I am not one of those who look up their family trees in order to discover that a great-grandmother was related to the Czar of Russia and that a great-granduncle was probably Queen Victoria’s lover. I’m happy to accept that Grandfather Bond was a good soldier (he retired as drill sergeant) and that Grandfather Clerke (my mother’s father) helped in the making of solid railway carriages for the Northern Railway. The former had come from England with his regiment when he was seventeen. The latter was born in a place called Dera Ismael Khan, a frontier outpost, where his father was a clerk in the office of the Commissioner, a certain Mr Durand, who drew up the Durand Line between India (the part that is now Pakistan) and Afghanistan.
A foot soldier, Grandfather Bond was always route marching from one cantonment to another, with the result that his four children were all born in different places. My own dear father was born in the hot, dusty town of Shahjahanpur, on July 24, 1896. He was baptised in the same cantonment church where, some forty years previously, the assembly of worshippers had all been massacred at the outbreak of the 1857 rebellion. My father had two brothers, who did not distinguish themselves in any way; but he was a good student, well read, and after finishing school at the Sanawar Military School, he took a teacher’s training at Lovedale in the Nilgiris. He moved about the country a good deal, working at various jobs, including a stint as an assistant manager on a tea estate in Munnar, then Travancore-Cochin (now Kerala), and all the while he collected butterflies, stamps, picture postcards, the crests of Indian states, and anything else that was collectible. He used his teaching skills to land tutorial jobs in various princely states where, like E.M. Forster and J.R. Ackerley before him, he taught English, spoken and written, to the young royals before they were sent off to English public schools. He was working for the ruler of Alwar when he met my mother.
He had taken a month’s holiday, and was staying at a boardinghouse in Mussoorie, the popular hill-station perched on a ridge above Dehradun. It was late summer in 1933, and he was thirty-six years old. My mother was eighteen, and undergoing a nurse’s training at Cottage Hospital, on the ramparts of Gun Hill, not far from her old school. They met, had a torrid affair, and very soon I was on my way.
If we are lucky, we love with both heart and body, and I like to think that my parents were lucky. Neither of them spoke of it as a courtship, however, and when I consider the short time they spent together before I was conceived, I wouldn’t call it a courtship, either. The season demanded passion, and they happened to find each other; so chance had a greater role to play in my birth than it does in others.
Passionate—and often short-lived—affairs were not unusual in Mussoorie; in fact, they were expected of visitors to this hill station. Shimla, the summer capital of British India, was usually teeming with officials and empire-builders and ambitious young civil servants. As was Nainital, capital of the United Provinces. But Mussoorie was non-official. It was where people came to live their private lives, far from the reproving eyes of their senior officers. Unlike Shimla, Mussoorie was also small, tucked away in a fold of the Himalayas, ideal for discreet affairs conducted over picnic baskets set down beneath the deodars.
But discretion wasn’t always required; if rules were broken and scandals erupted, the Queen of the Hills took things in its stride. As far back as 1884, a visiting reporter of the Calcutta Statesman, appalled by the “immoral tone of society up here”, recorded that “ladies and gentlemen after attending church proceeded to a drinking shop and there indulged freely in pegs, not one but many”, and that at a fancy bazaar “a lady stood up on a chair and offered her kisses to gentlemen at Rs 5 each”.
Alexander Bond and the infant Ruskin with his mother, Edith
Mussoorie was at its merriest in the 1930s, when another lady stood up at a charity show and auctioned a single kiss, for which a gentleman paid Rs 300—probably the price of a little cottage in those days. It was the year my pare-nts met. My mother told me later that my father had been friendly with herolder sister, Emily, whom he had known for some years in Dehradun, where he was a frequent visitor. But things hadn’t worked out.
This rather complicated personal history, and the age difference between them, did not prevent my parents from becoming man and wife, although I have never come across a record of their marriage. But they certainly became Mr and Mrs Bond for my baptismal certificate; issued in Kasauli the following year, it gives everyone’s names in full: father, Aubrey Alexander Bond; mother, Edith Dorothy; infant son, Owen Ruskin Bond.
