Landour, Uttarakhand: Up above the hills, where a forest of nodding flowers and an endless valley of Himalayan mountains paint the sky, lives one of India's most-loved writers - Ruskin Bond.
He's lived in this humble Ivy Cottage since 1981 and has penned numerous tales to traverse a 68-year-long journey exclusively spent in writing. And even as he turns 84, he shows no signs of slowing down. "In fact, I think I am writing more now," he revealed in an exclusive interview at his residence ahead of his 84th birthday.
Bond's vivid tales from the Ivy Cottage, and his descriptions of the view from the window at the foot of his bed, can often be deceiving for what one imagines to be some sort of a mansion of a celebrated writer is actually a humble first-floor flat of "an ordinary man".
"I've never cared for riches; what will I do with them?" he asks.
And yet, when Rusty, as his readers lovingly call him, looks back at his writerly life, memories of several consecutive years when his love for writing plunged him into financial depths come flashing by. There were very few resources and opportunities for writers when he set out with his literary career. Multinational publishers were yet to find a footing in India and so, as his longtime friend and publisher David Davidar puts it, "our would-be-man-of-letters set sail for England".
In England, he found a home for The Room on the Roof, his very first novel that won him the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1957 at the mere age of 23. But contrary to the prevailing notion, Bond contended, that his time in England was not very fruitful.
"The Room on the Roof was what I carried with myself from India. I wrote very less there; or even in Delhi, there was no writing at all," he said. And thus from the royalty advance that he was paid for his first novel, he sailed back to India. Stopping by in Karachi, he went looking for the names and contacts of editors whom he could "bombard" with his stories and articles. The then young man wanted to make a living by freelancing his writings.
The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Statesman were the main sources of income for Bond during the 1950s to the 1970s and even the 1980s, paying about Rs 35-Rs 50 per write-up. He constantly churned out stories and articles because they were his "bread and butter". And when things went really bad, he even did some odd jobs.
Things changed for the struggling writer when publishing houses began to find a footing in India.
Penguin India came in 1985 - and the publishing space would change forever. It started publishing in 1987 with only six books. Five years later, in 1992, HarperCollins arrived and other major publishing houses followed. Even though Rupa was founded way back in 1936, its publishing gained a lot more momentum after their arrival. So did the rise of other home-grown publishers.
While the search for authentic stories from India was just beginning, here was Bond, with his tonnes and tonnes of stories and articles, ready to be compiled in anthologies and collections. The freelancer soon became an adored figure -- loved and revered by generations of readers.
"Of course I want the royalty checks, but my desires are very simple. I did not have a very happy childhood so I want to ensure that my grandchildren have a secured life, so should Rakesh and Bina (his adopted family)," he noted.
For the last 37 years, he has lived on the top floor of "this windswept, somewhat shaky house on the edge of a spur" in Landour. His bedroom window (in picture) opens "on to the sky, clouds, the Doon valley and the Suswa river - silver in the setting sun - and range upon range of mountains striding away into the distance". But thousands of others living nearby too have a similar view, so what is it that strikes a chord with Bond and perhaps not so much with others?
A child at heart, Bond leads this visiting correspondent to the legendary window and says that "nobody, nobody has this view". At night, "the sky is tremendous with stars", the sparrows come at noon "to squabble on the windowsill" and clouds are "passers-by" during the day. "Here I sit," he says, pointing to a small bed, tucked in the far end corner of the room, "and write".
There are occasional visitors, trekking all the way from Mussoorie to see his house. "Yesterday, someone was clicking pictures of my staircase and I thought this is the worst staircase in all of Mussoorie, why would someone want its pictures? Then he saw me looking out of the window and the camera immediately turned towards me, I quietly disappeared," he laughed.
The postman comes four to five times a week, bringing letters and gifts from readers. And in these calm and serene, undisturbed and solitary surroundings, Bond sets his pen to paper - everyday without fail.
A chronicler of his life, almost everything that Bond has written comes from his own experiences. He maintained that he is writing more than ever before because, apart from his memory growing stronger with age, he has a much broader and larger range of people and experiences to write about. In his latest book Stumbling Through Life (Rupa), releasing on his birthday, he weaves together a selection of his essays and writings to bring to the reader the rich tapestry of his life, peppered as it is with delightful eccentricities and a geniality rarely found.
"If some day I am to be remembered at all, it should be for the stories and tales I have written. I am a very simple man, always believed in the beauty of small things, I am grateful to the readers for loving me so much. My stories belong to them as much as they belong to me," he says, his voice soft and emotional.
Happy birthday, Rusty!