(Ravi Singh, Publishing Director and co-Founder, Speaking Tiger Books, sent this exclusive extract from Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing. It is one of the publishing highlights of 2017 given the tremendous fan following Ruskin Bond commands. This autobiography at 100,000+ words is the longest book ever written by Ruskin Bond.)
And here I must pause to tell you a little more about Ayah, my guardian angel, surrogate mother, friend and beloved all rolled into one and wrapped up in a white sari. My mother, young in years and younger at heart, was often away attending the lunch and tea get-togethers that the ladies of the royal household liked to organize, or she would accompany the younger royals on picnics and excursions. My father spent more time with me, but he would be at work through much of the day. I would be left in the care of the servants—all but the ayah provided by the Jamnagar State. I had no objection to the arrangement, because they indulged me. Most of all, Ayah.
She was probably from one of the fishing communities of Kathiawar or from the poorer Muslim families from the north of India who worked in Christian and Anglo-Indian households. She must have been in her thirties and was unusually large and broad-limbed for an Indian woman, and shaped like a papaya, expansive at the hips and thighs. I was told she had a family of her own but I never saw them, and she never spoke of them. She was the one I spent the most time with at home—she stayed all day, washing my clothes, giving me a bath and telling me stories in Hindustani about jinns and fairies and the snake transformed into a handsome prince by the loving touch of a beautiful princess.
Ayah had large, rough hands and I liked being soaped and scrubbed by her, enjoying the sensation of her hands moving over my back and tummy. She could also use those hands very effectively to deliver a few resounding slaps, because I really was a little devil. But her anger vanished as quickly as it came when she saw me break into tears. And then she would break down herself, and cover me with big, wet kisses and gather me into herself, pressing my face to her great warm breasts. To be hugged and kissed, and generally fussed over, is one of the joys of infancy and childhood. My mother was not a physically demonstrative person—the occasional peck on the cheek was enough emotion for her. But Ayah more than made up for it. She would kiss my navel and nuzzle my tummy and tell the other staff, ‘I want to eat him up! I want to eat him up!’
I was in love with Ayah—it was a child’s love for a mother, but it was also a sensual, physical love. I loved the smell of her skin and her paan-scented breath and her dazzling smile. She was in love with my soft white skin and bathed and dressed me with infinite tenderness, and defended me against everyone, including my parents.
If I swallowed an orange seed, Ayah would say an orange tree would grow inside me. Being an imaginative child, this rather worried me because orange trees, I was told, had thorns on them. I did not want to worry my parents unduly, so I took my problem to Mr Jenkins, who looked serious, thought about it for a few moments, then said: ‘Don’t worry, it will only be a small tree.’
Still worried, I consulted Osman, who laughed and said, ‘Your ayah is just a gapori, don’t listen to her.’
‘What’s a gapori?’ I asked.
‘One who makes up stories—and exaggerates. Go and tell her you’ve swallowed a bean.’
I did, and she said, ‘Oh, baba, now you’ll have a bean-stalk growing inside you!’
‘And there will be a giant living in it?’ I asked.
She burst into laughter, seeing I’d caught her out.
‘Osman says you’re a gapori,’ I told her. And she and Osman had a terrible fight. She chased him around the house and forgave him only when he said he meant she was a pari, a fairy, not a gapori.
Still, I think I learnt something about telling stories from Ayah, as I did from Osman, although I had no idea that I would become a gapori of sorts one day.
Ruskin Bond Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India, 2017. Rs 599; hardback; 288 pages + 32-page photo insert
Last year I spotted Ruskin Bond at a literary festival but it was impossible to see him clearly. It was also the first time I saw an author in India encircled by large security men, more like bouncers seen outside clubs. They not only towered over Ruskin Bond but were very well built and were an extraordinary sight to behold. A testimony too the fan following Ruskin Bond has in India. He needed protection from his fans. Children flocked to him in droves. Parents prostrated themselves in front of the literary festival oragnisers to allow their children into the hall even though it was filled to capacity. Astounding indeed when you realise that Ruskin Bond prefers his solitude, tucked away up in his beloved hill town of Mussorie.
On 19 May 2017, Ruskin Bond turns 83. To celebrate it his publishers have scheduled a bunch of publications. Puffin India has released Looking for the Rainbow — a memoir he has written for young readers describing the time he spent with his father in Delhi. It was during the second world war. His father was with the Royal Air Force ( RAF), stationed at Delhi. Ruskin Bond’s parents were divorced and his mother was about to get married for the second time. His father decided Ruskin Bond could stay with him for a year in Delhi where he had some rooms rented — at first off Humayun Road and then later nearer to Connaught Place. Ruskin Bond remembers this time spent in Delhi fondly even later when he was sent off to boarding school in Simla. In fact decades later he recalls with a hint of sadness that Mr Priestly, his teacher, did not approve of young Ruskin poring over his dad’s letters so suggested he keep them away for safekeeping. At end of term when Ruskin Bond went to ask for his letters his teacher was clueless. Now in his eighties forgiving and generous as is his want Ruskin Bond remarks that Mr Priestly probably “meant well” but all that remains of that pile of letters is the one that the young boy spirited away — and still retains all these years later. Looking for Rainbow is a beautiful edition made richer by Mihir Joglekar’s illustrations.
Looking for Rainbow serves as a wonderful introduction and is probably the slim pickings of the larger project memoir Ruskin Bond will eventually publish with Speaking Tiger Books. It is as his publisher, Ravi Singh, told me the longest book Ruskin Bond has ever written — nearly a 100,000 words. It is “hugely readable. Moving, too, in parts.” Lone Fox Dancing is scheduled for June 2017. Earlier this year Scholastic India released a biography of his written by Shamim Padamsee in their Great Lives series.
His long-standing publisher, Rupa, with whom Ruskin Bond has a special relationship for decades now has also brought out two volumes of his works. The Wise Parrot is a collection of folktales retold by Ruskin Bond. He says in the introduction:
I may be no Scherazade, and that is a relief, for it would be rather difficult for me to think of stories knowing my head may be chopped off the next day, yet I have found some ancient legends that are as enthralling as hers and presented them here. There are creatures who have lived in our collective imaginations for ages. There are stories of wit and stories of immense stupidity. And in all this, what shines forth is the power of human imagination that has thrived for millions of years. From the first cave paintings, to today’s novels, the thrill of telling a story has never died down. And here’s wishing that it may live long, bringing people, animals, fairies and ghosts to life forever.
The Elephant and the Cassowary is an anthology of his favourite stories about wild animals and birds and the jungle. The title story is a perennial favourite and is utterly delightful. A master storyteller and a voracious reader like Ruskin Bond when become a brand name like no other have the luxury of also being tastemakers. As well-known prolific scifi writer and anthologist Isaac Asimov says in his splendid memoir I.Asimov : [An anthology] performs the same function as a collection does, bringing to the reader stories he may be glad to have a chance to read again or stories he may have missed altogether. New readers are able to read the more notable stories of the past.” Another anthology that Ruskin Bond has put together and is being released this week by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, is Confessions of a Book Lover. Both these anthologies between them contain previously published works by writers such as Rudyard Kipling, F.W. Champion, Henry Astebury Leveson, Joseph Conrad, Laurence Sterne, H.G. Wells, William Saroyan, Stacy Aumonier, and J.B. Priestley. Anthologies are a splendid way to discover new material even though some people think otherwise. Ruskin Bond has it right with these two eclectic anthologies. They jump centuries but the underlying principle of a good story is what matters. It is no wonder then to discover the delightful publishing connection between legendary publisher Diana Athill and Ruskin Bond. She gave him his first break as a writer while still at Andre Deutsch. She certainly knew how to spot talent!
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
Every night Sarah and I have a bedtime ritual. She picks out a book and we read it together. Some of the titles we read these past few days are Ruskin Bond’s Monkey Trouble and Other Grandfather Stories, Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys and Devashish Makhija’s When Ali Became Bajrangbali.
Ruskin Bond’s new offering — Monkey Trouble and Other Grandfather Stories is a delightful comic-like chapter book consisting of three tales wonderfully illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. The speech bubbles make it easy for a new reader. Well laid out text and pictures. Clean. Not fussy. Speech bubbles consist of simple sentences. The printing is neat too. One of the pitfalls of these complicated books is the mismatch in colours or text not sitting well within the prescribed boundaries. Every story panel is neatly placed. Each page is filled with light…the water colours are not dreary to engage with. All these factors make it a pleasure to read.
Another one illustrated by Priya Kuriyan is Devashish Makhija’s absolutely stupendous When Ali Became Bajrangbali. The story line is delightfully simple and straightforward but deceptively so. There are layers and layers to it. The child enjoys it for the story, rhythm and the roller coaster of emotions it causes. The illustrations incorporating a montage of advertisements and street art give it a richness too. For the adult, from the tongue-in-cheek title onwards it is fun, fun, fun to read while building upon memories too. I love particularly the literary reincarnation of Mr Moochhvaala. He first appeared as “Detective Moochwala” in his own comic strip created by Ajit Ninan in the now-defunct children’s magazine Target. And here is a lovely YouTube link to Devashish Makhija reading the story out at Bookaroo Literature Festival, Pune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pthzhJxBSiA&ab_channel=TulikaBooks
The last one is laugh aloud rib tickling The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey. It is a chapter book that has the Bad Wolf of countless fairy tales and folklore as the main character. He is trying to turn over a good leaf and become acceptable. He puts together a motley crew of cronies in the Good Guys Club consisting of Mr Shark, Mr Piranha and Mr Snake. They go on quests such as rescuing a stranded cat in a tree —who is petrified when he notices his wouldbe rescuers. The Good Guys Club members hope that such quests will improve their “tarnished” image as vicious and untrustworthy creatures. A very tough call when they look more like the mafia! Here is the book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqbUANlqXXE
Buy these books and make the children happy! Absolutely delightful!