I discovered later that it was my father who chose the name Ruskin. Was it his secret wish that I should become a writer and painter like the famous Victorian John Ruskin? I never did find out. And Owen—the superfluous second name—was also his idea. Owen means ‘warrior’ in Welsh, so perhaps he wanted me to be both artist and soldier! Well, I did become an artist of a kind. But I am not, and never have been, a brave person. Foolhardy, yes, and certainly stubborn, but not brave. So it’s just as well that nobody ever bothered with Owen; the name was soon forgotten.
I’m not very sure why my mother went to Kasauli for the delivery and not to her mother in Dehradun. Discretion seems to me the only logical explanation. In any case, it was perhaps a sensible decision because Kasauli, a quiet little hill station close to Shimla, was a good place to have a baby, and my mother’s second sister was living there. Her husband, a doctor, worked in the Pasteur Institute. My father had studied for some years in the Sanawar Military School, a short distance away, and he had friends in Kasauli, including the local pastor, Reverend McKenzie. It was in his church that I was baptised. All among familiars.
Grandfather Clerke had built a small bungalow on Old Survey Road in 1900, the year the first train came puffing into Dehra, and had settled there in 1905. It was a typical railwayman’s bungalow, very basic, tidy and compact, with verandas front and back, and a kitchen separate from the main building. The only distinctive thing about it was that instead of the customary red bricks, Grandfather had used the smooth rounded stones from a local riverbed. Through my childhood this was the only home that gave me some feeling of permanence, even if I wasn’t entirely happy here.
To me, it was always ‘Granny’s house’, because Grandfather had died the year I was born, and all those stories I was to write about him one day were made up by me or based on hearsay. I have often wished I had known him; from the stories I heard about him, he appeared to be a gently eccentric man—he would disguise himself as a vegetable vendor or a juggler and wander around in the bazaars. He was also in the habit of bringing home unusual pets—owls, frogs, chameleons and, on one occasion, a hyena, which chewed up the boots in the house and had to be released back into the forest very quickly.
After he died, Granny ran the house with her meagre pension of forty or fifty rupees and the sale of fruit from the small mango and litchi orchard at the back of the house. She also received a regular rent from a tenant, Miss Kellner, an elderly disabled lady who would become one of my early friends some three years later.
Granny lived alone, with a black pariah dog called Crazy, but her married daughters and a happily vagrant son (Uncle Ken) would come to stay in the house now and then. She wasn’t a typical granny; I made her more homely in my stories. She was heavyset, heavy-jowled, and a stern woman, not given to expressing emotion. She preferred her own company; in the evenings, even if there were others in the house, she sat by herself playing patience, a card game which does not require another player.
She didn’t seem to like small boys—or it was small boys with buck teeth that she did not like. “Little boys should speak only when spoken to”, was one of her maxims, and I was discouraged from joining in the conversation at the dining table. I was also discouraged from taking ‘second helpings’ of any dish, with the result that I made sure my first helping was large enough.
Her disapproval did not extend to my cousins, whom she always praised in my presence, and I think her discomfort with me may have been due to the fact that she was not sure if I was legitimate or not. Being of strict Victorian and evangelical upbringing, she would have been horrified at the thought of harbouring a bastard child in her home. My parents’ marriage had been sudden and unexpected. Why had my mother married an
older man? And why had they gone to Kasauli for my arrival? I did not understand any of this at the time, and I felt a little bewildered and resentful. I suppose she did love me, to the extent that she could love anyone and show it, but I was used to being the centre of attention, and now I was expected to make myself invisible. Sometimes I looked around for my mother, wanting to ask her if we could live somewhere else, but I rarely found her in the house. She was always going away somewhere, returning late at night.
(From Lone Fox Dancing—My Autobiography by Ruskin Bond, excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger)