In Confessions of a Book Lover, Ruskin Bond takes us on a journey of his bookshelf through the years.
“Whenever I could escape from cricket nets (boring) or gymnastics (terrifying) or athletics practice (why run when you can walk?) I would sneak off to the library to explore the bookshelves. Making myself comfortable in the only armchair (the alternative was a hard bench), I would allow myself to be transported to another world through the pages of Somerset Maugham, J.B. Priestley, P.G. Wodehouse…”
Part anthology, part memoir, Ruskin Bond’s sequel to Love Among the Bookshelves titled Confessions of a Book Lover is a journey into the mind of the author fondly known as ‘Rusty’. For those who have grown up with him, this feels like a conversation with your favourite author, picking his brain on the books he’s grown up with and the stories that have shaped his life. This is not a book to remember Rusty’s way with words or count it as one of his great works. This is a book for fellow bibliophiles to savour the thoughts of another. In his candid manner, he shares stories leading up to how he discovered a certain book – whether it was in a library, a hospital or a bookstore – which he then follows it up with an extract from the discovered book.
In the winter of 1948-49, Bond was 14 and reading voraciously, spurred on by the fact that he had no friends and – like most teenagers – he wasn’t exactly on the best terms with his family. Books were a natural escape to him, a place where one could dip into worlds strange to his own reality. He was reading whatever literature came his way, from The Complete Works of Shakespeare to bound copies of the Daily Mirror; and also listening to comedy programmes on his short-wave radio. This is how he stumbled upon on the humorous book The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. The humour in this book is hard to define, says Bond, but he often turns to the exploits of Mr Pooter, the protagonist of the story, whenever he’s down in the dumps.
Humour followed him along with jaundice to a hospital bed, where a kind matron discovered a bunch of old books in the staffroom cupboard with writers such as Barry Pain, Arthur Morrison, Saki and O. Henry to keep him company during ill health. Among those authors, the works of Stacy Aumonier particularly delighted Bond and the story Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty, a hilarious tale of a upright English lady on her first trip to France, is a joy to read even as a limited extract.
Bond completed his schooling in an all-boys boarding school in Shimla. He recounts the amusing trials of boarding school and especially his days spent in the library, where he discovered the works of Somerset Maugham, Hugh Walpole and P.G. Wodehouse, among others. Among the list of successful novelists, poets and playwrights of the 1930s and 1940s, the reader gets a glimpse of J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companion. The quotations are humorous and manage to leave you with the essence of the characters in the story.
In London, Bond finds himself in a hospital bed again. He humorously recalls being called ‘Bedpan Superman’ due his frequent use of a bedpan. In the duration of a month at the hospital, he read some 15-20 books, especially detective novels ranging from Josephine Tey to Margary Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers. But the works he enjoyed the most were William Saroyan’s, which he says better suited his mood at that time. The anthology includes an extract from William Saroyan’s beautiful collection of essays called The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. In the essay, Saroyan is trying to come to grips with his reality, the kind of writer he is and his similarities with his late father. It is both a coherent and rambling portrait of Saroyan’s thoughts and spiritual journeys. His words of rage against violence and mob mentality still resonate in the current day.
“My only weapon is language, and while I know it is stronger than machine-guns, I despair because I cannot single-handed annihilate the notion of destruction which propagandists awaken in men. I myself, however, am a propagandist, and in this story I am trying to restore man to his natural dignity and gentleness. I want to restore man to himself. I want to send him from the mob to his own body and mind. I want to lift him from the nightmare of history to the calm dream of his own soul, the true chronicle of his kind. I want him to be himself. It is proper to herd only cattle. When the spirit of a single man is taken from him and he is made a member of a mob, the body of God suffers a ghastly pain, and therefore the act is a blasphemy.”
In the spring of 1960, Bond visited Bangalore for the first time. In the commercial street of M.G. Road, he discovered a shop run by Mr Rao and his son, Mr Murthy, who sent him handwritten lists of books that might appeal to the writer.