In India these books are available by the following publishers:
Ruskin Bond’s Monkey Trouble and Other Grandfather Stories by Red Turtle, Rupa Publishers
Devashish Makhija’s When Ali Became Bajrangbali by Tulika Books
INDIA’S LARGEST INDEPENDENT PUBLISHING HOUSE TURNS 80!
Rupa Publications turns 80 this August, and reiterates its continuing commitment to books, authors and the industry.
Rupa Publications’ journey began eighty years ago, when an enterprising young man, D. Mehra, managed to impress an English bookseller by his salesmanship and became his representative.
From Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to Indira Gandhi
While we have come a long way since, that enterprising spirit has remained a constant, and the company has creatively and strategically expanded the scope of publishing in India to emerge as India’s largest independent publishing house, registering robust year-on-year top line growth over the years, at a level unparalleled in the publishing industry.
Success is a function of a combination of things: passion and energy, innovation and expertise, teams and leaders. All of which exemplifies Rupa Publications. It is no wonder it’s the House of Bestsellers. Happy 80th to my publisher.—RONNIE SCREWVALA
The company has been at the forefront of Indian publishing throughout its existence, finding and promoting the most exciting writing talent the country has to offer. Over the years, the company has published numerous acclaimed novelists, and non-fiction writers including well-known sportsmen, politicians, economists, journalists, actors, entrepreneurs and industrialists.
I am what I am because of Rupa Publications. They were the first people to have believed in me and, after more than a decade, remain my publisher. Together we have a mission to make India read, and we are still as enthusiastic about it as ever.—CHETAN BHAGAT
In recent times, the company’s non-fiction publishing has captured the country’s imagination, among them Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah, which raised serious questions about Partition; The Dramatic Decade, the first of a three-volume autobiography by the first citizen of India, President Pranab Mukherjee; the provocative memoir of well-known politician and diplomat K. Natwar Singh, One Life Is Not Enough; the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan’s volume on the interface between politics and economics, Politics Trumps Economy; A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s wonderfully inspirational and educative The Guiding Light; popular actor Ayushmann Khurrana’s experiential guide to making it in Bollywood, Cracking the Code; top media professional and serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala’s Dream With Your Eyes Open; the straight-talking memoir of the former Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Vinod Rai, Not Just an Accountant; and former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi’s deeply analytical study of the Indian elections, An Undocumented Wonder. The backlist includes many other heavyweight writers such as Wytze Keuning, Acharya Kripalani, L.K. Advani, J.R.D. Tata, Maharani Gayatri Devi and Mark Tully, to name a few.
In fiction, Rupa Publications continues to publish some of the country’s biggest writers of commercial fiction, most notably Chetan Bhagat, the No. 1 bestselling novelist in India. His latest novel, Half Girlfriend, and his just released work of non-fiction, Making India Awesome, have had the largest ever first print run, where English language trade publishing in India is concerned. Another notable bestselling author has been Varun Agarwal with his How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-founded a Million Dollar Company.
I’d be forever grateful to Rupa for believing in me and backing me up in spite of [my] being a first-time writer. I still remember the excitement when I got a mail from Rupa saying my book would be published. Not only do I think Rupa is one the finest publishing houses in the country, it’s also one of the most disruptive. I’d like to thank Rupa for changing my life and also making Anu Aunty a household name.
I wish you guys all the best for the future. Like always, keep kicking ass.—VARUN AGARWAL
Other popular writers on Rupa’s list include Samrat Upadhyay, Nitasha Kaul (who was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize for her debut novel Residue), Siddhartha Gigoo (nominated for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize), Gulzar, Ruskin Bond, Kavita Kané, Damodar Mauzo, Anuja Chandramouli and Madhuri Banerjee.
Rupa is my ‘home’ publishing house, given my long-standing and fruitful relationship with the group. Thanks, Rupa. Wish you a thousand returns of the day.—GULZAR
Rupa’s publishing has been innovative and designed to meet the needs of the fast-changing Indian marketplace. In 2012, the company launched Red Turtle, the premier children’s imprint which has brought out beautifully illustrated and designed books such as Babayan by Kiku Adatto; The Tigers of Taboo Valley by Ranjit Lal; and translations from Satyajit Ray, The Magic Moonlight Flower and Other Stories.
