Ruskin Bond is as prolific professionally as he is reserved, elusive and, yes, reticent in his personal life. His bibliography is long enough to rival the output of most historical figures we associate with literary abundance — Charles Dickens, for example. Bond’s writing today is actually considered to be as diverse, wide-ranging and shape-shifting (remember all those ghost stories) as Dickens’ once was. To be able to simultaneously write murder mysteries, autobiographical sketches and children’s stories without missing a beat, as Bond is known to do, is indeed an achievement of Dickensian proportions, and something that most writers can only dream of.
That may be because writers usually lack the passion, and the love, for writing that has driven and informed Bond’s lengthy and laudable literary career throughout. Here’s the man in his own words: “The most important thing is that you enjoy your writing. If you don’t enjoy it, then don’t be a writer.” As an advice to young writers, it is straightforward and somewhat obvious, but as a personal statement that sheds light on Bond’s own writing life, the words quoted above are of immense value.
The 81-year-old writer, who spends most of his time in the quiet confines of his home in Mussoorie, was at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre this past week for a rare public appearance, speaking at the Penguin Annual Lecture, where he talked about, among other things, the craft of writing, his occasional run-ins with publishers, and his frequent encounters with Mussoorie’s monkeys. “I once found a monkey in my toilet,” Bond said. “He was sitting on the pot. He wasn’t doing anything. He just found that a comfortable place to sit.”
The popular appeal of Bond’s writing is undeniable. His readership stretches across generations, and admirers of his work are spread out far and wide. It is only after achieving literary success that the weight of responsibility doubles on a writer. And the prime responsibility that a writer has to fulfil each and every day is to stay true to the craft, and to keep writing no matter what. “I do feel guilty if I go through a day or two without writing. It is important to write daily. It keeps your conscience clear,” Bond said, during his post-lecture conversation with the journalist Sunil Sethi.
Good writing is hard work, and hard work is fine so long as it doesn’t come between naps, something that Bond, on his own admission, is quite fond of. “I am always taking naps,” he said. “I am the laziest writer on Earth. I do my hour or two of writing in the morning, and then take a pre-lunch nap; then an afternoon siesta. After all this, I need rest.”
Bond is the author of acclaimed novels like The Room on the Roof, The Blue Umbrella and Angry River among others, as well as the recipient of the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. Among the earliest exponents of that category we now identify as Indian literature in English, Bond has not only observed the publishing scene in India evolve at close quarters, he seems to have influenced it too. “Today,” he said, “Indian publishers are giving good advances — not all of them but some of them — and giving royalties to writers. So publishing has come of age; Indian writing has come of age. Maybe I broke new ground and showed people that you could make a living by writing.”
Where earlier, writers had to contend with the very real possibility of never finding a good enough publisher, today, times have changed. With the advent of self-publishing, now a thriving and self-sufficient industry, getting your work out there has become the easiest aspect of being a writer. But Bond had some important words of caution to offer in this regard: “Don’t pay for publication. Never do that. If you’re any good you’ll find a publisher sooner or later. Be patient.”
In response to another related question, on meeting publishers’ deadlines, Bond, at his wittiest best, had this to say: “Publishers, you know, sometimes forget the deadlines themselves. And I don’t remind them.”
It was a sizeable crowd that had gathered at the Habitat Centre to listen to Bond on Monday evening. This was not at all in keeping with the general tone of literary gatherings in Delhi, which tend to be dreary and isolated affairs, attended by a handful of writers, journalists and publishers. So it’s rare to actually get to see readers at a literary event, as one did at the Habitat Centre that evening in Delhi. Some of the most devoted and careful readers of Bond’s work were part of the audience here. “To be writer,” Bond said, “you have to be a reader.”
And then, speaking of his changing taste in reading, he resumed: “As a boy I read more fiction and novels than I do now. I was put in charge of the school library, and had access to all these great works: of Dickens, Stevenson, the plays of Bernard Shaw, stories of Somerset Maugham and so on. But these days, I don’t read much fiction. I read more biographies, of people who’ve done interesting things. And more history. But see, you never stop reading! The other day, I ran out of books to read, and found the Concise Oxford Dictionary somewhere and read page after page of it, learning new words.”
The admirers of Bond can rest assured that when the author is not learning new words, or taking naps, or driving monkeys out of his house, he is busy doing what he loves doing, and what he has been doing for over six decades now: giving voice to his imagination and putting words on the page.