Published: 19th May 2022
More than just a children's author — we understand Ruskin Bond a bit better through Dr Ishrat Lalljee's trysts with the man
Dr Ishrat Ali Lalljee is an Associate Professor and Head of the English department at Mumbai University's Hinduja College. She has devoted her research to Ruskin Bond's writings
"It isn't time that is passing by, it is you and I that are." It is perhaps fitting that such a saying comes from someone whose writings have created a sense of timelessness among us. Ruskin Bond has been a stalwart of Indian literature for over seven decades and, today, we celebrate his 88th birthday. On this occasion, EdexLive was fortunate to meet someone who, as a researcher, has dedicated her life to Bond's writings.
Dr Ishrat Ali Lalljee is someone who has known Ruskin Bond for over three decades. An Associate Professor and the Head of the English department at Mumbai University's Hinduja College, she identifies Bond as someone who is "very transparent". She recalls from one of her interviews with him that when asked to give a message to readers, he said, "I frequently meet readers who tell me ‘I grew up on your books’. I’d like to tell them ‘Please don’t grow up – continue reading my books’. Dr Ishrat speaks at length about her fascination with the man and his personality. She also let us in on her new book which is based on Ruskin Bond's writings. Excerpts from a lively chat:
What was the source of your initial fascination with Ruskin Bond's writings?
I began my teaching career when I was 22 and even back in the late 80s, Ruskin Bond's writings occupied a large part of academic syllabi in English. One of the first things I taught was The Thief's Story by Bond which showcased his magnanimous attitude towards wrong-doers. The large-heartedness in his writing and character fascinated me.
How did you first manage to meet him for your research?
It happened during a college trip to Mussoorie in 1989. In those days, you didn't have tech at hand and I wrote a letter saying that I would like to meet him. And on that day, when I was supposed to meet him, who should open the door and welcome me but the famous author himself! Over continued correspondence with him, I expressed that I would like to work on his novels but he himself suggested that I should instead focus on his short stories since they, in his own words, will outlive him.
So what was your initial foray into research on Bond like? What themes did you study?
My MPhil was on the thematic study of the short stories of Ruskin Bond and I moved to the non-literary themes of Bond's writings. You see, it would be a disservice to categorise him only as a children's author or even a novelist. He has written so much more than just that. My PhD topic was 'Border Crossing: The Encyclopaedic Humanistic Vision of Ruskin Bond' where I studied how he interweaves his knowledge of various disciplines in his writing. He incorporates his vast knowledge of the natural bird in stories. For instance, not many would know that woodpeckers are largely carnivorous. It is details like these that he effortlessly includes in stories. Similarly, he also showcases his environmental concerns and love for history in a similar way. As an example, there are several mentions where Bond gives credit to a lot of unsung heroes of Indian history. That is what makes his writing humanistic as well as encyclopaedic.
How have you understood Bond's evolution as a writer?
He is far more realistic now. Earlier, he used to be quite idealistic. But over the years, he has had so many experiences that he shares. He has been a close witness to India's independent times and that is explored at length in his latest offering, A Little Book of India: Celebrating 75 Years of Independence. Earlier, his writing included autobiographical elements, for instance, the character 'Rusty' was based on his adolescent self which he has discontinued because he has simply outlived Rusty. One thing that he always has been is easy to read. There is no painstaking sculpting but an evolutionary growth in his style. He strives to attain clarity and not simplicity in particular. Bond cited his English teacher who taught him to "keep it simple and not mystify his readers". He also owes a lot to his habit of being a compulsive diarist which was encouraged by his father. As a result, he considers observation, recollection and reflection to be his aide while writing.
Despite being an Anglo-Indian in origin, how does he identify himself?
He has always identified himself as an Indian and he has lived here for most of his life. He went to England for a few years but came back. He has always loved the people, human contact, patience and tolerance of Indians. You don't see the remnants of his European lineage at all. He absolutely loves Indian food, especially chaats and tikkis. In that respect, he is completely desi.
What can you share about his personal character?
As my first rendezvous with him showed, he is very approachable. He considers himself lazy and self-indulgent while being easily duped and greedy for the sensual delights of life. He is also very direct. If you ask who his favourite person is, he will reply that it's the postman as he brings his mail and cheques!
What can you tell us about your new book and your further research interests?
The book titled The Encyclopedic Vision of Ruskin Bond is an extension of my PhD dissertation. It gives insights into his vision as a nature mystic, metaphysic, romantic, environmentalist, humanist, historian, biographer and raconteur, among other identities. It spans his career right from his debut novel in 1956, The Room on the Roof, right to A Little Book of India. I have been fortunate enough to have both my MPhil and PhD theses placed in the Ruskin Bond collection at the Boston University library, at his own suggestion. My current research revolves around the theme of sustainability and bonding for survival through the lens of Bond's writings. I would explore how he has incorporated conservationism in his works. I also plan to work on his importance as a historian since his history is not of a pedantic variety. Rather it is skillfully interwoven in short stories and novellas.
All of us at EdexLive wish Ruskin Bond a blessed 88th birthday!
If you wish to buy Dr Ishrat's book, you can visit https://amzn.to/38EwUnh or https://bit.ly/39vVo25.