Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Very Best of Ruskin Bond: The Writer on the Hill / Rupa Publications

Reviews, Vol I, Issue IV

The Very Best of Ruskin Bond: The Writer on the Hill, a  selection of  fiction and non-fiction of Ruskin Bond, strings together the most lustrous pearls from  Bond’s  quintessential  stories  based on  landscape, ghosts, crime and investigation, history   and  autobiography.  The collection consists of two broad sections; fiction and nonfiction which are further categorised on the basis of when and where the stories were scripted.

‘The Thief’s Story’,  first story under fiction section,  1950s: Dehera,  is a penetrating  narration  by a thief, “a successful hand at an early age of 15” , who earns  kind Romi’s faith  and shelter in his home with his infectious smile, only to be tempted to steal his money one night. What follows is a tormenting conflict of choice between an opportunity to be educated by an honest and kind man and a ruthless betrayal and future as a thief. Amid the darkness of night and torrential rain the thief reaches railway station with an idea to flee the town with the stolen money. However, he could not move as the train arrives and leaves the platform. The sight of Romi sleeping innocently disturbs him; his dishonesty melts under the recollection of trust, empathy and affection.  The efficacious portrayal of complexity of an adolescent mind coming to terms with the world, stoic and empathetic protagonists ready to forgive the common human frailty and a vindication of affection and friendship are feature of Bond’s stories that immediately sink in.

Stories under 1960s and 1970s: Mapplewood Lodge, Mussoorie, provide us with different flavours: ‘Master ji’ is a humorous account of the narrator’s school teacher who is arrested by the police for selling fake certificates. The narrator who had all along taken this teacher’s help for Hindi is surprised to learn that he actually taught Punjabi. ‘The Kitemaker’ regrets the loss of  leisurely profession and pastime such as kite making.  ‘Most Beautiful’ questions the notion of beauty and ugliness in the context of a mentally retarded adolescent whom the narrator befriends.  ‘The Cherry Tree’ illustrates Bond’s pet theme - relationship between man and nature that grows in intensity with time like any other relation. ‘He said It with Arsenic’ is an engaging murder mystery involving the writer himself.

‘The last Time I Saw Delhi’ is autobiographical and marks a key realisation for the narrator that he  can never come to terms  with Delhi as his place  and his Mother’s  new family  as  his  family.

Though lucky to have born in bucolic surrounding the children inhibiting a hill side are not as fortunate as children in the plains in terms of the means they can access.  They are tried both by poverty and geography .Notwithstanding, they are hopeful, pleasant, hardworking and aspiring. ‘The Blue Umbrella’ and ‘A long Walk for Bina’ under 1980s and Onwards: Ivy Cottage ,Mussoorie, elucidate this predicament of the  village children of hillsides together with  the increasing tension between nature and human in the wake of the latter’s  invasion of the  former.

‘Once upon a Mountain Time’ in  1960s and 1970s: Mapplewood Lodge  consists of   diary entries of 1973 that   bring to life all the  fragrance,  hues, and resonance  of the mountains  as the writer’s observation  flutters  from quiet and still trees to chuk -chuk- chuk of night jar, from Sir Edmunds’s disturbed bowel to Bijju’s sturdy feet, from whistling thrush’s orgy in the pool near his cottage to rains, from leopards to dogs, from profusion of leeches and   bloodletting to them to new arrivals, from scarlet minivets to drongos bullying insects.  The writer’s frequents between   natural and human world, mapping constantly the changing equation between the two.          

‘A Case for Inspector Lal’ is an uncanny detective story. Inspector Lal though successfully investigates the murder case of Rani at Panauli, he fails to disclose the name of the murderer; a girl of 14 years. The inspector feels strange sympathy for this girl who commits the crime in self-defense. The story testifies that human nature is much more mysterious than any murder mystery.

The Non Fiction section, under two headings 1960s and 1970s: Mapplewood Lodge and 1980s and Onwards: Ivy Cottage , begins with  accounts  of certain historical figures whose life epitomise high drama, adventure and romance. “Colonel Gardener and the Princess of Cambay”  is a really delightful story of  romantic union of a European adventurer  Gardener, an admiral in British Navy; later served the Maratha chief Holkar,  and a Mohammedan Princess of Cambay. “Lady of Sardhana” reconstructs the story of the first and the only Catholic ruler of India whose life was “a succession of love affairs, intrigue and petty warfare.”

The last half a dozen non fictional accounts are recollection of incidents from the writer’s lonely childhood, school life; friendship that molded his perception. Some of these vignettes also introspect his creative process and philosophy. Certain characters, incidents episodes and settings seem to recur in many stories. Nevertheless, such repetitions are not only pardonable but serve as intriguing links in a selection covering the corpus of a writer’s work..

Bond looks at the human, animal, flora and fauna with same inquisitiveness, empathy and intimacy and sadly hints at how humans have violated the trust of Birds and animals. His vignette on trees and birds are the most beautiful rendition of his closeness with nature. In ‘Great Trees of Garhwal’ one gets a glimpse of the unique relation:

Some sounds cannot be recognized. They are strange night sounds, the sounds of trees themselves, stretching their limbs in the dark, shifting a little, flexing their fingers. Great trees of the mountain, they know me well. They know my face in the window; they see me watching them grow, listening to their secrets.

‘Birdsong in the Hills’ also takes the reader on a virtual tour to the jungle abuzz with the  chirpings of the exotic Himalayan birds and scintillating with their  lofty colours. ‘Ganga Descends’ seeks to understand   the “mild sort of controversy” between “serene green Bhagirathi” and “fretting and frothing” Alaknanda. All the stories are marked by an amazing picturisation of natural beauty of the hills the vivacity of which  is enhances with references to related facts and  amusing local legends. Bond weaves the binaries;  Nature /human, Adolescence (childhood)/adulthood, Hills/plains demonstrating  a clear inclination to the former. His portrayal of hills and valleys, trees and rains not only engages mind’s eyes but drenches all the senses leaving a lasting soothing effect. The stories exude an unmistakable spiritual bonding of the writer to his surrounding and the reader is almost entrances with the dreamily real   portrayal of the same.  An immensely readable book, it holds magic for everyone; and is particularly rewarding for children anticipating adulthood, adults wanting to revisit their childhood, nature lovers and travelers.

About the Columnist: 

Dr. Jindagi
Assistant Professor, 
Communication Skills, 
Dept. of Applied Sciences, MSIT, New Delhi

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