In 2015, Rupa Publications celebrated India’s business and entrepreneurial spirit by launching its business imprint, Maven, with marketing wizard Suhel Seth’s Mantras for Success: India’s Greatest CEOs Tell You How to Win, profiling the czars of Indian business and HSBC honcho Naina Lal Kidwai’s 30 Women in Power, featuring the struggle and successes of India’s extraordinary women achievers.
Rupa completes 80 years not just of being one of India’s most revered publishers but more than that one of India’s foremost knowledge disseminators. Rupa combines a rare understanding of the Indian psyche and has, over the years, honed its tremendous insights into creating books which have had the greatest impact on the Indian mind.—SUHEL SETH
The strength of its publishing apart, Rupa has ensured that its titles are sold and distributed effectively by owning its own distribution network—the only major publishing house in India with such an asset. In addition, it has been at the forefront of pioneering marketing and publicity initiatives. Some of these innovations include managing to place, in association with Flipkart, front-page advertising for Chetan Bhagat’s novel in the country’s highest circulated English language newspaper, and strategizing massive media as well as trade support for the President’s memoirs.
Rupa Publications have been my publishers since 1998. A formidable and dynamic entity, its reach is unsurpassed, as I discovered during my promotional travels related to One Life Is Not Enough. An outstanding publisher, I congratulate them on their achievement and dedication. —K. NATWAR SINGH
Constantly pushing the boundaries of possibilities to leverage the best for its books and its authors, Rupa Publications has redefined the rules of publishing by understanding and seizing the opportunity of the middle of the pyramid of the 400 million inhabiting ‘middle’ India. Rupa has been pioneering in its attempt to reach this untapped audience—by packaging good content with affordable pricing and extended distribution—and this is evident not only in its core frontlist but also in terms of sales of regional language rights.
And, never sitting on its laurels, Rupa Publications is now focusing on how it can leverage the digital space, and is readying to exploit the opportunities arising from the digitization of content made possible by the advances in hard technology over the last ten years.
Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa Publications, expressed his delight at crossing the 80-year milestone, and said “Breaking new ground has been our constant focus, and we will continue to do so in the days, months and years to come so as to contribute to the growth of the industry and provide an enhanced reading experience for all.”
Rupa Publications. Eight decades of being in your good books.
For further information please contact:
Vasundhara Raj Baigra, Head of Marketing and Publicity, Rupa Publications India.
Earlier this month, Aleph Book Company, published Ruskin Bond’s A Gathering of Friends. It is a collection of twenty-one short stories. These have been chosen by the author himself, from a body of work written over a period of fifty years. The well-known and much loved stories include “The Blue Umbrella”, “Panther’s Moon”, “The Cherry Tree”, “The Night Train at Deoli”. “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”, “The Night Train at Deoli” and “The Prospect of Flowers”. This book has been published to coincide with the 81st birthday celebrations of Ruskin Bond.
“Rust-free fiction”, the foreword by David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph is a wonderful snapshot of fifty years of publishing and storytelling. I was delighted to discover the connection between legendary publisher, Diana Athill, and legendary storyteller, Ruskin Bond. When Diana Athill was at Andre Deutsch she gave Ruskin Bond his earliest break as a writer. Both of them are admirable. Today Diana Athill is ninety-seven years old and writing. Ruskin Bond is in his eighties and writing. Ruskin Bond’s introduction to the book can be read at the DailyO.
Given the number of books Ruskin Bond has written it is impossible to read them all. A Gathering of Friends is a fine introduction to this fantabulous storyteller who excels in detailing the ordinary like an exquisite miniaturist. This book is for keeps, to be passed on from generation to generation.
With the permission of the publishers, I am reprinting the foreword.
by David Davidar
Over fifty years ago, in a world that no longer exists, a young man in India decided that he wanted to be a writer, a novelist to be precise. At the time, if you wrote in English, and belonged to the erstwhile colonies, in order to be taken seriously you had to publish in London, so our would-be-man-of letters set sail for England. The English publishing world of those decades could have been lifted from the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh novel. Men (and the occasional woman) from the English upper classes, with plummy accents, would decide the fate of would-be-writers over long, bibulous lunches at their clubs or restaurants like Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, with scant regard for the nuances of profit and loss accounts and, more discouragingly, the work of writers outside their ken. Unsurprisingly, it was a closed world, and one that was difficult to break into. The young man from India would soon discover this, when the rejection slips began to mount. However, there was a chink in the closed ranks of British publishing – a resourceful maverick of Hungarian origin called Andre Deutsch. The eponymous publishing house he owned, and Diana Athill the brilliant editor who worked for him, soon became a major force in the London publishing world. They launched the careers of several brilliant ‘foreign’ literary novelists, Wole Soyinka and V.S. Naipaul among them. They would provide a home for The Room on the Roof, the first novel of the young Indian writer we’ve been following, Ruskin Bond.
Today, British publishing is no longer the force it once was, bleeding as it is from a thousand tiny cuts, but the star of the author of The Room on the Roof continues to be in the ascendant. The publishing firm Andre Deutsch no longer exists as an independent entity, but Ruskin Bond, the recipient of multiple honours and awards, has over a hundred books in print and can legitimately claim to be India’s best-loved author. And, to the great good fortune of readers, even though he is now in his eighties, he shows no signs of slowing down.
What is it about Ruskin’s work that gives it its extraordinary vitality, clarity, and what can only be called luminosity? From the oldest work to the most recent, his stories shine with a brightness that rises from what the great American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, called ‘true sentences’—creative prose of weight, distinction, honesty and insight that does not strive for effect by being unnecessarily clever, showy or pretentious. Ruskin’s fiction never seems to rust or date, and seems as fresh today as the day on which it was first written. Impervious to the dictates of literary fashion or changing trends, it continues to ensnare generation after generation of readers. I asked him why he thought his writing held up so well, why it didn’t lose its lustre, decade after decade, reading after reading. ‘I’m flattered that you think that,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘But I never think about any of that. I have always approached my writing with the wide-eyed curiosity of a kid. It’s the same today as it was in the beginning, and if there is any secret ingredient to my writing that would be it. I hope I never lose that.’
This piece is adapted from the foreword to Ruskin Bond’s latest book, A Gathering ofFriends, published to commemorate his 81st birthday
Ruskin Bond A gathering of friends: My favourite stories Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp.250. Rs 395
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is about her relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. Grieving for the sudden loss of her father, a well-known Fleet Street photographer, Helen Macdonald decides to buy a goshawk for eight hundred pounds sterling and train it — in the hope it will help her deal with her sadness. Her love for the bird stems from a lifelong passion for the wild birds of prey. As a child she scoured bookshops with her father to buy books on the subject. It is during one of those missions she came across T.H. White’s The Goshawk. With time and repeated readings, her understanding of the book and of the writer evolved too. Helen is an experienced falconer but never an austringer. Yet, she decided to buy Mabel and train her on the outskirts of Cambridge but as she discovers, “the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” ( p.218)
According to her literary agency, Marsh Agency, Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches to graduate level. Over the years she’s also worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia, and bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty. She’s also sold paintings, worked as an antiquarian bookseller, organised academic conferences, shepherded a flock of fifty ewes and once attended an arms fair by mistake. Helen’s blog Fretmarks contains short essays on subjects as various as wild boar, Brighton, pop culture, World War II, golden orioles, solar eclipses, travels in Central Asia, falconry, and many of her experiences with Mabel. www.fretmarks.blogspot.com Helen can be found on twitter as @HelenJMacdonald. (http://www.marsh-agency.co.uk/authors/?id=3513)
H is for Hawk is a beautiful meditation on nature, loneliness and mourning. The exquisite manner in which it is written, making extraordinary use of the English language is breathtaking. Helen Macdonald deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014 and Costa Book of the Year 2014. Many reviewers have commended it for it being a memoir, albeit a misery memoir. For me, H is for Hawk, H is for T.H.White, H is for Helen, and H is for her father. If it is the only book you have time for this year, read it. It wont be time or money wasted. It will be an enriching experience.
Read an extract from her book: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10989164/H-is-for-Hawk-Helen-Macdonalds-intense-relationship-with-her-goshawk-Mabel.html .
1. Janette Curie, “Grief and the goshawk” TLS, 29 Oct 2014 ( http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1476820.ece )
2. Kathryn Schulz, “Rapt: Grieving with your goshawk.” The New Yorker, 9 March 2015 ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/09/rapt )
3. Nick Willoughby “You can’t tame grief”: Helen Macdonald on her bestselling memoir “H Is for Hawk” Salon, 10 March 2015 (http://www.salon.com/2015/03/09/you_can%E2%80%99t_tame_grief_helen_macdonald_on_her_bestselling_memoir_h_is_for_hawk/ )
4. Marck Cocker, “H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald” The Guardian, 23 July 2014 ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/23/h-is-for-hawk-helen-macdonald-review )
A few notable meditations on Nature published in recent months:
1. George Monbiot ” Back to Nature” http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html
2. George Macfarlane “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape”, 27 February 2015 (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape?CMP=share_btn_fb )
3. Anand Vivek Taneja, ” A city without time: Anand Vivek Taneja remembers a dead river in a Delhi that has turned its back on it, just as it has on a language that was its own” March 2015 (http://indianquarterly.com/a-city-without-time/)
4. Ruskin Bond A Book of Simple Living Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India. Hb. 2015
( Note: The images used in this blog post are off the internet, discovered using Google images. I do not hold the copyright to these photographs.)
