Three generations of your family have lived their lives in this country. How does it feel to have your roots in India ?
I have loved India and it is very fascinating to be a part of its history of the last hundred years. I can easily visualize my parents and grandparents as an integral part of an important era in India 's history and can identify with them better.
What were the circumstances that led you to go away to England , all alone at the age of 17?
My family, especially my mother, believed that I had no future in India . The British Raj had come to an end and all Anglo Indian and British families were going back to Britain. It was a difficult phase and strange feelings filled my head. I, a confused boy of 17, who passionately wanted to carve out a career in writing, left too, more so to see ‘what else' was out there for me.
What brought you back to India ?
I realized that England was not the place for me, soon after I reached there. I was young and very lonely and was haunted by the childhood memories of my father, my friends here, and of the sights, sounds and smells of India. My attachments were so deeply rooted in India that I could not find comfort in England.
What have you liked most about India ?
Human contact- you experience it everyday here. Human interaction is a way of life here, and that lends the vigour that is so essential. People have patience and tolerance for other people's preferences and style of life – that is, if you don't offend them! They usually don't interfere if you don't incense them.
Your book, ‘The Room on the Roof' that you wrote at the age of 17, received the ‘John Llewellyn Memorial Award' and was published in London, soon after you returned to India in 1955. You became famous as a young talented writer at the age of 21. Do you feel things would have been better and bigger for you today, had you been there at your moment of triumph?
I knew my story was going to be published any time, but the need to get back to the warmth here was so strong that nothing mattered. I had waited almost a year, after submitting the manuscript. The delay in their decision had already disappointed me so much that I had lost interest in the outcome of my endeavor. I never wanted bigger things. I am a very simple man. My only passion is writing- and I did that here, quite well. Yes, at that time, writers and publishers in London had wanted to meet me. I may have got lot of support and encouragement from contemporary writers there. I may have found a mentor, but you see, I was too young to be in their constant company. I would not have found comradeship with them due to the age difference. So I would have still been a lonely writer, I think. I am a quiet writer, and these hills suit me just fine.
Do you have any fond memories of London ?
Yes, now when I look back, I do remember those days of struggle, and they don't seem so bad now, as they did then, when I was so young and anxious. I had some well meaning friends there who helped me in many ways. The city taught me life's good lessons- struggle and hard work. That is where I wrote my first novel and got due acknowledgement, though it came late – late for my young and impatient self.
Two of your books have been animated as movies. Shyam Benegal's 1978 film ‘Junoon' was based on ‘A Flight of Pigeons' and ‘The Blue Umbrella' was recently filmed by Vishal Bharadwaj. (still to be released) Do you think both are good and fair interpretations of the books or one is better that the other?
I wouldn't want to compare them since both are very different kinds. ‘A Flight of Pigeons' was a historical romance for adults, with strong characterization, and so was its movie, ‘Junoon'. Shyam Benegal did a magnificient job. ‘The Blue Umbrella', on the other hand appeals to children. Vishal has used his creative genius to add to the story, and has done well. Both have their own place.
‘A Flight of Pigeons' is a very different from your other stories . What inspired you to write it?
The book is based on a true story of a girl named Ruth Labadoor who lived in Shahjahanpur in the 1850s and witnessed the massacre of a congregation in a church in northern India . My father, who had heard it from my soldier grandfather, told it to me. It had a lasting impact. The story had stayed with me possibly because I imbibed it as a story of humanity of common people in times of conflict. I decided to research it. Yes, that massacre finds mention in old records and accounts of the Mutiny of 1857. I wrote almost all of the book based on real facts and historical accounts of the Mutiny. I have used my imagination only to write the dialogues.
You have written many episodes about panthers and leopards. Are all these based on real sightings?
Yes, all of these are true accounts and real life experiences- mine or other people's. Leopards and panthers still roam these hills. They never harm. We should be sensitive and protect them. I want to develop this awareness in children, for I see some hope in them. Only children can guard our wild life heritage now.
There's a passage ‘The Peanut Vendor', in one of your books. Is the young vendor in the passage, who you gave shelter to, really Prem- the teenage boy you adopted?
