’s wasn’t an ideal childhood. For one, it featured a grandmother with a grim belief in enemas as the best discipline for errant boys. He was the child of a broken home and after his father’s death, his mother was too caught up in her own life to replace that affection. This is, perhaps, the book where he surrenders the resentment of the child against his absentee mother and sees her for the flawed human she was. “My mother wasn’t interested in being a good girl; she liked to drink and swear a bit,” he writes. By all accounts, Edith Dorothy Bond was as dismissive about the hierarchies of Empire as her son eventually would be. She invited letters of protest by going to church without a hat, and then ostracism by leaving her British husband “to engage in a public affair with, and then marry, an Indian — and a non-Christian too”. “I inherited her unconventional attitude to life, her stubborn insistence on doing things that respectable people did not approve of,” he writes.
“What was I, anyway? English, like my father? Or Anglo-Indian, like my mother?” muses the writer. Bond is hailed as a writer of solitude and nature. But one also finds in his works an expression of an Indian modernity, which is confident of the possibility of shaping an individual life, even if surrounded by clans, communities and barriers. The small north Indian towns that he writes of contain prejudice, not hatred: its characters, despite differences and enmity, make their peace with disappointment. While never an evangelist of any kind, to many of his readers, Bond’s life is a quiet assertion — a solitary man who walked away from the herd and found himself. In a “land full of people of diverse origins I decided I’d just be myself, all-Indian, even if it meant being a minority of one.”