Views from the hilltop

Views from the hilltop

How under-appreciated Ruskin Bond is as a historian of our times

Ruskin Bond’s latest memoir,A Town Called Dehra,is beautifully written. It is set mostly in Dehra Dun,although other places do intrude (Shimla,Delhi). It starts in the ’40s and in a delicious meandering way comes down to present times without any rigid chronological pattern. A stream-of-consciousness memoir written with a tight discipline that helps to make it look easy. It is in the best traditions of English prose. I was reminded of Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. The gentle non-intrusive implicit moralising can also take us back to Walton’s Compleat Angler. There is an episode where Bond as a young boy sits on a branch of a banyan tree from where he reads his treasured books and observes the world go by. This reminded me of a Robert Frost poem where a boy plays with the branch of a tree. It also reminded me of Jeremy Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird. When England has been bombed out,Dickens’s pubs will be remembered. When the great socialist government of Uttarakhand has destroyed Dehra Dun,Ruskin Bond’s town will still be there.

Bond is literally an orphan of the Raj. His British father dies just around the time World War II is ending and India is moving towards independence. His father’s plans of “taking him back” to Britain can no longer be pursued. His father had been the young Bond’s best friend and companion. An insensitive schoolmaster promises to store his “father’s letters” safely for the small boy and then proceeds to lose them quite callously. The heartbreak in not only losing his father but losing his father’s letters as well is captured without a touch of the maudlin. The book has a Merchant-Ivory Shakespearewallah touch that mingles with the world seen through the eyes of a “different” boy.

Almost unintentionally,Bond emerges as the gentle historian of the last days of the Raj and the first few years of the new dispensation. His is not the grand historian’s view. A delightful,ironic worms-eye view touched with nostalgia,but not of the crassly sentimental type. When Bond’s personality intrudes into the narrative it does so without a trace of conceit or vanity. The fact that he gets along well with his stepfather’s ex-wife is generously attributed to the ways of India and Indian society. He takes no credit for the fact that despite his childhood traumas,he is such a wonderfully well-adjusted personality. The description of his first kiss is simply brilliant in its charm and humour. The grandmother’s last tonga ride and departure from Dehra is a better requiem for the two hundred year history of the Raj than anything else I have read.

Again without making too much of a fuss,Bond captures what it means to be an Anglo-Indian,a member of an “in-between” community. It has been argued that they were children of the Raj,abandoned by the British. Bond is not interested in pursuing victimhood. He merely “holds up a mirror” and it is for us to look into it. I for one made a connect. As a boy,I had friends with names like Denzil and Alistair and teachers with names like Miss Edwards and Mr Vance. I lived in Shimla for a short while in the ’50s. Bond’s book brought it all back to me!


Bond has a feel for the sub-Himalayan landscape at a level of detail that is exceptional in its sensitivity and sense of enchantment. Many writers have been obsessed with the grandeur of the Himalayas. “Sthavaranam Himalaya” — “among mountains,I am the Himalaya” — Vyaasa makes Lord Krishna himself say this in Chapter 10 of the Bhagavad Gita. Kalidasa in his Meghdoot says that the Himalayas are the rod to be used to measure the earth itself. But the sense of immediacy that Kipling brings to us when he describes Kim’s journey from Pinjore to Shimla is missing in Sanskrit writing. Ruskin Bond does one better than Kipling. He names plants,trees,flowers and birds and they come alive as his intimate friends. Bond’s short matter-of-fact description of the mongoose-cobra fight (as seen from his seat on the branch of the tree of course!) has to be one of the finest I have come across. The chill down my spine was comparable to the excitement I felt watching Ben Hur’s chariot race. In this description,which is tinged by 20th-century realism,not the world of 19th-century fables,he outdoes the master. Nothing in The Jungle Book comes close to this.

Bond’s vignettes of Delhi in the ’40s and ’50s are also first rate. The reader gets a feel for the embryo from which the present megapolis has grown. Although a trifle upset with the inexorable intrusion of more and more concrete into the Doon valley,Bond is not a shrill environmentalist Tory. His view is that “this too shall pass” and the hills will survive.

Time passes,eras come to an end,empires disappear,the orphans of empire are marginalised — and yet times that have been captured in words never disappear. They stay with us always. That I believe is the haunting quality Ruskin Bond brings to a point in time in Dehra Dun. Le Carre’s scholar spy George Smiley argues that it is important to be loyal not only to one’s place but also to a time of one’s choosing. The Raj,its dying,its death and the aftermath of its death all set in a “station” at the foot of the hills which were so central to the consciousness of the sahibs — a time and a place worth being loyal to. And to celebrate it in delectable prose that seems so simple when you read it and which keeps surprising you by staying in your mind unlike other bombastic writing which draws attention to itself and later when you try to recall it,you just cannot remember what was said. Bravo Ruskin Bond Sahib — keep giving us more of this!

The writer divides his time between Mumbai,Lonavla and Bangalore