Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, like much of his unconventional life, does not really follow the rules. It begins
Ruskin Bond’s autobiography, like much of his unconventional life, does not really follow the rules. It beginswith a decidedly narrativised prologue, reads more like a story than the edifying account of an author’s life, and addresses its audience with an inwardly turned gentle wit and humour. For readers familiar with the giant corpus of Bond’s work, the style is distinctly that of his fiction—wry, and sweet without being sentimental. For those who are not, it is an invitation to visit not just his writing but the many Dehras that he has given shape to in his novels, short stories and poetry.
I was fairly sceptical when I first picked the book up. It isn’t every day that an author as prolific as Ruskin Bond writes an account of his career, and a lapse into sentimentality or even nostalgia would have quite ruined the writer’s oeuvre for me. Instead, I found myself drawn into a delicious story of an idyllic childhood spent skirting around the privileges as well as baggage of India during the Raj.
Bond’s early years were spent in the princely state of Jamnagar, on a steady diet of too many sweets and imaginative storytelling by his beloved ayah and the family’s cook. Bond writes of his childhood, intertwining local history with colourful anecdotes, even the scandalous, almost salacious details of his parents’ romance and subsequent falling out, recreating a decadent, narcissistic world, barely aware of the massive changes sweeping across it. It is only when he writes of his experience at boarding school, of more conflicted years, personally, that the text, in a fairly symmetrical development, takes into cognisance the conflicts of contemporary history—the Partition, Gandhi’s assassination and the sort of racism he found himself subject to every once in a while, as a white boy, a bit of an anomaly even in Dehradun with its fair number of Anglo-Indian families.
Most of the text details Ruskin Bond’s growing years in Dehradun, Shimla and Delhi, veering briefly into the few years he spent in England. It spells out formative influences on his writing, speaks of his interest in collating folklore and writing ghost stories, and details, with a brutal honesty, his often complicated relationships with family and friends.
Aware of the limitations of an autobiography in terms of telling the absolute truth, Bond nonetheless allows the reader intimate insight into his world, sharing his heartbreaks, losses as well as triumphs, and converting life itself into stories, long or short. It also becomes a rumination on that all-important question of identity: “And what was I, anyway? English, like my father? Or Anglo-Indian like my mother? Or Punjabi Indian like my stepfather and half-brothers? Or a London Indian, like so many of my friends who had settled there, in body and in spirit?” But most of all, and again, in the writer’s own words, “It is the story of a small man, and his friends and experiences in small places.”
There is also, of course, the small matters of the photographs. The book generously shares pictures of and by Ruskin Bond, young and handsome as only writers are allowed to be, pictures of the family he made for himself, his friends, the redoubtable Bibiji, the first wife of his stepfather, pictures of his (fluid-gendered) cat, of the mountains he has spent a lifetime romancing. They are an extraordinary glimpse into the life of an extraordinary man who decided, like Alice of his first ever books, “to never grow up”.