Dehra-Ache in Seven Beats

Ruskin Bond
Short Stories
Penguin India. 2011
ISBN: 978-0-143-41749-1
Pages 150

List Price Rs. 250

By Swapan K Banerjee

Reading Secrets (2011) by Ruskin Bond brings to mind Nocturne (2010) by Kazuo Ishiguro. The similarity in their choice of the locale from where the stories take off strikes one as an afterthought. Kazuo situates all his five stories in hotels in an unnamed Italian city. The pick of hotels and houses in Dehradun as the backdrop of all the seven stories of Bond is appositely reflected in the cover design that depicts a spectral-looking palace, apparently depeopled, as if housing a mine of painful secrets.

What threads the stories in Secrets is the image of haunted house that reappears from story to story. The scapes of Granny’s bungalow, Miss Gamla’s house, the flat in Astley Hall, Green’s hotel, cinema hall, haveli—they are all drawn with masterstrokes. 

True to Conrad’s prescription for the writer’s role in Preface to Nigger of the Narcissus, Bond makes you see the sweeping view as in the story ‘Over the Wall’. The dialogue bit between Granny and adolescent Bond in this ‘slice of life’ is pretty interesting. Granny in conversation with young Bond in ’Over the Wall’ is actually a lesson for those parents who flare up at the drop of a hat. 

Any child on the cusp of adolescence usually gets inquisitive chiefly about things that are kept away from him. Bond gets curious about a mysterious presence (of a leper) hidden in a cottage belonging to Johnson family, whom he watches wide-eyed perching on the boundary wall, and later, secretly, tries to be friendly with. Granny treats Bond with an iron-hand-couched-in-velvet-glove approach. She restrains him from going overboard, yet lets him have his way to some extent. 

The story has certainly the touch of the famous novel Papillon. It’s the gradual erosion of a leper’s body, the shame and horror associated with it that leads Bond to empathise with the lepers. The end of the story is moving: Bond by chance rediscovers the leper from the Johnson family along with other lepers on the road, begging; and Bond, as always in real life, contributes ‘something’ to their coffer without getting found out.

‘Gracie’ is such kind of a story that could be developed into a novella on the line of Of Human Bondage. Here the story of love born out of physical attraction; the resultant betrayal leading to the female protagonist Gracie’s fall from grace, and the narrator’s (himself being under the spell of her beauty before her escapade with a soldier) chance discovery of her at a West End brothel, is teased out with a flair reminiscent of Chekov. 

‘The Canal’ too will test the strength of your heart almost like the film ‘Exorcist’, on a miniature scale though. At the outset the story describes a bathing scene that we all as children at some point took part in. But one day, Miss Gumla, jerked out of her siesta all too often by the whoops of mirth by the children, charges out of her house situated at the edge of the canal with a cane in hand, ‘tumbles’ into the swirling water, and then disappears into a tunnel… At this point the reader’s heart is sure to miss a few beats.

There are three detective stories in the book: ‘At Green’s Hotel’, ‘The Skeleton in the Cupboard’ and ‘The Late Night Show’. Bond’s subtle shift of motifs in these flash crime fiction keeps alive the reader’s interest throughout. Although all the seven pieces are harking back to the years around the time of India’s Independence as informed by Bond in the nifty Introduction, these three pieces are redolent of the recent cases of mysterious murders both in Dehradun and Mussoorie, only difference being that unlike in the stories, these cases are yet to be solved.

The book is a pot-pourri of love story, murder mystery, adolescent mischief, and the coda to the book is hair-raising, which is the story of a rabid tiger, told in the form of an interview. 

Normally, most of the stories written in interview format appear to be contrived. But ‘A Tiger in the Lounge’ is an exception. The interviewer Bond cuts in only occasionally, letting the Shikari, his mouth-piece, talk, and walk down the corridor of his memory, and suddenly the conversation transforms itself into a live scene pulsing with excitement and terror.

Just like his first book, Room on the Roof, Ruskin Bond, even now, keeps lots of surprises in store for his ‘gentle reader’. He starts each piece talking to you much in the same way Italo Calvino does, and then, before you realise, you are swept away with the current his words generate. He is adept at the art what David Lodge describes as the ‘endless leading on of the reader’. 

First published in Muse India

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