Ruskin Bond on his introduction to the pleasures of reading
My father died when I was 10, and for the next few years books became a scarce commodity for my mother and stepfather were not great readers. In my lonely early teens I seized upon almost any printed matter that came my way, whether it was a girls’ classic like Little Women, or a Hotspur or Champion comic, a detective story or The Naturalist on the River Amazon by Henry Walter Bates. The only books I balked at reading were collections of sermons (amazing how often they turned up in those early years) and self-improvement books, since I hadn’t the slightest desire to improve myself in any way.
I think it all began in a forest rest-house in the Siwalik Hills, a sub-tropical range cradling the Doon Valley in northern India. Here my stepfather and his gun-toting friends were given to hunting birds and animals. He was a poor shot, so he cannot really be blamed for the absence of wildlife today; but he did his best to eliminate every creature that came within his sights.
On one of his ‘shikar’ trips we were staying near the Timli Pass. My stepfather and his friends were ‘after tiger’ (you were out of fashion if you weren’t after big game) and set out every morning with an army of paid villagers to ‘beat’ the jungle, that is, to make enough noise with drums, whistles, tin trumpets and empty kerosense tins, to disturb the tiger and drive the unwilling beast into the open where he could conveniently be despatched. Truly bored by this form of sport, I stayed behind in the rest-house, and in the course of the morning’s exploration of the bungalow, discovered a dusty but crowded bookshelf half-hidden in a corner of the back verandah.
Who had left them there? A literary forest officer? A memsahib who’d been bored by her husband’s camp-fire boasting? Or someone like me who had no enthusiasm for the ‘manly’ sport of slaughtering wild animals, and had brought his library along to pass the time?
Or possibly the poor fellow had gone into the jungle one day, as a gesture towards his more bloodthirsty companions, and been trampled by an elephant or gored by a wild boar, or (more likely) accidentally shot by one of his companions – and they had taken his remains away but left his books behind.
Anyway, there they were – a shelf of some 50 volumes, obviously untouched for several years. I wiped the dust off the covers and examined the titles. As my reading tastes had not yet formed, I was ready to try anything. The bookshelf was varied in its contents – and my own interests have remained equally wide-ranging.
On that fateful day in the forest rest-house, I discovered two very funny books. One was P G Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens, an early Ukridge story and still one of my favourites. The other was The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, who spent more time on the stage than in the study but are now remembered mainly for this hilarious book. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Recently I lent my copy to a Swiss friend, who could see nothing funny about it. I must have read it a dozen times; I pick it up whenever I’m feeling low, and on one occasion it even cured me of a peptic ulcer!
Anyway, back to the rest-house. By the time the perspiring hunters came back late in the evening, I’d started on M R James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, which had me hooked on ghost stories for the rest of my life. It kept me awake most of the night, until the oil in the kerosene lamp had finished.
Next morning, fresh and optimistic again, the ‘shikaris’ set out for a different area, where they hoped to locate their tiger. All day I could hear the beaters’ drums throbbing in the distance. This did not prevent me from finishing a collection of stories called The Big Karoo by Pauline Smith – wonderfully evocative of the pioneering Boers in South Africa.
My concentration was disturbed only once, when I looked up and saw a spotted deer crossing the open clearing in front of the bungalow. The deer disappeared into the forest and I returned to my book.
Dusk had fallen when I heard the party returning from the hunt. The great men were talking loudly and seemed excited. Perhaps they had got their tiger! I came out on the verandah to meet them.
‘Did you shoot the tiger?’ I asked.
‘No, Ruskin,’ said my stepfather. ‘I think we’ll catch up with it tomorrow. But you should have been with us – we saw a spotted deer!’
There were three days left and I knew I would never get through the entire bookshelf. So I chose David Copperfield – my first encounter with Dickens – and settled down in the verandah armchair to make the acquaintance of Mr Micawber and his family, along with Aunty Betsy Trotwood, Mr Dick, Peggotty and a host of other larger-than-life characters. I think it would be true to say that Copperfield set me off on the road to literature: I identified with young David and wanted to grow up to be a writer like him.
But on my second day with the book an event occurred which interrupted my reading for a little while.