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk Vintage Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2014. Pb. pp.300 £8.99
Love your art, poor as it may be, which you have learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul and all that he has, making yourself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man. – Marcus Aurelius
‘Love your art, poor as it may be…’ I have never regretted following this precept, despite the fact that it was sometimes difficult to make ends meet as a writer. The gift for putting together words and sentences to make stories or poems or essays has carried me through life with a certain serenity and inner harmony, which could not have come from any unloved vocation.
Within my own ‘art’ I think I have known my limitations and worked within them, thus sparing myself the bitter disappointment that comes to those whose ambitions stretch far beyond their talents. To know one’s limitations and to do good work within them: more is achieved that way than by overreaching oneself. It is no use trying to write a masterpiece every year if you are so made as to write only one in ten or twenty. In between, there are other good things that can be written — smaller things but satisfying in their own way.
Do what you know best, and do it well. Act impeccably. Everything will then fall into place.
Because I have loved my art, I think I have been able to pass through life without being any man’s slave or tyrant. I doubt I have ever written a story or essay or workaday article unless I have really wanted to write it. And in this way I have probably suffered materially, because I have never attempted a blockbuster of a novel, or a biography of a celebrity, or a soap opera. But in the end things have worked out well. I am a writer without regrets, and that is no small achievement!
Ruskin Bond is well known in India for his stories and essays about childhood, the time he spent with his grandparents, schooldays, descriptions of life and nature in Mussorie and of course, his innumerable short stories such as “The Blue Umbrella”. A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills is a compilation of years of wisdom distilled and offered simply. These range from reflections upon life, to what constitutes love, learning to be at peace with yourself, observations on Nature. There is plenty to mull over in this slim book. What comes through extraordinary well in this book is how beautifully intertwined the concepts of nurturing and honing one’s art are. In life, nurturing requires immense amounts of patience, huge dollops of love, observation, reflection and judicious amounts of nourishment to ensure a healthy life. Similarly with one’s craft –slowly and steadily with time it improves. One of my favourite passages from the book is:
The wild ginger was in flower. So was agrimony, lady’s lace, wild geranium. The ferns were turning yellow. The fruit of the snake lily had turned red, signifying an end to the rains. A thrush whistled on the branch of a dead walnut tree. A tiny swarm of butterflies rose from behind a lime-green bush. ( p.28)
A Book of Simple Living is Speaking Tiger’s inaugural title. Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/ and on Twitter @speakingtiger14 ) is a division of FEEL Books Private Limited, a book publishing and distribution company based in Delhi. It was founded in September 2014 by Manas Saikia and Ravi Singh. Publishing primarily in English, Speaking Tiger will build a diverse and inclusive list, with no fixed agenda other than to bring to readers quality fiction and non-fiction across genres.
Ruskin Bond’s A Book of Simple Living is a fine book. A great blessing from a well-established writer to a fledgling publishing house. Having thoroughly enjoyed this book, one to treasure too, I cannot help but feel that these are the slim pickings from a memoir. Ruskin Bond is working upon it. It will be published by Speaking Tiger in December 2015. I look forward to it.
Ruskin Bond A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills Speaking Tiger, an imprint of FEEL Books Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 160 Rs 350
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 January 2015) and will be in print ( 1 February 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6842119.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )
One day a mother asked me how she could get her sons to read. I wondered if the children were off picture and pop-up books too. The mother said, “They are too old for pop-up books! They are in kindergarten.”
In January, Scholastic Inc. published Kids & Family Reading Report (Fifth edition) based on a survey conducted in the US.., but some of the results are valid worldwide. Reading out aloud to children regularly kindles an interest in books, unleashes their imagination, makes them curious and introduces them to a variety of cultural indicators. Children aged six and above began to show signs of easing away from reading for pleasure. A possible reason is that adults want the children to be “independent readers” and so stop reading out aloud. Eighty-three per cent of children across age groups say they love(d) or like(d) being read to a lot — the main reason being it was a special time with parents. With an older age group of children (ages 12-17) who are frequent readers, it was noticed that they read a book of choice independently in school, relied upon e-reading experiences, had access to a large home library, were aware of their reading level and had parents involved in their reading habits.
