Book review: Upon An Old Wall, Dreaming by Ruskin Bond
A way of life long gone
A set of hill stories from the prolific Bond that rues the passing of a gentler age.
I will confess to it: late in life, I have become a full-fledged Bond girl. Oh, not the dashing 007, the other one, Ruskin. Therefore, reviewing this book was an activity filled with unalloyed delight.
‘More of my favourite stories and sketches,’ reads the full and complete title of the book. “Words of stone and light that will endure,” says his publisher David Davidar, and even if we were to discount this partisan praise from the author’s publisher, ne’er were truer words spoken.
Bond follows his hugely successful Friends in Wild Places with this collation of hill stories, all laced with the gentle humour that is so characteristic of the writer. It’s a wry, sly humour: “I must write a story about your uncle,” Bond tells Kailash, a young blade he befriends. “Don’t give him a story,” replies Kailash, “a short note will do.”
Here is Bond on the less-than-sublime topic of mud: “Pipalnagar mud had a quality all its own — and it is not easily removed or forgotten. Only buffaloes love it because it is soft and squelchy. Feet sink into it and have to be wrenched out. Fingers become webbed. Get it into your hair and there is nothing you can do except go to Deep Chand and have your head shaved.”
Bond introduces a ghost/ skeleton/ something faintly supernatural in at least three stories but plays with them; in ‘The Skull’, just when the reader is sure of a twist in the tale and on the lookout for it, nothing, nada, zilch. In the next, he hews close to the classical scare story format and gives us the heebie-jeebies right and proper, only to anchor the tale down with a strong dose of pragmatism!
The title story has Bond discoursing on creative idleness. “A receptivity to the world around me: the breeze, the warmth of the old stone, the lizard on the rock, a raindrop on a blade of grass — these and other impressions impinge upon me as I sit in that passive benign condition that makes people smile tolerantly at me as they pass. ‘Eccentric writer,’ they remark to each other…”
It’s a controlled style, never once tipping into hyperbole. Even as he rues the passing of a gentler, more environment-friendly age, Bond does not seem to sit in judgement. When he writes of a tendril that moved stealthily towards his father as they sat on the veranda steps, it’s pure magic.
When he describes a desperate mother hare attacking a jungle cat, it’s startling. When he chances upon a tiger sunning itself comfortably on the tombstone of his maternal grandfather who once famously kept a tiger as pet, it’s such a charming touch.
Here and there, some tidbits are repeated but the interested reader will not really quibble at being told a couple of times about the barbet, the girl with the blue umbrella (yes, that one) or the stand of deodar.
“Though what I wrote came from the heart, only a fraction touched the hearts of editors,” he laments wryly at one (early) point. “Although I was full of writing just then, I really didn’t know what to say,” he says at a later point. Thankfully, this prolific but never boring writer is still going strong, in his early 80s now, full of writing that touches both the editor’s and the reader’s heart.
Of course, at base, this is a glimpse into a romantic life long gone, a verdant place both in the mind and on the ground, peopled with the most interesting characters: crusty lords, faded femme fatales, memorably, one seller of odds-and-ends who had been a regular at Bond’s maternal grandparents’ house in Dehra, and suchlike.
What makes Ruskin Bond happy? Sunshine, birdsong, a bedside book, the potted geranium and other things that make life worth living. Azure butterflies that flit about the garden like flakes of sky.
The simple pleasures of life. And the comparison is inescapable. The man writes quite like the way he lives.
This ran in THE HINDU LITERARY REVIEW of 29 May 2016.