Saturday, August 25, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

An Enduring Bond ---- Illustration by Kuldip Dhiman Ruskin Bond
E had moved again. My stepfather was supporting my mother once more, so she had given up the managerial job at the small hotel which was about to close down anyway. They had rented a small, rather damp bungalow on Dehra’s Canal Road, and I had a dark little room which leaked at several places when it rained.

"Lonely!" exclaimed Thoreau. "Why should I feel lonely? Is not on our planet on the Milky Way?"

The trouble was, we never saw the Milky Way for the three months that the monsoon prevailed over Dehra. The rain thundered down, and when it wasn’t raining, a fog descended on the town.


My room had a rather spooky atmosphere: the drip of water, the scurrying of rats in the space between the ceiling and corrugated tin roof, and the nightly visitation of a small bat which got in through a gap in the wall and swooped around the room, snapping up moths. I would stay up into the early hours, reading Wuthering Heights (all in one sitting, during a particularly stormy night — just the right atmosphere for it!) or a work by Dickens, or Shakespeare’s Complete Works. This lofty volume of Shakespeare’s plays and poems was the only book in the house that I hadn’t read till then. The print was very small, but I set myself the task of reading right through the entire tome, a feat which I achieved during the school holidays.

I realise now that my mother was a brave woman. She stuck it out with my stepfather, who, as a businessman, was a complete disaster. He’d lost his car agencies, his motor workshop, and was up against large income-tax arrears. But this did not stop him and my mother from going off on hunting expeditions in the surrounding jungles, an expensive and time-consuming pastime.

Left largely to my own devices, I read whatever books came my way. Back in the 1940s, books were a scarce commodity in small-town India. There were hardly any libraries, and good bookshops were to be found only in the cities.

Poking around in the back verandah of my grandmother’s house at the other end of town, I found a cupboard full of books, untouched for years. I had never seen Granny read anything but religious tracts, which were always scattered about the house, so these must have been Grandfather’s books. I borrowed them from time to time, and found much enjoyment in Pauline Smith’s stories of South Africa, The Little Karoo and The Big Karoo, and The Virginian by Owen Wister, a novel that was a precursor of the modern ‘Western’. There was also EHA’s Naturalist on the Prowl, delightful sketches of Indian natural history; a great influence on me. It taught me to look twice at the natural world around me.

Back at my boarding-school in Simla (Bishop Cotton’s), I found a sympathetic soul in Mr Jones, an ex-Army Welshman who had been to school with my father and who taught us Divinity in class. He did not have the qualifications to teach us anything else, but I think I learnt more from him than from the teachers who had degrees after their names.

Mr Jones got on well with small boys, one reason being that he never punished them. Alone among the philistines, he was the one teacher to stand out against corporal punishment. He waged a lone campaign against the prevalent custom of caning boys for their misdemeanours, and in this respect was far ahead of his time. The other masters thought him a little eccentric, and he lost his seniority because of his refusal to administer physical punishment.

But there was nothing eccentric about Mr Jones, unless it was the pet pigeon that followed him everywhere and sometimes perched on his bald head. He had a passion for the works of Dickens, and when he discovered that I had read Oliver Twist and Sketches By Boz, he allowed me to borrow from his set of the Complete Works, with the illustrations by Phiz. I launched into David Copperfield, which I thoroughly enjoyed, identifying myself with young David, his tribulations and triumphs. After reading Copperfield, I decided it would be a fine thing to become a writer. The seed had been sown, and although, in my imagination, I still saw myself as a football star or a Broadway tap-dancer, I think I knew in my heart that I was best suited to the written word. I was topping the class in essay-writing, and I was keeping a journal, something my father had taught me to do in the few happy years he’d been spared to me.

The school library was fairly well-stocked, and I was put in charge of it. Here I worked my way through the plays of Barrie and Bernard Shaw, the novels and stories of Priestley, H.E. Bates, Maugham and Saroyan. After Copperfield, the novel that most influenced me was Hugh Walpole’s Fortitude, an epic account of another young writer in the making. Its opening line still acts as a clarion call when I am depressed or feel as though I am getting nowhere. "It isn’t life that matters, but the courage you bring to it!" I returned to Fortitude last year and found it was still stirring stuff.

But school life wasn’t all books. I excelled as a football goalkeeper, and since then, guarding my goal — my way of life — has always been my forte.

I was in the school choir, but was told not to sing, because I had a terrible singing voice. Apparently I looked quite cherubic in a cassock and surplice, and was told by our choir-mistress to open my mouth along with the others, but on no account to allow any sound to issue forth!

Mr Jones helped me to overcome my fear of water and taught me to swim a little. He taught me the breast-stroke, saying it was more suited to my quiet, reflective temperament.