Ninety-one percent of children aged 6-17 say, “my favourite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.” The majority of kids aged 6-17 (70 per cent) say they want books that “make me laugh.” Kids also want books that “let me use my imagination” (54 per cent), “tell a made-up story” (48 per cent), “have characters I wish I could be like because they’re smart, strong or brave” (43 per cent), “teach me something new” (43 per cent) and “have a mystery or a problem to solve” (41 per cent). While the percentage of children who have read an e-book has increased across all age groups since 2010 (25 vs. 61 per cent), the majority of children who have read an e-book say most of the books they read are in print (77 per cent). Nearly two-thirds of children (65 per cent) — up from 2012 (60 per cent) — agree that they’ll always want to read books in print even though there are e-books available. Heartening news for publishers!
At Digital Book World Conference 2015 (January 13-15, 2015), New York, Linda Zecher, CEO, Houghton Mifflin, said, “You can’t serve content to children, you have to curate.” Mixing a variety of books for younger readers is important — picture books, pop-up books or even explosive pop-up books and poetry. Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, Editorial Director, Red Turtle, says, “With simple words that may have repetitions or rhymes and pictures, these books are easy to reread and even remember by heart. Even as a child grows older, trickier concepts are easier introduced through picture books (where do babies come from, how people/things are same and different, concepts of diversity, human emotions etc.)”. Imprints that specialise in graded reading are Puffin India, Hole Books/Duckbill Books, Read it yourself with Ladybird, Banana Storybooks/Egmont Publishing, Usborne Young reading, Let’s read!/Macmillan, I Can Read!/Harper, Step into Reading/Random House, and Scholastic Reader.
In India, children are fortunate to be exposed to a multi-lingual environment. It is not always easy to locate a single publishing list that will whet all appetites. Instead it has to be “curated” from the moment infants are given cloth and board books and flash cards. Some books for all ages that “work” splendidly are the late Bindia Thapar’s Ka Se Kapade Kaise (Tulika Books); Anushka Ravishankar, Sirish Rao and Durga Bai’s One, Two, Three! (Tara Books), Devdutt Pattanaik’s Pashu: Animal Tales from the Hindu Mythology, Puffin Books; H.S. Raza’s Bindu with Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai (Scholastic India); What a song! A Bundelkhandi Folk Tale (Eklavya Publication); Rabindranath Tagore’s Clouds and Waves (Katha); Ruskin Bond’s Tigers for Dinner: Tall Tales (Red Turtle) and Nury Vittachi’s The Day it Rained Letters (Hachette India).
As adults we like books that have “pictures”. Few like to admit to the truth. So we disguise it with our preference for heavily illustrated books, photo books, coffee table books and to some extent graphic novels. So why is it with our children we are in a hurry for them to read books that border on the “educational”?
(In December 2014 David Davidar’s A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, published by Aleph Book Company will be released. I interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the book is forthcoming. The online version was published on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/not-so-tall-tales/article6667709.ece . A shorter version will be published in the print edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 7 December 2014.)
David Davidar on his fascination with short stories and how he put together “A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”
Apart from being a well-known publisher, David Davidar is also a novelist, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction from the time he was a teenager. His latest anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, has 39 short stories from across Indian fiction selected by Davidar. From Khushwant Singh, Munshi Premchand, Chugtai and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Ruskin Bond to new voices like Shahnaz Bashir and Kanishk Tharoor, the volume covers a spectrum of Indian fiction. In this interview, Davidar talks about the short story and the making of the anthology.
What makes a short story?
R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general and the short story in particular. He writes: Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament. The story is amusing but when you come down to it, the short story is devilishly difficult to define if you exclude length as a criterion. Dictionary definitions are banal in the extreme. Here is one example: “A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” A creative writing class instructor may say your story would need to have the following elements — exposition (the setting up of the story, its backdrop, main characters etc.), conflict, plot, theme, climax and so on. If s/he was of a Chekhovian bent of mind, s/he might tell you to write a ‘slice of life’ story that was relatively loosely constructed when compared to tightly plotted stories that hinged on events and turning points. There are many other categories that short stories are classified under but I think one should never be too prescriptive or didactic. Great literary short stories should have an electrifying impact on the reader because of their complexity, mystery, layering, and special effects. And because they can usually be read at one sitting, their impact is different from that of a novel, which usually immerses the reader in a world which it has created. William Boyd, the British writer, provided one take on the form: “Short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more ‘than in real life’.” That’s as good a description as any.
What was the principle of selection?
