It’s a Wonderful Life: Reading Ruskin Bond’s Collection of Vignettes, Essays and Lockdown Journals

Almost a year ago, I wrote “I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.” Looking back at the days that went by, I am still grateful to be alive and sound of mind. Just like every year, a fair share of heartbreaks, griefs and sorrows were duly delivered at my doorsteps. There were a handful of blessings too. One such blessing came titled ‘It’s a wonderful life’. “How ironic !”, I thought, especially since the book was written during the pandemic lockdowns. But how can you disagree when it comes from an 86 year old young man who has seen quite a few disasters during his lifetime. So, I moved on from the title and landed at Landour for a ‘Breakfast with Ruskin’.

Every time I read Ruskin Bond, the first emotion that comes to me is envy. How can you not envy the man who has managed to live most of his adulthood with all the pleasures of childhood? He still chases around the bees, collects chestnuts for luck and negotiates food and pyjamas with the monkeys. His world looks so beautiful that sometimes I want to exchange places with the ladybird that walked across the papers on his desk.

The book is a memoir of sorts with a collection of vignettes, essays and lockdown journals. Some of them take you to the days before you while others will remind you of a parent/grandparent trying to cope up with the technoclad era. As always, there is no dearth of nature inside the book. From the blossoming mango trees to the missing flowers, parrots to the smiling crocodiles, Ruskin brings the jungle into your room. But the naughty little man child who sounds excited learning about the sexuality of earthworms, and cheek to cheek selfies make me grin.

The book is only 138 pages but it carries so much joy and warmth bundled carefully between the words. You are also taught to paddle your own canoe, make your own bed and read a poem before bedtime. But what stands out for me is the wit. There is never a dull moment in the book. Be it Gurbachan’s horn, or the monkey’s fashion show or sharpening his friend’s false incisors for a vampire role, every page was a laugh riot. I kept reading out snippets to my husband because it felt so wrong to not share something that could give one a hearty laugh.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin writes – “Have it with your breakfast or use it as a bedside book. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep and banish all thoughts of dwindling bank balances, taxes falling due, COVID-19 concerns, and a polluted planet”. I used it as my bedside book. Not only did it put my worries to bed, but also brightened up my days. Sometimes amid chores, I would recollect the incidents from the book and laugh out loud. So if you are looking for something cheerful to get you through the rough times, do read ‘It’s is a wonderful life’.

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7 Delightful Reads to Help You Overcome a Reader’s Block!

Sometimes, it is not easy to be a reader. We are expected to read all the time, and somewhere down the line, it creates a certain pressure to finish a certain number of books every year. While a utopia for a reader will be a corner overlooking the mountains and Ruskin Bond’s romanticism in the air, real-life is more complex and a lot more demanding. The space that childhood, school, and college allowed an individual to pursue reading contracts as one enters the hurried world.

There are days when you cannot read beyond two pages. There are days when you think you will read on your way to work, but you doze off in the cab. Then comes the worst predicament; prolonged periods of poor concentration. You’re stuck on one page. Finding another book might make things better, but unfortunately, it is the same struggle. Even if you do get to Page 20, you cannot recollect much. People do not talk about it enough, but a Reader’s Block is as real as a Writers Block. It is a phenomenon where you cannot finish a book or retain much of what you have read, no matter how much you try.

Why it happens is an elusive question. Reader’s Block is a frequent struggle for children and adults with ADD. It is also a side-effect faced by students of literature who have done so much reading for coursework that the idea of reading for pleasure becomes challenging. It may arise because you have not been experimenting with content. Alternatively, it can be the outcome of personal distress occupying your mind and leaving you with little time to think about anything else. This is real. This is fine.

What is the best way to get back into the groove of enjoying stories? At the core of the process is taking it easy and finding something exciting and new you can appreciate without feeling burdened. So, here’s a little list of lovely books that may help you to return to reading, gradually nourish the reader in you before you jump back into full force and finish Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

While several websites will list this as a children’s book, I vehemently oppose simplifying this masterpiece. While the exterior packaging is like a fairy tale, the book is beautifully written to address censorship and storytellers’ plight (especially relevant after the infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s issued by Ayatollah Khomeini). Even if one does not delve much into symbolism, there is no way you won’t enjoy the delightful wordplay and puns that are liberally sprinkled on the story. Almost every name is related to silence or speech. So, you’ll find a Princess Batcheet, and the antagonist’s army is called Chupwalas. The story flows like fine wine, and you will be hooked before you know it, flying across the Sea of Stories.

Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

I’ve read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and it is spectacular. However, to say that Tales from Firozsha Baag is any less enjoyable is incorrect. Of course, the former is a more diverse picture of India, spanning a considerable period and involving characters from across the socioeconomic spectrum. On the other hand, Tales of Firozsha Baag is a collection of eleven short stories about the residents of a Parsi-dominated complex in Bombay. The stories are endearing and beautifully written. Their exceptional quality is Mistry’s manner of conveying the setting’s spatial characteristics. It is so detailed that you feel you are an intruder. Residents grapple with grief, sexuality, superiority and the happiness of living life on their terms. You will be pulled into the endearing whirlwind before you know it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a recent obsession, and I recommend this brilliant author for his elegant writing. In 1989, The Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and was later adopted as a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Ishiguro’s writing style is peaceful. Nonetheless, it is incredible how he conveys emotional and political disruption through peace. The book is about an English butler who takes a road trip across the countryside and ponders over his life. I haven’t come across an author who can mould the narrative to the extent that you forget the author and begin to think of the book as a diary. It is a heartwrenching story, but one that flows very easily.

Chowringhee by Shankar

Shankar’s Chowringhee is a tale of love and loss as it unfolds in Shahjahan, a fictional hotel in the 1950s attracting Calcutta’s crème. An excellent translation has been done by Arunava Sinha, who perfectly captures the essence. Chowringhee is often overshadowed by Shankar’s two other books, which were made into films by Satyajit Ray. However, I recommend Chownrighee because of its simplicity and the author’s ability to fuse many stories into one exciting book. This is a skill somewhat absent in today’s storytellers who have come to enjoy multiple loose ends. Although Chowringhee was published in 1962, it is a delightful story whose emotions and themes transcend time. In 2019, Srijit Mukherjee adapted the book into a film, and that is best avoided. Read the book. It is unpretentious and unique.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a reliable favourite. Not only is it one of her most thrilling works, but it is the setting of the novel that truly sets it apart. Hercule Poirot is aboard the luxury Orient Express which gets stuck in a snowbank. A murder happens, and the killer is amongst the passengers as the thick snow made it impossible for anyone to escape. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the narrative as the train is stuck in an icy landscape with a killer on the loose. The fact that there is nowhere to go and nothing can be done makes Murder on the Orient Express a compelling read. It is also an interesting commentary about morality; when is murder justified? The book will keep you on your edge even after you know what has transpired.

Travelogues by Ruskin Bond

I have been told that I am biased towards Ruskin Bond, but I have hardly seen a reader who does not adore Rusty. Alongside his short stories and novellas, I would heartily recommend his travel writing like A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills, Hop On, All Roads Lead to Ganga, Roads to Mussoorie and Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas. I cannot pinpoint why his writing is so unique. Maybe it is the old-charm of his humour, the inherent sense of adventure and the endearing mischief in his stories. 

Make time for these jewels, and you’ll find the mountain air of Dehra wafting into your room as the Himalayan rain pitter-patters on your city windowsill.If there is something about reading that is important to remember is that reading cannot be forced. Some of us enjoy books while others have entirely different pursuits. Even as children, some of us take to reading while others are not too keen on books. But if literature is your escape, then it is only sensible that you give yourself the time and space to appreciate it. Reading for pleasure must be a meaningful pursuit that makes you content. It is about the joy of stepping into another world and finding its secrets. It is not about how many books you finish in a month as much as it is about enjoying what you read. Take your time and savour the story. After all, reading is about happiness.

Ruskin Bond’s How to Be a Writer Is the Ideal Comfort Book to Sign off 2020!

Humour. Compassion. Perseverance. A zest for life. Choose anything written by Ruskin Bond and you’ll find enchanting themes interwoven in his musings on love, survival, nature, childhood and adolescence, romance and even the ghosts that quietly haunt the hills of Mussoorie. Bond is the master of conveying complexity through simplicity, his writings liberally seasoned with dry wit and tossed in a wok of comfort. The emotions that one experiences after reading a piece written by the author are feelings otherwise experienced only in the purest of circumstances; like a cosy nap on a winter afternoon, your favourite food, a lover’s embrace, laughter with friends, mountain trails fragrant with fallen flowers and the smell of old bookstores.

How to be a Writer is a chip off the old block; another loveable addition to Bond’s corpus of heart-warming novellas. Although topical in its approach, the book is a delight! From the beautiful language and distinctive jocularity and down to the adorable illustrations (courtesy of the supremely talented team of Shamika Chavez and Chaaya Prabhat), every little detail is perfect. The aesthetics and interplay of word and drawing will remind you of Roald Dahl’s collaborations with Quentin Blake. Even if you are not interested in writing but have a soft corner for Ruskin Bond, this deserves to be on your bookshelf solely because of the familiarity and warmth it oozes.