Yes, it's him, though he was not a peanut vendor. The passage is a combination of reality and imagination. Actually, I had found him standing outside my house one cold winter night. He had come looking for work in this city.
Which of your books or short stories are your favourite?
'The Room on the Roof'– I have a special feeling for it. There is so much of the intensity of a young me in it. I rediscover young Ruskin in it. It is my reflection as a young rebel. It is spontaneous, fresh, still in print and people are still buying it.
Which ones are popular with children?
Children's Omnibus by Rupa Books is doing very well- probably because it has many stories in it together. 'Night Train to Deoli', 'The Room on the Roof', and 'The Best of Ruskin Bond', are among other children's favourites.
What do you enjoy writing more, prose or poetry?
All three at different times. I used to like writing fiction more and now I find myself writing poetry. ‘Book of Verses' is my recent book.
Now you have a thriving adopted family- Prem's and Chandra's kids Rakesh and Mukesh and their 5 kids. You are a great grandfather now, without having to marry! How does it feel?
I feel humbled by their love. I may have adopted Prem, but they all have adopted me. They have looked after me so well, for so long. They made it possible for me to write. They took care of the worries of keeping a home, all I did was write. My grandchildren are my joy.
Tell me something about your family from your parents' side. Where are they now?
My mother and stepfather both have passed away. My real brother William now lives in Canada . My sister Ellen lives with Premila, my step sister in Ludhiana . My two step brothers were killed in road accidents.
You adored your father and lost him when you were just 10. This loss, the biggest loss that you have suffered. Do you still feel the pain as strongly?
His loss was immense. Though time is a great healer, I still feel the void. I did not get a chance to say goodbye. I was at school and one fine day, was given the news of my father's death. That was it. To me it was not a ‘death' but a ‘vanishing'.
Why do you say that? It was just two sentences saying something about him ‘gone', and it was all over! No one took me home. I didn't have a closure, not until 2001, when I finally located my father's grave. I remember him as the best father in the world. I often think of him- and more fondly each time. He taught me to love books and respect nature. He took good care of my inner voices and he spoke to me deeply. How can I forget our walks and things that we did together? I derive inspiration from him even today. It was a brief but the happiest period of my life. It is still so vivid, so real.
In your books, you speak about the pain you went through due to your parents' divorce. It is quite evident that you blame your mother, yet you also make an attempt to console yourself by trying to justify her choices. Have you really been able to forgive her?
She caused my father a lot of pain. Yes, of course I have been able to forgive her. Looking back I feel their marriage was a mistake. They were completely incompatible. They should not have married. Back then, I used to feel she didn't love me. I lived with my mother and stepfather after my father's death, but I didn't feel like a cherished, loved child. But now I have understood that she was not the expressive kind. She loved, but was aloof, into herself more… Perhaps her love was silent. Father showed the love evidently, and that used to kindle my spirits.
What was it about your father, that made him the best father in the world and that you would tell other fathers to emulate?
Spend quality time with your children. Give them your comradeship as they grow. Don't grow like strangers. Your children look up to you. Don't disappoint them. Talk to them deeply. And express your love openly. It is not enough to just feel the love yourself, it's equally important to make your child feel it.
How does it feel to be called ‘resident Wordsworth'?
I think they call me that because I write about nature and Wordsworth did too. But no, I wouldn't want to be called that. I'm not a fan of Wordsworth. There were other poets of nature I like more. Besides, attachment to his name will make me sound like another poet who you have study at school and NOT someone you enjoy reading. Call me ‘resident Ruskin'.
Your favourite poets and authors?
I like Rabindranath's poetry. Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling are my favourite.
Any desires that you'd like to fulfill? Any dream that you are still pursuing?
My greatest desire is to keep writing more, creating something better and different, every time. Yes, I do have a dream- to have some space to create a bigger library for myself and a thriving garden like granny's in Dehra. My grandfather had a natural zoo in that garden, which I enjoyed very much.
What message would you like to convey to the world about reading and books?
Those who get a chance to be around books are a fortunate few. Books can give us so much comfort, companionship and love. I would personally be lost without them. Books give us appreciation of life, an understanding of people and understanding of ourselves. They are the perfect friends.