“My reading tastes being fairly varied, I ordered a mixed bunch of books quite at random, for I love discovering the unusual, the little-known, the forgotten, and even the eccentric. Sometimes a little gem turns up; or a neglected masterpiece. Sometimes they are really ordinary, justifiably forgotten, and soon discarded. But more often than not there is something worth keeping.”
In one of these lists, Bond discovered The Tale of a Child by Josef Bard, a Hungarian author who captures the innocence of a child trying to come to terms with the world of the adults around him. The protagonist, a young boy of eight, deals with sex, religion, nationality, patriotism, love and even the ‘forbidden’ thought of same-sex attraction. The writing is convincingly childlike and the reader is able to view the world through the eyes of a young boy. For those uninitiated, this book is a delightful find. The anthology also throws in a mix of adventure writing as an excerpt from American writer Jack London’s Love of Life. It is a superb story of a man against the elements.
In small-town India, Bond says, the 1950s were the Bicycle Age, outnumbering all other forms of transport. The bicycle was also central to many literary works of the early 20th century, such as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, and several works of H.G. Wells like the one (for those who are unfamiliar) we are introduced to titled The History of Mr Polly. It is the endearingly comic story of a small shopkeeper who frustrated and bankrupt, sets fire to his shop and sets off on his bicycle in search of romance, adventure and happiness.
“Like Mr Polly, I have, on several occasions in the course of a long life, given up on a good job and a steady income and ventured into unknown territory, the uncertainties of full-time writing.”
In the winter holidays of 1948-49, Bond was still bicycling and still reading voraciously. In his small room buffeted by Shimla’s stormy weather under a leaking roof, he would read lots of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. An author who perfectly caught stormy weather was Joseph Conrad, and Bond refers to Conrad’s short story The Secret Sharer about a young ship captain who holds a secret in his cabin. The stormy weather, the instability of the sea and the ship captain’s inner turbulence captures the idea of a storm in every manner.
A lot of Bond’s memoirs in this book have amusingly revolved around beds and it’s only fit when his advice to young people is “Always make your own bed”. And no, this isn’t meant to be funny – he means it as serious life advice. He looks upon the act of making your bed as a stamp of one’s personality and, also funnily, enough an act of self-preservation as he recalls finding a nest of scorpions hiding underneath his pillow in a hotel room while he was remaking the bed arrangements to his liking. He tells the reader an amusing story of how he once found himself in the wrong bedroom and one such writer who often found himself in the wrong bedroom was Laurence Sterne. An extract from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is the story of how he is forced to share a room with a lady and her maid, and he manages to do so with flair, ending up in a romantic liaison.
The Confessions ends with Bond’s first encounter with snow in Dehradun, an unusual phenomenon which the town would never experience again.
“It hadn’t snowed in Dehra for over forty years, according to old Miss Kellner who had spent most of her life in the town. This freak snowfall then was something of a sensation, and people ran out of their homes and shops to witness the snowflakes settling on the trees, cars and bullock carts.
Stories of abnormal snowfall and freezing winters have inspired many other literary works from Anton Chekhov to Dickens and Robert Frost. The magnitude and unpredictability of nature is something humans as finite beings have no grasp over. Bond gives the reader a glimpse into Orlando by Virginia Woolf, which aptly captures the awe and magnitude of nature in our lives in its vivid description of the Great Thames Frost which was last seen in 1814.
In a world that is consistently inconsistent, complex and volatile, Bond still has the ability of making you smile and dream of living an idyllic life in the hills, which form such an integral backdrop to the majority of his stories. He still manages to be an exemplar of how simple words manage to capture one’s attention more than dense and pretentious outcroppings.
Readers have always been a threatened species and maybe this book about books isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is definitely a charming effort and a peek into Bond’s bookshelves, letting the reader discover some forgotten works in the process. However, there is still a very evident lack of Indian or Asian works in Bond’s carefully-compiled anthology. This may be a product of the literature he was exposed to while growing up and those are rightfully what he talks about. One can only hope that many Indian and other non-Western writers make the cut in future anthologies, especially by someone like Bond who has lived (for a majority of his life) and loved in India.
Pallavi Krishnappa is currently a Masters student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.