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A Tale of firsts

Much loved, adored, celebrated and respected, Ruskin Bond remains the only author to have received the Sahitya Academy award (1992), Padma Shri (1999) and Padma Bhushan (2014). His first story My Calling was published in 1951 and his first novel- The Room on the roof was published in 1956. The first story was lost till it was discovered in 2015. His first novel for children- The Hidden pool was published in 1966.

Ruskin Bond’s formal education began when he was sent to Hampton Court School in Mussoorie at age of seven in 1941. Within a year he was pulled out of school as his mother Edith Clerke and dad Aubrey Bond had divorced. He was sent to Delhi to stay with his father who was then working for RAF. When his father got transferred to Calcutta, he was admitted to Bishop Cotton School, Shimla. It was here that young Ruskinwrote his first novel Nine months while he was in Class 8. The naughty title was actually a reference to length of the school term in the boarding school and satirized some of his teachers. The novel filled his two school notebooks. Years later Ruskin talked about it in an interview. “It was confiscated by the housemasterand consigned to the dustbin. As for my literary adventures I received six canning from a supple Malacca cane”. That put an end to his literary pursuits, at least for the time being. During a recent visit to World heritage city of Melaka in Malaysia, I stopped at a woodcraft shop to buy a piece of Malacca cane as a souvenir. However I did not find it supple enough!!

In December 1950 Ruskin returned to Dehradun after completing his Senior Cambridge with second division and no intention of higher studies. His mother had in the meanwhilemarried business man Mr. Harbans Lal Hari. Both his dad and Dehra granny were dead and he had to stay with his mother. He was given a room in the roof of the old building in which she lived with Mr. Hari. In an interview Ruskin narrated this interesting conversation he had with his mother. When I finished school, my mother asked me, "Now what do you want to do with yourself Ruskin?" And I said, "Mom I want to be a writer". She said, "Don't be silly. Go and join the army." However young Ruskin had other ideas. He started maintaining a journal. Between Dec 1950 to Oct 1951 Young Ruskin spent most of his time roaming around Dehra with his friends Somi, Kishen, Daljeet, Harpal, Ranbir and his sister Raj. Much of the material for his first novel came from the entries he had made in this journal during this period when he lived in this room on the roof!!

Ruskin’s first major break came when Illustrated weekly published his story My calling in its issue dated 5 August 1951( Pg. 35) This was a humorous story based on a school master at BCS. Ruskin received Fifty rupees for his effort. He had now joined the league of published writers. Unfortunately the manuscript was lost and even Ruskin did not have a copy. In 1952, Illustrated weekly published his story Untouchable written when he was 16. This manuscript survived and has now been printed again in his collection of short stories- Dust on the Mountain.

For a long time Untouchable was believed to be Ruskin’s first story to have survived till I discovered the original first story “My Calling” in 2015. As a lifelong reader and fan of Ruskin Bond, I had always wanted to do something special for my favorite author. And what better to gift than a copy of his first published story. I undertook a meticulous search in old libraries, kabadiwallahs, magazine collectors and auction sites for more than three years till I finally managed to get my hands on the elusive copy. On 1st January 2015 I finally handed over a copy to Ruskin at his Ivy Cottage in Landour. Ruskin was overjoyed at rediscovering his first brush with literary fame.

After independence his aunt Emily and her husband Dr. John Heppolette had left India to settle down in Jersey in the Channel Islands. His grandmother Ellen Clerke had taken a policy in his name which matured in 1951. It was enough to cover his passage to Jersey. At his mother’s request aunt Emily agreed that Ruskin could stay with them till such time that he could afford to live on his own. On Oct 14, 1951 at the age of 17, Ruskin left Dehra by train and in Nov 1951, sailed from Bombay’s Ballard Pier abroad P&O liner Stranthnaver for Jersey in the Channel Islands with a dream to be an author.

While working in St. Helier, the capital, Ruskin started converting his journal entries into first person account of his experiences in Dehradun. Mr. Bromley, a senior clerk and his colleague at Public health dept., impressed by his dedication loaned him money to buy his first typewriter. The typewriter survived many sunny years and many of Ruskin’s early storied were typed on it. By end of 1952 Ruskin had submitted manuscripts to three publishers but only one, Andre Deutsch gave a favorable reply. After a tiff with his uncle over his colonial attitude, which Ruskin detested, he went to London. Here he met Diana Athill, editor and junior partner at Andre Deutsch. On her suggestion he restructured the book from first person to a fictional narrative in third person. The Room on the Roof was published in 1956. But by then Ruskin had returned to India. The fifty pound advance he had received from Andre Deutsch was enough to cover his passage abroad Polish liner S.S. Batory. He returned in March 1955 and started writing for various publications like The Hindu, The Tribune, The Pioneer, The Leader, SainikSamachar apart from his old favorites The Sunday Statesman and The Illustrated weekly.

The book was serialized in Illustrated weekly and illustrated by Mario Miranda in 1956. In 1957 the book received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize administered by the National Book League (London). Ruskin received 50 pounds as prize money. The rights of the book were sold to German publishers Albert Langen-Georg Muller (Munich) and to Deutsche Hausbucherei (Hamburg) for a special illustrated edition. In 1957 it was published in United States by Coward- MC Cann.

In a letter to Ruskin Bond dt 23rd March, 1964, Diana Athill writes- “ I think it may have been bad luck that your first book came to you so early, making a long wait afterwards inevitable-but that doesn’t invalidate the first book. The Room on the Roof remains just what it always was; a remarkably true piece of writing (than which what more could anyone ask for?). Your snag is, surely, that you are a writer who works best from very close to your own experience-which means that one is terribly dependent on the nature of one’s experience. But I still like best the kind of writing which goes inwards rather than outwards”.

In the 1950s and early 1960s children’s literature in India hardly existed. There were imported books and some writings in the regional languages but the mainstream publishers would not take on children’s books until Shankar and the Children’s Book Trust came on the scene in 1957. Ruskin Bond’s The Hidden pool was one of the first titles published by Children’s Book Trust in 1966 in English, and in Hindi and Bengali translations. Ten years later it was out of print. In 2005 Puffin re published the novel. In the Preface to this edition Ruskin Bond writes- “It doesn’t have much of a plot. It is simply the story of three boys who meet regularly at a secret pool outside their small town, decide on having an adventure and set out to reach a famous glacier in Kumaon. It was based on my own trek to the Pindari glacier when I was a boy”.

First story in 1951, First novel in 1956 and First Novel for Children in 1966. Ruskin has not looked back since then.

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2 comentários

Umesh Gaikwad
Umesh Gaikwad
24 de ago. de 2021

Thank you , Vikas, for the captivating write-up. I'd love to have a copy of the first (1956) edition of Mr Bond's "The Room on the Roof" published by Andre Deutsch, and also of the Illustrated Weekly issues in which it was serialized! Any leads, any nudges from anyone out there? A tail to the Tale of firsts - with Mr Bond's encouragement and guidance my first story was publsihed way back in 1970 - (18th January, 1970. In the children's magazine "Children's World" brought out - you guessed right - by the Children's Book Trust!! 😊


Kirti Priya
Kirti Priya
22 de ago. de 2021

Thank you for sharing this story! Always love to know more about him.

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