‘I’m a Writer without Regrets’

In an interview with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24x7's Walk the Talk, author Ruskin Bond talks of writing, finding god in the hills, his uncle James Bond and kissing Priyanka Chopra.

Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk from Landour. Our guest this week is an eminent member of a creative community which has made this hill station its home. Ruskin Bond, welcome to Walk the Talk.

Welcome to Landour.

So hills and trains are the two threads that run through your stories.

Trains, you see, were in the early stories, because in the '50s and early '60s, I travelled quite a bit by train and spent a lot of time at railway stations. If you sit down on a railway platform for an hour or two, you'll have a story.

I know it's an unfair question to ask a writer. But can you describe the process of a story brewing in your mind?

It's a fair question. Before I write a story, I really got to see it happening in my mind, almost like a film. And that helps me when I sit down to write it. And I then think of the right words, the right sentences, the dialogue. I don't get a writer's block, because I have already written it in my head. I'm a very visual writer.

Can you give me an example.

The Night Train at Deoli — a very early one. This train used to come from Delhi to Dehradun, and very early morning, it would pass through this tiny station which was called Deoli. In reality, it had another name. And I used to see a girl on the platform with a basket selling fruits and she was very attractive. I wove this little story into it of how I would deliberately make the journey sometimes just to see her. I always wanted to know her but never had the guts to get off the train and do anything about it. So, very often stories emerge from little incidents. Sometimes, they are partly autobiographical, but when I sit down to write them, they run away from me and become fiction.

You had an unusual life, an unusual ­childhood.

Well, a lonely one at times. My father died when I was eight or nine, and my parents were already separated. I did have to adjust quite a bit. But in a way, that made me turn to books, to writing, to nature.

So do you remember the stories that your mother told you?

Mother didn't tell me stories. I started reading very young. Books were put on my way by my father and he would take me for walks in Delhi in the early '40s. He would take me to Humayun's tomb, Purana Qila, down those steps where Humayun fell and killed himself. He would tell me stories about these monuments and old places.

Yet as you grew up, there was a father-sized hole in your life. Now with your stories for children, are you filling the hole somehow? Are you playing father?

I'm playing grandfather because very often, I tell stories as though they were told by grandparents. And I bring grandparents into stories. Not because the grandparents told me stories. They died when I was young. But I've invented stories about them or told by them. So I may be filling the parental gap not with parents but with grandparents.

And your choice of India over going home...

Well after school, I was packed off to England. No sooner did I get there, I was longing to get back. The pull of friends, relationships, attachments more than anything else. I'm a sentimental person. I have always given priority to friendships, to relationships.

You have never gone back since...

Never been out of India since 1955, which was when I came home to a little flat in Dehradun...

You never felt like or you never had the time?

I just started banging out stories, articles for magazines, newspapers. We didn't have many publishers then of general books or fiction.

You even wrote Hollywood gossip once.

I did for The Leader of Allahabad, a paper long gone. I was always interested in films, so I would gather information on pictures that were being made, on the activities of the actors and actresses in theatre and films. So I wrote this little column for The Leader. Though I sent it from Dehradun, they would say, 'from our Hollywood correspondent'.

Talking of Hollywood and popular culture, I bet people have asked you about your ­relation with James Bond, the other famous Bond.

I did have an uncle called James Bond. He was a dentist, not a secret agent. His grave is here in the cemetery. I wrote an epitaph for him: "A stranger approached this spot with gravity, James Bond is filling his last cavity."

I bet your uncle had a sense of humour. You might have to do some answering.

I hope he had. I never met this uncle but had heard about him. I have brought in uncles and aunts to stories whenever I have run out of ideas. When I run out of relatives, I invent ghosts.

Well, we stand outside St Paul's church, the oldest anywhere.

It was built in 1840 or so.

You are not a particularly religious person. You are not going to be found in a place of worship often.

Very rarely, and more out of interest in the historical importance of a church or some place of worship. It's not that I am irreligious. I would rather look for god in a forest or on a hillside.

Talk about some of your discoveries when you thought you found god looking at hills and forests.

