I distinctly remember the year my class in school was introduced to a collection of short stories written by a man named Ruskin Bond. Mountains blushing in the evening sun, fires crackling merrily in wooden lodges, jinns named Jimmy, and a motley crew of the strangest characters… there was no way I wasn’t going to obsesses over the book. It marked the first time a school textbook took a willing pride of place on my lap! But the author, to me, remained a mythical wordsmith with an intriguing name. When I mentioned this to him recently, he chuckled in genuine amusement.
Oh, yes, I did speak to Mussorie’s most famous gentleman who just hit the stands again with his Uncles, Aunts and Elephants
Q: Growing up, who were your favourite children’s book authors?
The first book I ever read was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so it’s very special to me; as is Peter Pan. As I grew older, I started favouring adventure stories like Treasure Island. When I was 12, I read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It made a great impression on me because young David grows up to be a writer and he became my role model. Did you know David was based on Dickens himself? When I was 14, I got my hands on Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I also remember enjoying Three Men in a Boat! Chekov and Henry James introduced me to the short story medium. These authors influenced my own writing in a big way.
Q: When did you decide you would write for children?
I think I was 40 when I wrote a short novel that my publishers in England thought was too short to be a novel for adults. But, they said it would make a great children’s story, if I changed it just a bit to make it more appealing for children. It was called Angry River. So, you see, it started off purely for practical reasons.
Q: What do children look for in a book?
Young readers want to be able to identify with the main character. They like the supporting characters to be funny. One of my most popular characters is Uncle Ken, who is always getting into trouble and making a fool of himself. Children love to read about an adult who is an idiot!
Q: Conception to completion must be quite a process.
Yes, it is. The idea can come from anywhere - other people, their experiences, something I hear or read about. Before I put pen to paper, I have the entire story written in my head. Then, I write at a small desk near my bedroom window. I still write by hand. Typically, if it’s a short story, I am done in a day or two. Novels can take a few months. Sometimes, I write poems on the spur of the moment.
Q: The hills are a recurring theme in your books. Why?
Jane Austen lived in small village in England and all her books are set there. It’s the same with RK Narayan and his beloved Malgudi. Having spent more than two-thirds of my life in the hills, it’s natural for me to base my stories on the hills.
Q: Do you think children these days read enough?
They read more than they used to, but not as much as they should.
Q: Writing as a profession for children…
Once, when I was in school, I came home and my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a writer. She said, “Don’t be silly; join the army.” Back then, unless you became famous, you didn’t make money as a writer. But today, because of the media and Internet, writers are celebrities! Need I say more?
Q: What are your reading habits like, these days?
I read a book a week. I read for light entertainment. I go back to old favourites. I love detective stories and crime fiction, as well as good biographies of other writers. I read Somerset Maugham’s new biography some weeks ago and quite enjoyed it.
Q: We know you love writing. What are your other interests?
I used to trek a lot. Now, I take short walks in the hills. When I lived in Delhi in the 60s, I used to walk from Connaught Place to Rajouri Garden. The best way to get to know a city is to walk through it. But, you won’t see me walking around Delhi now… I’d get knocked over by a vehicle!
Q: What’s your take on movie adaptations of books?
When I was a boy, some great movies were made, based on books by Dickens, Hemingway and Daphne du Maurier. It depends a good deal on the director. Vishal (Bharadwaj) adapted my Blue Umbrella to film and it was lovely. Two-three years ago, 7 Khoon Maaf was made and I even had a small role in it. It was great fun!
Q: Everyone knows you live in Mussorie. How do you deal with fans?
Sometimes, I have to go underground. I have too many people knocking on my door every single day. But I like a bit of a warning. I don’t want people catching me in a banyan (vest) or when I am mid-siesta…
I can get grumpy! I go to a local bookshop once a week to meet readers, though.
Q: On a personal note- you are a father and a grandfather. Which role do you enjoy better?
That of a great grandfather! Yes, I am a great grandfather now. The smaller the children, the more appealing they are! Ha ha.