- The Life and Works of Ruskin Bond
It has taken the better half of fifty years for Ruskin Bond, one of India's most prolific writers in English for adults and children, to receive the critical attention that he deserves. Quietly, Bond has been writing novels, poems, essays, and countless short stories for his mostly Indian fans since the 1950s, yet critics have tended to pay more attention to expatriate Indians rather than the indigenous, especially those known mostly for writing children's literature. Meena Khorana, in her critical biography of Bond, therefore has the daunting task of making up for neglect and lost time, and she does an impressive job of covering a vast career in a slim volume. Not only does she give the most complete and sophisticated look at Bond up to now, but her work also helps to define the post-independence Indian literary identity and its relation to British influences.
The first five chapters of Khorana's book follow Ruskin Bond's life, with a particular focus on his childhood and adolescence, the periods most influential in his writing, in the mountains and cities of northern India. We see the young Ruskin migrate from his home in India, to Britain for a short, but crucial period, and back to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he has stayed, more or less, ever since. Along the way, he deals with his mixed British and Indian identity and perseveres in his tireless effort to survive as a writer. While Khorana is a careful biographer, there were a few moments when I was hoping for a bit more, particularly on Bond's failed proposal to a Vietnamese woman in Britain, and his going to trial in India on charges of obscenity, of all things. Still, the real value in the biographical section is in Khorana's gliding naturally into critical discussions of Bond's usually autobiographical work, including The Room on the Roof (1956), The Young Vagrants (1957), and many short stories and poems. Khorana distances Bond from those to whom he is often compared, such as Kipling, by aligning him with other post-independence writers like Godden and Macfarlane, who, as she claims, along with Bond, tend to deconstruct the colonial novel. Moving away from the biographical format, Chapters 6 and 7 are insightful critical essays focusing on Bond's vision of childhood and his use of natural imagery, with a focus on his writing for children. In the last chapter, she admirably defends Bond from his detractors, though at this point it hardly seems necessary.
Bond, trying to avoid the controversy and confusion around the variously-used label of "Anglo-Indian," prefers instead to call himself simply "Indian," a choice that Khorana goes to great pains to defend through biographical detail and literary analysis. She shows that, throughout Bond's life, he has had unusually intimate experiences within both high and low Indian culture, from the Indian friends he made in 1951 in Dehra, where he spent his time, "wandering around Dehra, absorbing its flavor, observing trains, dhobis ('washermen'), and wrestlers, and playing football and cricket in the maidan ('open ground')" (18), to his adult life in Mussoorie in the midst of a large Indian family.
Ample biographical detail places Bond firmly within Indian culture, but Khorana's analysis goes deeper, revealing Bond's "Indian-ness" through his writing. His many stories are steeped in the culture, religion, and indeed, the very soil of India. In "Angry River," for example, he "firmly anchors the story in the Hindu tradition" (123) through the ordeal of Sita and Krishan, characters strongly tied to Sita and Rama (an incarnation of Krishna) in the Ramayana, one of the primary Hindu texts. Most of his [End Page 253] stories describe the richness of rural life and promote many of the fundamental Indian values found in mainstream, post-independence Indian children's literature, such as the sanctity of family and respect for elders. In particular, he depicts relationships between adults and children where children are not wiser, and where they rarely challenge the...