Karen Ann Monsy interviews Ruskin Bond [Bishop Cotton School 1943-1950 Ibbetson House]. As published in the Khaleej Times WKND Magazine of 9th December 2011 reproduced below. The original article photos and can be read here.
From Ruskin with love
By Karen Ann Monsy
Sixty years on and with pen firmly in hand, Ruskin Bond proves he’s still as capable of enchanting readers as he was when he first began.
Hundreds of screaming fans in a tent packed beyond seating capacity. That an audience could be just as captivated today by the man whose storytelling first fired up their imaginations as little children decades ago was a testament to just how popular an Indian author by the name of Bond — Ruskin Bond — could be.
With over 300 short stories, essays and novels to his name, it has been his irresistible signature of unassuming wit and simplicity more than anything else that has forged much of the bond between the Mussoorie-based novelist and his readers. Considered an icon in literary circles, the 77-year-old of British descent was recently declared due to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Delhi Government. To his cheering fans at the Sharjah International Book Fair last month, he stated simply: “Without readers, there cannot be writers. If I’m famous, it’s because of you.”
Bond, who was one of 10 eminent authors brought down by leading Indian publisher DC Books for the event, chatted with wknd. about going from a no-name teenager with big dreams to a much-loved children’s writer today — and everything in between. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
How does it feel to be getting the Lifetime Achievement Award?
It means I’m getting very old because when you get to a certain age, everyone gives you a pat on the back to say, “Well done — now go home and don’t bother us anymore!’ Seriously though, I’m very happy and honoured to be thought of in this regard.
Sixty years is a long time — almost a generation. You started out writing for kids and now you’re probably writing for their kids. What do you think has changed in this time?
I’ll tell you what has changed. Fifty, forty, even thirty years ago when I started writing, there wouldn’t have been a crowd like this, attending a book fair either in India or in Sharjah, because writing and publishing then was not really something that happened in the public domain. It wasn’t ‘fashionable’ in those days. When I set out to write, nobody encouraged me. My mother even said, “Why are you wasting your time? Why don’t you join the army?”
But today you have book fairs, readings and launches — none of this existed then. Writing was a very lonely art form. If you were lucky, you’d find a publisher and get published, and if you were very lucky, you might turn out to be a well-read author.
Writers were not celebrities but now thanks to visual media, they’re recognisable and therefore, the promotion of books and of writers takes place in the public today.
In all these years of writing, have you found reading habits to have changed?
I think the type of reader has changed. There are more young readers than there used to be. That’s because we now have more educated young people who’re attending schools and are literate. Although readers are a very small minority, that minority has grown over the years. And it’s a very large number in a country like India.
I look back on my own boyhood, and though I went to a good school that had a good library, in a class of 30 boys, there were just 2-3 of us who were fond of reading. There was no television, no Internet, no video games — none of these things that we blame for poor reading habits today.
So I think reading has always been a minority pastime; only a chosen few enjoy it as a hobby.
So you don’t blame technology then?
Not really, no. Technology might take away a certain amount of time [from reading] … but I think if one becomes a reader, then you don’t stop or give it up. You’re a reader for life.
Reading as a habit must be cultivated from a young age. Do you agree or disagree?
I agree. In fact, I think the younger the better. A lot depends on the parents, teachers and schools. I think many of them are aware of the importance of encouraging the reading habit — though not all … I once saw a mother discouraging her boy from buying a book saying, “We can’t waste Rs150 like that.”
On the other hand, there are many who insist on buying their kids books, even if those children aren’t interested. I guess you get all kinds.
Almost everyone today is writing a book. In your experience, what does it take to become a good writer?
I think you need to be sincere about wanting to write. I know many people who write books because they think it will bring them instant fame and success, but that’s not the case.
You must also have a good command of the language you’re trying to write in and then be able to express your thoughts in good words. That is just the beginning. Respect the language in which you write. Do your best to express yourself in such a way that will attract readers to you … and that will make people want to read you.
What’s your average day like? Do you have a set writing routine?
I get up fairly early and write a few pages. After breakfast, the kids in the house go off to school (I have a large adopted family) and there is a hush then, so I sit down to do some real work … feel drowsy and go to sleep again. I come to life about an hour later and do some correspondence or routine work. Perhaps when evening comes around, I’ll be in a creative mood and get down to some actual writing. So that’s the kind of lazy writer I am!
I write in spurts but I like to do something every day. That’s important. It’s not the amount of time you spend but the amount of writing that you get done.
