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Travelling Through Time In Ruskin Bond’s Towns

Before there was travel writing, there was Ruskin Bond whose stories told tales of cities known and unknown.

Anubhuti Krishna

“I have come to believe that the best kind of journey is the one in which you have no particular destination when you set out.” The world may see Ruskin Bond as a writer, but he is as much a traveller. In all my years of reading Bond’s work and learning writing from him, it is his towns that have called out to me the most. Treelined Dehra, scorching Delhi, mystical Mussoorie, languorous Landour and indifferent London have played as important a role in his stories as the people. And so, on his birthday, we bring to you the towns of Ruskin Bond’s stories — and his life in them.

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Dehradun

No story of Mr Bond is complete without a mention of the quintessential foothill town of Dehradun. Often referred to as Dehra in his writing, this is where the writer spent a large part of his childhood and early youth with his grandmother, uncle and aunts. He also forged lifelong relationships here including friendships with Bansi, a tonga-wallah much older than him, a monkey who was brought home by his grandfather, his aayah, and boys his age like Somi and Daljit. The Dehradun of Bond’s stories is a small idyllic town of yore where people walk everywhere, and everyone knows everyone else. It is a city of trees, tongas and bicycles and long walks in the hills interjected by baths in the pond. A city as far from today’s bustling capital as,“While I was in England when I wrote my first novel, The Room on the Roof, which was all about the Dehra I had left and the people and young friends I had known and loved. It was a little immature, but it came straight from the heart-the heart and mind of a seventeen-year-old-and if it's still fresh today, fifty years after its first publication, it's probably because it was so spontaneous and unsophisticated.” He says in the introduction of his book A town called Dehra, which is a beautiful compilation of stories and essays about his life in the town.  

Delhi

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Bond never liked Delhi much. It is clear in his stories that he tolerated the city and its heat for his father, who worked at the RAF and was posted there and later for work when his bank balance dropped abysmally low. The city nonetheless features in many of his stories and memoirs and even travel tales. It is here where he, as a young boy, spent time all alone in a quarter allotted to his father amidst wilderness; it is here that he started going to the cinemas, and it is here that he saw his father and mother pass. The Delhi in Bond’s books is hot and dusty and a stark contrast to green and pleasant Dehradun. It is also new and strange for the young boy away from home but the friendship with Joseph, a neighbourhood boy in Atul Grove, his walks with his father to Humayun’s Tomb, and pictures at the fancy cinemas of Connaught Place kept Bond in good humour. “Connaught Place was just a ten-minute walk from Atul Grove and my father was always quite ready to take me around this posh shopping centre, stopping at a bookstore, where I would buy a colourful comic paper or record shop, where we would buy a record,” he writes in a chapter of his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing. That he would return to the city some years later and become a reluctant Dilli-wallah, is something he wouldn’t have known back then.

London

Of all his relationships with various cities, the one with London was most tumultuous. As a young man, he was almost forced to move to London post India's independence and the apprehension, agony and pain of leaving his beloved country for an unknown land is evident in his stories. Despite that Bond spent quite a few years in England and London features prominently in his stories and books. He lived in dark windowless rooms, attics, and hostels and did odd jobs to make ends meet. It was also here that Bond finally turned into a writer and wrote his first novel, A Room on the Roof. It is another matter that the novel was set in Dehra, his beloved city. In Bond’s stories we see a facet of London that is hardly seen in popular media: the city was still recovering from War and there was unemployment and dissatisfaction, and people weren’t particularly friendly. We see a young Bond struggling to fit in and finally deciding to return to India, his real home. “I left London without any planning; I made up my mind on the spur of the moment. I gave my office a week’s notice and they had a little party for me, gave me a travel bag and the head of the office said if I changed my mind I could have my job back.” He writes in Goodbye to England while describing his return to the only country he could call home.

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Mussoorie

Long before it became a tourist attraction, Mussoorie was a quiet hill town. It was the city where the writer moved to and settled in almost six decades ago and found a family - albeit a foster family. The long walks in the hills, the lone nights with unknown shadows behind him, days by the stream and tales of panthers, dogs, trees, and birds all emerge from his cottage in hills of Mussoorie where he lived for many years. Today, a trip to the overcrowded yet whimsy town is incomplete without a meeting with the writer, who despite being shy is happy to meet his readers every week at a local bookshop. “I made a window seat and through the changing seasons, I wrote more—and I think better— than any other time of my life,” writes Bond describing his life in the first-ever home in Mussoorie, Maplewood.

Landour

If it was not for him, half the world wouldn’t have known of Landour. The dreamy little cantonment town off Mussoorie, where Bond lives and writes from now has become a pilgrimage of sorts today. It is also the only place the author has ever owned a piece of land. Stories of his kindness towards strangers who knock at the door at odd hours are abound and the town’s few homestays are always booked out. His stories of Landour are less about walks and adventures but more about people who come over and views from his home. “I haven’t tired of the two windows in my room. The views haven’t changed but the cloud patterns are never the same, the birdsong varies and so does the blue dome of the sky. There are still people who buy words and I hope I can keep bringing a little sunshine and pleaser into their ones to the end of my days,” he concludes in his autobiography. We hope you live a hundred more years, Mr Ruskin Bond.

Best Ruskin Bond books to read this summer.

1. A Room on the Roof - It was Bond's first literary novel written when he was 17 and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1957.

2. Tales of the Open Road - A travel book that will take you to the lesser-known towns and corners if the country and colourful characters.

3. A Town called Dehra - A collection of essays and stories of his days in Dehradun, a city he lived in at various stages of his life. It is a celebration of a town and a life hard to find anymore.

4. A Book of Simple Living - A personal record of many small moments of his life and encounters with nature, the book is a gift to everyone struggling to find beauty in the mundane.

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5. Lone Fox Dancing - A brief autobiography of Bond is a must read. It brings to life years from his life and talks of finally settling down in the hills, after years of wanderlust and travel. 

Photo: Anubhuti Krishna
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