Before delving into the nuances of the book, it’s important to know that the book has been marketed as a guide for young readers (some websites have labelled it as a book for children) who want to write and need a few pearls of wisdom on where to start and how to sustain. However, as a 23-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed the content and learnt quite a bit about the trade and how to keep afloat if one is considering earning a living solely through words. So, don’t be dissuaded by the “childish” appearance or the big font and drawings. It is deeply insightful! Plus, there can never be a Ruskin Bond book that doesn’t teach you a thing or two.

How To Be A Writer takes the reader through the entire spectrum of writing; the qualities that a budding author must inculcate and exhibit, understanding what to write, how to improve that writing, popular themes, building memorable characters and finally, how to approach publishers and commercialize your work. According to Ruskin Bond, there are four building blocks of the process:

  1. To keep writing
  2. Observing
  3. Listening
  4. Paying attention to the beauty of words and their arrangement.

To sit down at your desk and pen your thoughts must be a daily activity. The key is to strike a balance between disciplining your mind to write and knowing when you are done. Bond himself does not write for more than an hour or two daily for any duration beyond that and words tend to lose their freshness. He likens the movement of words to “a stream of clear water-preferably a mountain stream.” The source of the brook is where thoughts are in their purest form and as they flow, one must learn to move around the boulders.

The tonality of the book is graceful yet informal. It isn’t a Do-It-Yourself manual where a leading author shares precise pointers on how to achieve big success. Think of How To Be Writer as an intelligent conversation with a kind individual who has beautiful experiences to share and does so in the friendliest manner possible. At no point does it feel that Ruskin Bond is there to deliver a sermon where he is the higher authority and the readers are supposed to look up to him with dewy-eyes and make furious notes (although he constantly stresses on the importance of jotting notes in a designated notepad when writing a story). He only discusses the insights he has accumulated in an illustrious career spanning seven decades and multiple accolades.

Ruskin Bond shares multiple lessons. Some minor, tucked away in a little sentence; some major – being the focus of an entire chapter. I will attempt to touch upon the latter.

A love for books is imperative. Every renowned author is greatly influenced by the books he/she has enjoyed. Bond says, “Books are essential for the creative mind, and good readers become good writers.” If you are new to extensive reading and not a seasoned bookworm, the author’s recommendations at the end are the perfect start.

Finding a familiar setting is the cornerstone of establishing authenticity. One of the most oft-repeated mistakes that beginners tend to commit is being carried away by the glitz and glamour of places they don’t know and basing their story in an unfamiliar destination. Ruskin Bond believes that one must write about the places you are intimately connected with. Like London for Dickens, rural Bengal for Tagore and the Yorkshire Moors for Emily Bronte. Even fantasy worlds are contextualized in the culture and language of the countries in which they are conceived. For example, Wonderland is very British and Pinocchio is very Italian.

Bond’s take on creating memorable characters is especially interesting. Create immortal characters. Does this mean that characters must defy death? No! What Bond implies is that “some of the most successful characters in fiction are ageless, unchanging.” Think about Poirot, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Byomkesh Bakshi and of course, Rusty himself! Year after year, volume after volume, they have remained the same! To be able to keep the essence intact is a duty that needs to be upheld at all costs.

To remain committed to your writing is a difficult task. There is nothing as exasperating as stumbling upon the ill-fated Writer’s Block. Bond admits to not having faced this issue too often because most of his works are on the shorter side. This honesty is comforting. But he does share guidance on the matter. For Ruskin Bond, some of his most famed stories such as The Night Train at Deoli and The Eyes Have It was written in his head and then transferred to the paper. Certainly, this process is difficult to replicate for a lengthier novel. In that case, he suggests taking a break and writing something else to revitalize the grey cells- “A fresh mind will do wonders for a stalled masterpiece.” Finally, if that doesn’t work and you’re sure that your work is useless, choose the dustbin. In his distinctive humour, Bond concludes by saying, “Waste-paper baskets were invented by frustrated authors. And I use one too.

Writing is about expressing your originality, developing a distinct style, telling the right stories and in the end, keeping the faith alive. Patience is a mandatory virtue for people who plan to rely on words to get them through life. Ruskin Bond cautions us about multiple rejections. They will come and don’t signify the end of the world. However, his greater warning is for the lack of persistence and giving up on the very act of writing. The idea is simple, “If you are any good, you will meet with success sooner or later.” How To Be A Writer is old-school, elegant, and mischievous. In other words, worth every second of the holidays, irrespective of whether you’re a writer or just a good ol’ Rusty fan!

You can buy the book here.

Ruskin Bond Photo

On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0