‘By nature I’m sensitive’

Ruskin Bond with Swapan K. Banerjee at Ivy Cottage

My visit to Mussoorie for the first time years ago was occasioned by a letter I received from Ruskin Bond (born 19 May 1934) in response to an article on his love stories which I did for the Amrita Bazar Patrika. By a happy coincidence Ruskin, commissioned by Penguin Publishers, was then doing an anthology of Indian love stories.

On receipt of my article Ruskin wrote: “it was very kind of you to send me your article on my love stories; otherwise I would probably have missed it. It’s a perceptive and finely-written piece. Thanks! Do send me your questionnaire; I’ll be out on a trek during the next two weeks, so end of June will be best. Can you recommend a love story by a Bengali writer (in English or English translation) which I could include in a Penguin India anthology of Indian love stories? Something written this century …”  

I sent him just one long question a couple of months before my maiden visit to his Ivy Cottage to which he warmly responded:

Swapan K Banerjee: Once upon a time, you, through newspaper articles and stories, used to bemoan the fact that very few journalists wrote on your literary output, that financially you were duped by some people who used your stories but paid you less than you deserved; and that financially it was somewhat frustrating for a writer to support himself entirely through writing. But those days are gone, thankfully. A lot of admirers are now making a beeline to meet you, to interview you, to work on you; and let me tell you that readers also love you as a thorough gentleman for your integrity and strength of character. I’m sure you also receive regularly a lot of “fan” letters; and pay a hefty amount of tax as well. Are you happy now? Do you see the hands of God in all this?

Ruskin Bond: “Thank you for the kind remarks you made. I can say I’m as happy now as I have ever been. I’ve always been a fairly optimistic or happy individual even when times were not so good. You could say ‘content’ would be a better word. It’s true 20 or 30 years back it was very difficult getting books published in India. But that wasn’t only my problem. I think any young writer at that time, you know, would have faced similar situation—which is perhaps why many talented young writers who were known to me went into other profession or changed over to something else because they got discouraged from the fact that they could not make a living from the writing or maybe they encountered publishers who might have had their own problems and just collapsed.

“Publishing in India really came of age in the mid-eighties I think, and has since then gone from strength to strength. A writer can now get his work published and make a living and do reasonably well out of it. Many still aspire to be published in the west. Obviously, if you are published in the west, you are more widely known.

“My readership has always been here, basically. People do write to me and do often come to see me. It’s gratifying that after so many years I’ve built up a readership…and they are fond of me too as a writer, which is a nice feeling indeed.

“You ended your question with: Do I see the hand of God in this? Well, I’m not a very religious person. But you could say I’m a spiritual person. I have always seen the deity in a way in the natural world around me. In nature and the things I love. So yes, perhaps, it’s the hand of God that has sort of supported me or helped me along. But I have never thought of God in the conventional sense, in the sense of worship in a formal or any orthodox sort of system. Being I think sort of nature worshipper maybe that it has sustained me in a way.

“What also sustained me is that although by nature I’m sensitive and impractical, I’m at the same time pragmatic. So I have always managed my work in such a way that I have lived within my means even when those means were not very substantial. When I look back on those earlier years, they don’t seem to me difficult now, you know. Then maybe I felt insecure, and still do at times. But I think I was very fortunate. I did manage to continue doing what I loved doing which was writing and still making a viable living from it.”

From then on, each visit I did to Ivy Cottage made me realise that Landour, Mussoorie had indeed been the place of my previous incarnation, and that I would never have known it but for Ruskin’s pure, penetrating, biblical prose.

Happy Birthday, Ruskin!

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