When I finally met Ruskin Bond—author of over 140 novels, children’s books, travelogues and short story collections—it was a result of a well-plotted conspiracy. First, I pitched a story around the big release of the 83-year-old master storyteller’s latest title, Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography. Persistent calls to his publishers finally secured me an interview, in Bond’s home town of Landour, Mussoorie, no less. Finally, my partner-in-crime and I booked a room in the mishmash Bollywood-Hollywood-Tibetan guest house that shares a wall with Ivy Cottage, the tin-roofed home on a ridge where Bond has lived with his adopted family for three decades.
“I can throw stones at your roof!” he laughs, when he hears we are living next door. Locals will willingly point you to Bond’s home, but it is easy to miss the unassuming entrance. Narrow brick-red stairs lead to a warm, yellow room packed with thick wooden bookcases and precarious book towers, delicately balanced on chairs, tables and stairs. An adjacent balcony with a window overlooks Mussoorie’s rolling valleys of maple, oak and Himalayan rhododendron. “A writer must always have a window. Preferably two,” he says, as we recall the tales of wildflowers, macaques, pines and birds that this view has inspired. The most famous sight is the haunted, uninhabited Pari Tibba or Fairy Hill, burnt down by lightning. Bond’s fans religiously scale Pari Tibba on their trips to Mussoorie. “I was seduced by fairies there,” he tells us with a straight face.
Like the tales of ghosts and fairies of Pari Tibba, Bond’s travelogues are almost always part-fiction, part-real, and deeply inspired by his own idyllic adventures, and the people he meets on them. Set in seemingly unremarkable places—dusty Indian towns, lonely railway platforms, passable hamlets in the hills, and seedy hotels—these stories are loved for their generous humour and delightful plots, starring bakers, bidi-smoking farmers, stationmasters, garrulous khansamas, stuffy schoolteachers, and an occasional leopard. “I like neglected places. I find them charming,” he says. Some of his popular travelogues, such as Tales of the Open Road (2006) and the more recent Small Towns, Big Stories (2017), transport you to the lesser-known north Indian towns and hillside hamlets such as Chhutmalpur, Najibabad, Barlowganj, Shamli or Pipalnagar.
Even when going somewhere well-known, Bond doesn’t head straight to the monuments. “I remember writing a piece on the Taj (Mahal) that had very little to do with the Taj.” The short story, “The Taj at High Noon” recounts chasing peacocks on the mausoleum’s lawns and conversations with the gardener’s son over sweet-and-sour fruit. Years later, Bond wrote in Journey Down the Years (2017) that it was not the sight of the Taj that stayed with him, but the “sharp flavour of the kamrakh (star fruit).”
In search of conversation, Bond has taken several long solo walks off the beaten track, which he highly recommends to young travellers. “I have come to believe that the best kind of walk, or journey, is the one in which you have no particular destination when you set out.” Sometimes, these walks have ended in evening chats in chai shops, or sleeping in wayside dhabas. At these hillside shops there are always old-timers who have ready stories to tell. “Older people have stories,” he says, “the young are still looking for them.” At one such tea shop, he made friends with the owner’s father, who had served as a soldier in the British army and was stationed for a few months in Paris during World War II. Though now wrinkly, bearded and retired on a modest pension, he kept remembering and talking of a French girl. “The last place you’d expect to hear a love story in Paris, eh?” asks Bond.
In Dehradun, where Bond lived in his 20s and 30s, his long walks earned him the title of “the road inspector”. But some of his earliest (and best) stories, written in the 1950s and ’60s, when the Indian Railways were still developing, are about trains. “You sit on a railway platform long enough, and you will have a story to tell,” Bond says. In his autobiography, he writes that “The Ambala Junction gave me ‘The Woman on Platform 8’, the Kalka Shimla Railway route gave me ‘The Tiger in the Tunnel’, and a small wayside halt on the fringe of the Shiwalik forests gave me the The Night Train to Deoli (1988).”
Bond regrets that he is no longer fit to travel on trains, and though he does have funny encounters at airports, he says plane journeys are too fast and nothing much happens in between. At airports people occasionally recognise him, or mistake him for someone else. A few months ago, a woman at the Delhi airport asked, “Are you Bejan Daruwalla?”—a popular, portly Indian astrologer. “I said no, but I offered to read her palm,” he says. Often children approach him, nervously. “Once a kid told me that he loved my book, Tom Sawyer,” he chuckles. “So I signed his autograph as Mark Twain!”
But Bond still yearns for the steady rhythm of a train journey. His grandfather was once a stationmaster, and Bond wonders if his fascination has something to do with that. “There is still some engine soot in my blood,” he writes in Journey Down the Years. Even now, he sometimes buys a platform ticket so he can settle down on a station bench and wile away the hours watching trains.
Three years ago, during a road trip to the Himalayan foothills, Bond decided to take a detour to Kansrao, an obscure railway station on the edge of the Shiwalik hills, which he had spotted on his train journeys from Dehradun to Delhi. “I had never seen anybody on this station. I was very curious.” Though trains pass through Kansrao, only one stops there. The long, lonely station is run by a middle-aged man, who has to lock himself up in his cabin on summer nights, because elephants descend from the hills to drink water from the station’s water hydrant.
Bond discovered that the stationmaster had grown up in Mussoorie, like himself. In his younger days, the man had played cricket for Mussoorie-based actor Tom Alter’s team. Bond had once played for Alter’s team too, but “they threw me out eventually because I was too lazy and wouldn’t run between the wickets.” As the sun set, the stationmaster returned to his cabin. “There he was sitting all alone, like a character straight out of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. There was a whole story there.” Romance, as Bond reminds us, lurks in the most unlikely places.