Do you enjoy writing novels more or poetry?
I enjoy writing poetry but no one wants to publish poetry today because it’s so hard to sell. So that’s just something I do for my own pleasure. Otherwise publishers would rather have me write novels, a collection of stories or non-fiction books.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
We all get writer’s block. When you’re in school and have to write an essay, sometimes you’re going to get stuck halfway through. It’s easier for me because my solution for writer’s block is to keep a waste paper basket next to me so that all my unfinished stories or essays can go straight into that.
Seriously though, I think the way to combat a block is to go on to something else. If you’re stuck with a particular piece of writing, leave it for some time, write something else and come back to it later. Of course, that doesn’t apply in an exam hall…
You’re not a big fan of large cities and prefer the quiet of the hills instead. Is it because you find them less inspiring?
I grew up in small towns. It’s true I’m not a fan of large cities but not necessarily because they’re ‘less inspiring’. As a writer, one should be able to write anywhere. Perhaps smaller towns are just easier to live in. They’re not always as quiet as they used to be though — there’s a lot more traffic, people, congestion and noise. It’s not easy to find a quiet corner.
You left for London soon after your schooling but were quite homesick for India during your stay there. What made you leave in the first place?
When I finished school in 1950 — a long time ago — my mother packed me off to England. Right from the start, I was homesick for India. I took a job in London because I couldn’t really afford college. During the day, I did various jobs (working at a travel agency and photo shop) and did my writing at night.
I wrote my first book, Room on the Roof, there when I was about 17. It took me a year to find a publisher and when I did, I got an advance of 50 pounds. Now in those days, 50 pounds was enough to get back to India. And that’s exactly what I did. I went back as soon as I could because I missed my friends and the place I’d grown up in, and a part of me was from India.
How difficult was it becoming a published author?
It was about 1960 and I’d just had one or two books published. Like any author, I wanted to see my book in stores. I went into a small shop and hunted around but couldn’t any of my books anywhere.
I finally spotted one — right underneath a pile of books by popular authors like Khushwant Singh. So I quietly took it out from under the pile when I thought no one was looking and put it on top. But the shopkeeper saw me. He looked at the book and put it back underneath the pile, saying, “Nobody wants this one.” So just to teach him a lesson, I bought it!
Do you have a book that hasn’t been published yet?
Everything of mine has been published except one that I wrote in school. I was in Class 8 or 9 when I set out to write what I thought would be a great novel. But I made the great mistake of putting my teachers into it. I wrote a funny story in my exercise book about the principal’s wife who fell down the stairs (among other things).
Unfortunately, my class teacher found it in my desk and I got punished (in those days, you got flogged with a cane). Not only that, but he also tore the book up and threw it into the waste paper bin. That was the end of my first book. So if you’re a young reader thinking of writing a book, just make sure you don’t put your teachers in it.
7 Khoon Maaf saw your debut in Bollywood. What was it like being on the big screen?
Three of my stories were turned into films. The most recent was 7 Khoon Maaf, adapted from Susanna’s Seven Husbands and directed by my friend, Vishal Bhardwaj, who gave me a small guest role in the film. I had to play an elderly gentleman who gives advice to the heroine, played by Priyanka Chopra.
There was this one scene in a café where I was to give her an affectionate kiss on the cheek. The first time I attempted it, I was so clumsy I knocked her glasses off. The second take was a little better but it wasn’t perfect. In the end, we did 12 takes, meaning, on 12 occasions I had to kiss her on the cheek, after which the director said, “Mr Bond, you’re doing this on purpose!” It was a very short role and I haven’t had any more offers from the film industry since.
What can fans expect in the near future?
More stories and books! The Kashmiri Storyteller is a children’s book that has just been published by Penguin. I’ve also just completed another novel called Maharani — let’s see who publishes it. I write for multiple publishers because over the years in India you couldn’t do with writing for just one publisher, especially if you were trying to make a living out of it. Of course, nowadays things are better. Publishing is having a bit of a boom in India… Maybe now would be a good time to ask for better terms and rights…
Have you had any memorable responses from readers so far?
Oh yes, I get some very interesting responses, especially from young readers, because young people are frank and they don’t try to flatter you unnecessarily. There was a young girl of about 10 who I once met. Her teacher asked her (in front of me), “So what do you think of Ruskin Bond as a writer?” She thought about it hard, looked me up and down and said, “Sir, you’re not a bad writer.” I thought that was a very good assessment of me.