A Wry Read on Royalty

Ruskin Bond’s newest book is a detached and amused look at a decadent queen and an age long gone, says Aradhna Wal

Holding Court Ruskin Bond
Holding Court Ruskin Bond

AS YOU get older you have more stories to tell,” is how Ruskin Bond explains publishing a book every year. The 78-year-old author’s latest book, Maharani, falls into a familiar groove of chronicling a bygone era. The novella is a charming look at a motley bunch of characters and life in the hills when they were a destination for the elite.
Ruskin, the eponymous narrator, and Neena meet at a school ‘social’. Married at 16 to the older Maharajah of Mastipur, whose signature eccentricity is raising white mice, Her Highness is a grand old dame with a hefty sense of old school entitlement. The narrator and HH, as he fondly calls her, reconnect on a Pondicherry beach, and party at her home in Mussoorie, which overflows with liquor supplied by her many lovers, from Bolivian diplomats and Brigadiers, to a hotel pianist.
“I am a romantic,” Bond admits. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.” “Here” is the slopes of Mussoorie, which he describes sparely, yet evoking lush images of light and shadow, of sunsets and solitary walks that end in chance encounters with the book’s quirky cast. Pablo, the beautiful, beloved young son of the seduced diplomat sticks pins into voodoo dolls, hoping to kill off people he intensely dislikes. His sister, Anna, serenely sketches the ghosts she sees in windows. This infusion of whimsy and the supernatural is as integral to Bond’s writing as it is to the hills. Bond collects eccentrics. “I’ve always gotten along with difficult people. Perhaps growing up in a home with relatives always in strange troubles has something to do with it. Maybe I’m a good listener to these people. Maybe they’re the ones with the best stories,” he says. His romanticism hasn’t divorced him from reality. “The more you are around adults, the sooner you lose your innocence. Perhaps, there are some people in whom it is inbred and stays for life,” muses the author and finds echo in his writing. “This book is about decay,” he says. That becomes nauseatingly obvious in the two-foot-long field rats and the innumerable pet dogs that go astray. They have a grim part to play in the plot. “Animals belong to the wild, it is a little unnatural to keep them as pets. Nature will intrude in some way,” says Bond.
Ruskin Bond
192pp; Rs 350

This isn’t the sepia-tinted world of his earlier work. “I think I’ve grown more cynical, and my writing and humour have a sharper edge to them.” Ruskin, the character, professes neither a great friendship with HH nor a strong condemnation of her merry destruction of others’ happiness. Theirs is a happy companionship. HH, though hard to like, is riveting, with her salacious stories, like the one about Jim Corbett’s indifference towards women. Who she really is, Bond is reluctant to divulge. He laughs off the question, saying she is an amalgam of many people he has known. “It is important to preserve these memories, to show readers that such people did exist. It’s a personal aim. As I write them down, fiction takes over.”
His books exist in those blurry boundaries and he finds writing in first person much easier. “Once I wrote about myself as a boy escaping Japanese occupation in Jakarta. And people thought it was true,” he laughs. Dickens, with his own eventful childhood, is Bond’s literary hero. On whether Maharani is reality or fiction, he quotes that other wonderful charlatan, Mark Twain, “Interesting if true. And if not true, still interesting.”
Aradhna Wal is a Sub-Editor with Tehelka.