India Abroad February 27, 2015
THE MAGAZINE M3
Earlier train journeys were far more
interesting. In those days there were separate compartments and it was easier to
meet people and interact. You could open
your windows, they were not glazed like
today where you can’t see anything.
In this particular journey we got to
Baroda at 2 in the morning and everyone
had told me to shut the window at night.
I had left it open because it was very
hot and I put my spectacles under my
pillow. At Baroda I felt a hand coming
through the window and exploring
under the pillow. As the hand was withdrawn, this youngster had my spectacles.
He had it from one end, I got the other
and we had a tug-of-war. I got the glasses back but the arms had been twisted
and there was no time to get a new pair
and next day I had to appear in court.
So every time, the judge asked me a
question and I said ‘Yes your honor, no
your honor’ they would fall off!
One of your first stories I read was
Night Train at Deoli. How long did it
take you to write it?
That was one of my earlier stories. I
was 21 when I wrote it and had a
romantic look; there was always a
chance of a big romance in your life. I
hadn’t become an old cynic, I am not
one now... (laughs). It took me an hour
or two to write it in 1956-57. I used to
write 4-5 stories a month. I got Rs 50
(less than a dollar today) for it.
Is there a railway station called Deoli?
There is a Deoli. In fact there are 3.
One is in MP (Madhya Pradesh).
My Deoli was set here and it came to
The Eyes Have It is another one that is
So much of what you’ve written is
drawn from your childhood memories.
Are there things you’ve kept in your
treasure box of memories?
My father’s old school prayer book, on
which is written ‘Aubrey Alexander
Bond, Lovedale, 1913.’ He was a trainee
teacher in Lovedale in the Nilgiris.
A couple of letters and postcards.
A lot of childhood photographs: Photos
in Jamnagar and Delhi during the War
where I am wearing his RAF cap (His
father was in the Royal Air Force).
I am not much of a collector of old
It must have been traumatic for you as
a child when after your father’s death you
discovered that your teacher had lost the
letters he had written to you?
I don’t brood over it, but sometimes I
remember and I have a good memory
Oddly enough I sometimes remember
things that I had almost forgotten over
the years. I don’t know if it’s something
to do with getting older that you start
remembering things that had slipped
your memory. Although I haven’t got to
the stage of Alzhiemer’s yet (laughs).
You’re Archana Masih? (Laughs).
From your stories you come across as
someone with a tremendous sense of
When I was younger I took life much
Was it because you were lonely?
That’s true. Now I find life quite funny
at times. Something to do with the altitude, where the air is thinner, you tend
to get light headed (laughs) and find life
a little more ridiculous.
How much did your first story,
Untouchable, that was published in The
ly fetch you?
Rs 50. That was the
standard rate that The
Weekly gave, which was
the best in India. I also
wrote stories for other
magazines which usually
got me Rs 25-30. Those
were the 1950s and Rs
50 was as good as a couple of thousands today.
That same year I was
writing The Room on
the Roof. It was a journal that I was keeping
in 1951, the year I finished school so
when I was sent off to England, I turned
it into a novel. It took me couple of years
to get a publisher.
What was the life of a writer in India in
In the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s — there
were no literary festivals. Book fairs
started in the ‘70s. There were no book
launches and no television either. Writers
have become like mini celebrities today.
You lived in a certain amount of
anonymity, which is good in a way for a
writer. I think you shouldn’t get too
much public attention.
You wrote your book, searched for a
publisher and if you were lucky to get a
good one, the book might go to book
shops and somebody would come along
and maybe buy one and read one
That was about it and you did a lot of
things by correspondence.
Those were different times, weren’t
they? You still
write in long
hand, don’t you?
I do very much
so. In fact, I’ve
I used to type
but now I get a
stiff neck or
shoulders. I am
far more com-
by hand. My
good so people
put my writing
send me a print-
out — that will
be full of mis-
takes, which I
have to then cor-
There are so
now that it is
hard to keep up
with the names,
Yes, there are new writers being published every week. Even when I go to a
bookstore, two-three writers come and
give me their books, some self published.
It’s amazing the number of people who
are publishing their own work.
Writers get a lot more attention now.
There are writers who are enormously
successful like Chetan Bhagat, Amish
Tripathi and so many others. There are
certainly far more people writing today
— sometimes I think there are more
writers than readers (laughs).
Long before Bhagat and Tripathi, your
stories had already found their readers,
and year after year more people get
introduced to your work.
That’s true, my readership has grown
and I’ve been fortunate. A lot of my stories go into school readers, kids come to
know and may grow up to continue
reading my stories or pass them on to
I’ve really been through three generations of readers.
How have you been able to hold on to
your voice when there are so many newer
voices coming in everyday?
The faint queasiness I always feel towards the end of a journey probably has its origin in that first homecoming after my father’s death. It was the winter of 1944 – yes, a long time ago – and the train was running through the thick sal forests
near Dehra, bringing me at every click of the rails nearer to the mother I hadn’t seen for four years and the stepfather I had
seen just once or twice before my parents were divorced.
I was eleven and I was coming back to Dehra.
Three years earlier, after the separation, I had gone to live with my father. We were very happy together… We took long
walks together, exploring the ruins of old tombs and forts; went to the pictures; collected stamps; bought books (my father
had taught me to read and write before I started going to school); and made plans for going to England when the war was
Six months of bliss, even though it was summer and there weren’t any fans, only a thick khus reed curtain which had to be
splashed with water every hour by a bishti (water-carrier) who did the rounds of similar tents with his goat-skin water bag...
A happy time. But it had to end.
— Excerpted from A Town Called Dehra
3M2 ‘If I can’t write, I might as well be dead’
Ruskin Bond is easily Mussoorie’s most famous resident. From his name on a wall — dedicated to Mussoorie writers — at The Savoy Hotel to the Cambridge Book Depot shelves, inset, devoted to his books, his legacy is hard to miss.