Delhi Is Not Far by Ruskin Bond
Ruskin Bond steals into our thoughts and captures our hearts with his effortlessly charming stories. Having read a few of his books, I now know Bond’s stories of rural India will stay with me forever. His is the quiet voice that leads to calm, restful communities and characters we feel we all know. I first heard of Ruskin Bond after a friend recommended him to me… when I was a schoolgirl – and I am eternally grateful.
Ruskin Bond – the name conjures up misty hills, lush green valleys, gurgling brooks, long languid stroll through the forests, small-town vibes and of course, Dehradun or simply Dehra. But one reading of ‘Delhi Is Not Far’ is not enough… to quench one’s thirst, so to speak. Bond’s intensity of living, his joie de vivre and the breadth of his experiences are easily perceptible throughout each of his books… and that is Ruskin Bond’s signature style. And it is infectious… I tell you!
‘Delhi Is Not Far’ is a 1994 collection of Bond’s writings, from his first published poem (‘Lost,’ published in the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1952) to extracts from his more recent novels/novellas. Short stories, vignettes, travel pieces, poetry and two novellas are included in this collection. This is a sequel to his earlier two novellas – ‘The Room on the Roof‘ and ‘Vagrants in the Valley‘. The narration is much like in the form of a diary… where the past, the present and the future crisscross effortlessly. A slow but charming story of a (imaginary?) town called Pipalnagar. I am yet to read ‘Vagrants in the Valley’ and am currently reading ‘The Room on the Roof’ which he wrote as a 17 year old boy way back in 1951. It was published when he was 21 and brought him the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. I actually started off with this trilogy in reverse chronological order! The other day, I had been to Crossword and Reliance TimeOut (both bookstores) but ‘Vagrants in the Valley’ proved to be elusive. I guess I will have to try some other day. Instead I picked up ‘Tales of the Open Road’ by whom else but Ruskin Bond!
The narrator – Arun, a struggling writer of cheap Urdu thrillers, feels trapped in dull and dusty Pipalnagar, where nothing ever happens. He hopes to write a blockbuster one day, and escape to Delhi. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a young prostitute, Kamla, and befriends the homeless orphan, Suraj. Written in 1960 and published now for the first time as a stand-alone novella, ‘Delhi Is Not Far’ is a memorable story about desire, love and loss in small time India… where Delhi is the metaphor for ‘dreams accomplished’.
Ruskin Bond has been writing for decades, quietly. He is not a recluse but does not make a song and dance about his books: novels, novellas, short story, poem, travelogue, essay… yet he has written on every genre for over half a century and counting. At the ninth edition of the Vodafone Crossword Book Awards held in Mumbai in Aug., 2010 the soft-spoken Bond was in a jocular mood, remarking how now that authors have become celebrities, they’d rather stay away from the limelight. “Writers are best read, but not seen in public, because most of them are not good-looking,” he said, leaving the audience in splits. For Bond, anonymity has come at a hefty price. The author narrated an incident at a bookstore many years ago, when he spotted a copy of one of his books at the very bottom of a shelf. He reminisced, “Once in 1967, India Book House published a book of mine. Like every author I would go to the bookshop and look for my book. Once I went to a small bookshop in Shankar Nagar in Delhi. I found my book below a pile of Harold Robbins, who was a very popular author during those days. I looked around, making sure no one was watching, and removing my book from under the pile, placed it on top. The shopkeeper saw me and, replacing it back in its original position, said, Yeh chalta nahin hai! Well, to teach the bookshop owner a lesson I bought the book (chuckles)!”
Bond says his early work was fiction, short stories, and novella – some of it autobiographical. Then, when he was in his forties he started writing non-fiction, even children’s books and that his favourite forms are essays and short stories. On being asked if he liked writing for children or adults he said, “I enjoy writing for both. I like writing funny stories for kids and making them laugh. Kids are very bright and it’s great fun writing for them and interacting with them. For instance, in Delhi not long ago, a teacher asked a nine-year-old girl, ‘What do you think of Mr. Bond as a writer?’ Now that was quite a serious question. She looked at me, thought hard and said, ‘You are not a bad writer.’ I thought it was a great compliment (laughs).”
He says he has run out of ghosts, but will try to write more ghost stories and make them scarier. “Actually I write ghost stories when I run out of people and I have nothing else left to write. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t yet met one though hill-stations are supposed to be the favourite haunt of ghosts” he states. His collection of ghost stories was roundly criticized by critics (who else!) but went into its 2nd edition the very next day. I guess critics should not take themselves and their jobs too seriously. What?
But his evocative stories set in small Hindi-speaking Indian towns and villages in the Himalayan foothills are delightful in the way that they capture the daily lives of common people, including gardeners, shopkeepers, tongawallas, sweepers and servants, kite makers, tea boys and street urchins. These stories tend to grow on you and bring to life a whole community forgotten by most Indian writers who generally like to set their books in the big cities/metros and target the multiplex crowd. While Bond’s quiet humour and affection for the little people shines through in his writings… which stands apart from the big-noise books currently out there.
This book brings together some of Bond’s best short stories. My favourites are the title story “Delhi is not far”, for the way it shows even the poorest have aspirations and dreams; the beautiful “Time stops at Shamli”, an evocative almost-love story; and “A job well done” where Dukhi, the gardener metes out a terrible, yet matter-of-fact revenge on a bullying master. The long neglected small towns of India are beginning to change now, with the arrival of cable television, mobile phones, designer clothes and a greater consumerism but Bond’s stories have a timeless feel to them. I can still believe the characters that people his books are still there, eking out a difficult living.
Book Summary of Delhi Is Not Far: Momentous things happen elsewhere, in the big cities of Nehru’s India. In dull and dusty Pipalnagar, each day is like another, and ‘there is not exactly despair, but resignation’. Even the dreams here are small: if he ever makes it to Delhi, Deep Chand, the barber, will open a more up-to-date salon where he might, perhaps, give the Prime Minister a haircut; Pitamber will trade his cycle-rickshaw for the less demanding scooter-rickshaw; Aziz will be happy with a junk-shop in Chandni Chowk. None, of course, will make that journey to Delhi.
Adrift among them, the narrator, Arun, a struggling writer of detective novels in Urdu, waits for inspiration to write a blockbuster. One day he will pack his meagre belongings and take the express train out of Pipalnagar. Meanwhile, he seeks reassurance in love, and finds it in unusual places: with the young prostitute Kamla, wise beyond her years; and the orphan Suraj, homeless and an epileptic, yet surprisingly optimistic about the future.
Few authors write with greater sensitivity and skill about little India than Ruskin Bond. ‘Delhi Is Not Far’ is a memorable story about small lives, with all the hallmarks of classic Ruskin Bond prose: nostalgia, charm, underplayed humour and quiet wisdom.
This is yet another classic masterpiece by Ruskin Bond, I loved this book for its simple narration style and the way he pulls you into the story. Go for it… you will be well rewarded.
Details of the book: Book: Delhi Is Not Far/ Author: Ruskin Bond/ ISBN: 0144000954/ ISBN-13: 9780144000951, 978-0144000951/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 10/26/2005/ Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd/ Edition: 1st Edition/ Number of Pages: 120/ Price: Rs. 150/ Language: English.
Photograph: The book jacket cover: Ruskin Bond’s novella ‘Delhi Is Not Far’. Pic. courtesy: Link.