Well, you just get a feeling of uplift or the feeling that we are so temporary and these mountains are permanent. The moment I remember the best was when I was in Jersey in the Channel Islands, leaving India as a boy. I was very unhappy and unsure of my future. I wanted to be a writer and I walked along the seafront. There was a storm brewing and the waves were crashing in and there was nobody else on the seafront. Then I suddenly felt within me that I am going to do what I want to do. I decided to go back to India, make a living out of writing and make a name for myself. That was the sort of promise I made to myself. It was with the help of natural elements around me.

That will be a great commercial for god.

I don't mind if god takes the credit.

The choice of not having a family of your own directly...

True, and that's why, perhaps, over the years, as my adopted family — or they've adopted me, you could say — has grown around me, it's been wonderful to have the responsibility to bring up the children, or help to bring them up.

So why the choice of not having a family directly? You were not running away. In fact, you wanted the responsibility.

I think it just didn't happen the way people normally get married.

Were there moments you came close?

Oh yes, there were, but I don't think when I was in my 20s, 30s, I was a very good catch. I was not making much money. Parents of girls would not have approved of me as a prospective son-in-law.

Did you fall in love?

Several times. In fact, there is a title of one of my story collections, Falling in Love Again, and again, and again.

Did that take you closer to having a family of your own? And then something did not work out?

Yes, sometimes, things did not work out.

But no regrets. I'm not a person who has many regrets. You can say, I'm a writer without regrets.

Many people don't know you write poetry.

Oh yeah. Sometimes, the mood comes upon me, particularly when I'm close to nature or say, after a walk like this with you...that's what sets off a poem. A flower or a bird or just wind and the trees.

You have also acted in a movie. How did you work out Saat Khoon Maaf?

Well, Vishal Bhardwaj had already made a film based on my story, The Blue Umbrella. He kept the title The Blue Umbrella, instead of calling it neeli chhatri. And Saat Khoon Maaf was Susanna's Seven Husbands. So I had taken the story of a chap who killed his seven wives in mythology —at the moment, the name escapes me— and turned it around.

A wife killing her seven husbands is sexier.

Yes, she would do it in a more inventive way.

Which she did. And that kiss with Priyanka Chopra. You did it quite well but it took, what, 10 or 11 takes?

Seven takes. Seven is a significant number.

So tell us about that.

Well, first time I was very clumsy and nearly knocked her glasses off. But she was very sporting about it. We did it again, rather I did it again. It was just a fatherly peck on the cheek. The director said try once more, Ruskin. So I did. But after seven takes, he said, 'Mr Bond, I think you are doing this deliberately'. Then I appeared briefly in a bishop's robe— everyone said I looked the part.

Yes, for someone who has almost never gone to a church.

Only as a schoolboy.

I notice you make definite choices. Not going back to church. Not going back overseas after returning to India. Not building a family of your own. Not getting married.

Once I decided what was right for me, I did stick to it. Also, I was stubborn since I was a boy. If there was something I didn't want to do, it was very hard to make me do it.

That's a good attitude to have.

In the long run, it pays off. I kept my independence. When I was younger, occasionally, I had to do odd jobs, but I always thought of it as just a temporary arrangement while I finished my book.

You have become a storyteller to children. Is it more coincidental than by design?

Yes, a lot of my stories which were written for general readers found their way to textbooks or school books. They were considered suitable for children, though they were not written specifically for them. And when I was about 40, I occasionally did write stories that were, maybe, directed at young readers.

I overheard someone asking you kaise hain, and you said chalti ka naam gaadi. But that's not the way you have led your life. You have actually looked for surprises.

Although I have led a fairly quiet life and I haven't looked for thrills or taken physical risks, I have taken risks in the sense of career, or writing, or making a living. Because I stuck to writing and nothing else. So that's been a risk in its own way.

You have looked for creative thrill. And I presume there is a new one coming up.

There is always something coming up. It might be stories...

Because your mind is only getting younger.

I hope so. The mind keeps clicking away as far as writing goes.

It is such a privilege to spend time with a writer whose first book, written more than 50 years ago, is still being reprinted. Congratulations and good luck.


Transcribed by Priyanka Sengupta. For the full transcript, visit www.indianexpress.com

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