I decided to pull this anthology together on the basis of a very simple premise: it would only include stories that I loved, stories that had made their mark on me in the 40 years or so that I had been attentively reading serious Indian literature. Like the Chekhov quote I’ve used as an epigraph to the book, the basic criterion for featuring stories in this book would be whether I liked them or not. I decided to leave out commercial fiction because there would then be no focus to the anthology. There would be no other exclusions. It wouldn’t matter to me whether the writer was Dalit or Brahmin, old master or 21st century star, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi or Sikh, man or woman, straight or gay, Tamil or Kashmiri, Punjabi or Malayali. Nor would it matter if the writers wrote in English or in any of the other Indian languages, whether they lived here and carried the blue passport with the Ashok Chakra, or plied their trade in foreign lands… no, the only thing that would influence the selection would be whether or not they were — in my subjective view — breathtakingly good Indian stories. What did I mean by Indian? Either the stories would have to be about India or they would have to be written by an Indian or someone of Indian origin. Necessarily, they would need to possess an ‘Indian sensibility’.
Now, there are learned tomes on ‘the Indian sensibility’, a sensibility that is rooted in Indian culture, history, society, language, but that is not what I am trying to get at here. No, what I am trying to define is that elusive, ineffable quality to ‘serious’ poetry and prose that is unmistakably Indian. If you learn this quality from books, or by over-flying the subcontinent, all you will be able to produce is a variant of the Inspector Ghote mysteries — entertaining but shallowly-rooted writing and without any great insight into anything of consequence. I do not think an Indian sensibility is to be found only in writers who are Indian by nationality or domicile or language. Rather I think it is inherent to writers who were born here, or have lived here for enough time, for distinctive aspects of this country, this civilisation, to shape their view of the world, their creative consciousness, and their style. Their writing, whether about India or elsewhere, is informed by this ‘Indian sensibility’ — when their subject matter is India, they tend not to exoticise, but deepen our understanding of the country.
Having figured out the basic qualifications any story would need to have in order to be included, I refined the criteria for selection. Every story that made the cut would need to be a proper short story. (Vikram Seth’s ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’ is a short story, although it is told in verse.) This meant I wasn’t going to be able to include any extracts from novels, or works in progress. It was also important that none of the stories had dated, or appear quaint to today’s reader. And, finally, every story would need to work perfectly in English, as the anthology was aimed squarely at the reader in English. Other than these qualifications I wouldn’t be excluding any writer.
Are you creating a canon of literature with this collection?
I don’t think any single anthology can canonise a writer. Not that the majority of these writers need ‘canonising’; they are already among the greats of Indian literature. I am hoping that these stories will whet the appetite of readers to explore more of the work of these writers, and other Indian fiction writers.
Do you think there is a “return” to the short story with technological developments?
I don’t think so. We have always had accomplished literary short story writers and novelists and I’m delighted to see new stars working in both these areas.
Why did you commission new translations of well-known stories that were already available in English? Does the flavour of translation change with every generation of readers?
Two reasons. The first is because, as you point out, the great classics do deserve a new translation every generation (20 years) or so to make them work for contemporary readers. The second reason was because, to be honest, a number of the existing translations were appalling. I believe this anthology features some of our greatest ever translators.
What do you like about a short story collection?
In terms of anthologies that range across multiple genres and languages I like the fact that you are transported to different destinations with every story — the voices, subjects, the styles all change. It’s quite overwhelming, rather like taking a slow train through a variety of breath-taking landscapes.
How was this anthology arranged?
We decided to adopt the simplest possible arrangement, and ordered these stories according to the date of birth of the authors, because it was difficult to find the date of first publication of many of the stories, which would have been the other option. As a result of this arrangement, there were a number of unexpected and delightful pairings and juxtapositions — a mystery story from Bengal would be followed by a darkly comic story set in the cow belt, followed by a poignant story about a dog trapped in floods, followed by a ghost story, for example. The reader will be surprised and delighted at every turn I hope.
Why do you call it a “clutch” of Indian masterpieces?
No particular reason, except it sounded nice when you spoke the title out aloud. Also, it seemed an unusual and apposite collective noun for this particular bunch of stories.
What were the stories you excluded?
Stories that fell into four categories: Stories I didn’t like; great stories from Indian languages other than English that didn’t travel well into English; stories that were not literary; stories that I didn’t know about. Given that Indian short stories have been written for over 100 years in 30 different languages (a lot more if you include the less ‘major’ languages and dialects), I think we should all agree that, no matter how well read we are, we are all ignorant to a greater or lesser degree about aspects of modern Indian literature.
Many readers say short stories are ‘easy to read’? Do you agree?
No, I don’t think so. Certainly, most of them can be read at one sitting, but to absorb and appreciate their richness, complexity and brilliance, it is incumbent on the reader to engage deeply and as fully as possible with them.