I’d noticed, on the previous day, that a number of stray dogs – some of them belonging to watchmen, villagers and forest rangers – always hung about the bungalow, waiting for scraps of food to be thrown away. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning (a time when wild animals seldom come into the open), when I heard a sudden yelp coming from the clearing. Looking up, I saw a large, full-grown leopard making off with one of the dogs. The other dogs, while keeping their distance, set up a furious barking, but the leopard and its victim had soon disappeared. I returned to David Copperfield and it was getting late when the ‘shikaris’ returned. They looked dirty, sweaty and disgruntled. Next day we were to return to the city, and none of them had anything to show for a week in the jungle.
‘I saw a leopard this morning,’ I said, modestly.
No one took me seriously. ‘Did you really?’ said the leading shikari, glancing at the book in my hands. ‘Young Master Copperfield says he saw a leopard!’
‘Too imaginative for his age,’ said my stepfather. ‘Comes from reading so much, I expect.’
I went to bed and left them to their tales of the ‘good old days’ when rhinos, cheetahs and possibly even unicorns were still available for slaughter. Camp broke up before I could finish Copperfield, but the forest ranger said I could keep the book. And so I became the only member of the expedition with a trophy to take home.
After that adventure, I was always looking for books in unlikely places. Although I never went to college, I think I have read as much, if not more, than most collegiates, and it would be true to say that I received a large part of my education in secondhand bookshops. London had many, and Calcutta once had a large number of them, but I think the prize must go to the small town in Wales called Hay-on-Wye, which has 26 bookshops and over a million books. It’s in the world’s quiet corners that book lovers still flourish – a far from dying species!
One of my treasures is a little novel called Sweet Rocket by Mary Johnston. It was a failure when first published in 1920. It has only the thinnest outline of a story but the author sets out her ideas in lyrical prose that seduces me at every turn of the page. Miss Johnston was a Virginian. She did not travel outside America. But her little book did. I found it buried under a pile of railway timetables at a bookstall in Simla, the old summer capital of India – almost as though it had been waiting there for me, these 70 years!
Among my souvenirs is a charming little recipe book, small enough to slip into an apron pocket. (You need to be a weight-lifter to pick up some of the cookery books that are published today.) This one’s charm lies not so much in its recipes for roast lamb and mint sauce (which are very good, too) but in the margins of each page, enlivened with little Victorian maxims concerning good food and wise eating. Here are a few chosen at random:
‘There is skill in all things, even in making porridge.’
‘Dry bread at home is better than curried prawns abroad.’
‘Eating and drinking should not keep men from thinking.’
‘Better a small fish than an empty dish.’
‘Let not your tongue cut your throat.’
I have collected a number of little books, like my father’s Finger Prayer Book, which is the size of a small finger but is replete with Psalms and the complete Book of Common Prayer. Another is The Pocket Trivet: An Anthology for Optimists, published by The Morning Post newspaper in 1932 and designed to slip into the waistcoat pocket. But what is a trivet, one might well ask…
Well, it’s a stand for a small pot or kettle, fixed securely over a grate. To be right as a trivet is to be perfectly and thoroughly right – just right, like the short sayings in this tiny anthology which range from Emerson’s ‘Hitch your wagon to a star!’ to the Japanese proverb: ‘In the market-place there is money to be made, but under the cherry tree there is rest.’
It helps me to forget the dilapidated old building in which I live and work, and to look instead at the ever-changing cloud patterns as seen from my small bedroom-cum-study window. There is no end to the shapes made by the clouds, or to the stories they set off in my head.
Most of our living has to happen in the mind. And, to quote one anonymous sage from my Trivet: ‘The world is only the size of each man’s head.’
Ruskin Bond’s grandfather, a greengrocer’s assistant from Islington, London, ran away to join the Scottish Rifles in the early 1870s. He went with his regiment to India during the Afghan Wars. Both Ruskin’s parents were born in India – as he was (in Kasauli in 1934. He now lives in a small cottage in the hill village of Mussoorie. His most recent book, Eagle Soars, Tiger Roars, is set in northern India and is published by Walker ‘Doubles’ (0 7445 3177 2) at £2.99 pbk.