By Nisha Satheesh Nair
2020 was a tumultuous year to say the least. The pandemic induced lockdown had put a spanner into my otherwise monthly library visits. So, when the signs of normalization appeared around Diwali, the first thing I did was to hop to the library and pick up any book I could get my hands on. (Though a voracious reader throughout the three decades of my life, the travails of daily life in the recent years had encroached upon my reading habit.) And I should say I struck gold…I had chanced upon Ruskin Bond’s new book, Rhododendrons in the Mist: My Favourite Tales of The Himalayas.
Now, I am usually a person who reads a book from start to finish. But I made an exception for this one—I read the second section first and then, proceeded to the supernatural stories. You guessed it right…I am in love with the horror genre, so I wanted to save them for the last.
But I digress, so let’s come back to this wonderful work of Mr Bond. The book is an anthology and features 28 stories; in his introduction, Mr Bond says that while 25 stories were selected by the publisher from his portfolio, three stories were freshly written. Nevertheless, a delight for Bond fans (mind you, not to be confused with the famous spy). The stories are divided into two clear sections with distinctive themes: The Dark Side of Mountains and Himalayan Drama. The former delves into the element of mystery that surrounds life in the hills, while the latter deals with the “drama of everyday life”.
Ghostly Mountains, Ghostly Residents
In The Dark Side of the Mountains, Mr Bond narrates horror stories of the hills: of silent fears, unnerving delusions, animal transformations, conspiring spouses, haunted places, friendly skulls, magical beings, terrifying and adrenaline-inducing encounters with man-eaters and so on. And, he sure knows how to make your bones chill with these stories of friendly, harmless, sad ghosts and vengeful beings, in a way that you won’t realise until you reflect on it.
The opening story, Rhododendrons in the Mist, gives the book its title and is one of the three new stories. The story begins at a time when Mr Bond was yet to start his journey as a writer and speaks of his run-ins with a thief-murderer who keeps visiting his life like a recurring nightmare, one that is disturbing rather than scaring—Mr Bond first encountered this perpetrator in Dehradun, then in Dalhousie and last in Mussoorie, where he had settled as a writer. Like the blood-red blooms of Rhododendron trees that blend in the foliage when in bloom and resemble blood drops when fallen, the thief incorporates himself into the general public when he stays and leaves behind a trail of blood when he goes.
Mr Bond’s stories of Mussoorie are rather incomplete without the mention of Savoy. Come on, how can one mention Mussoorie and not give Savoy its due? To my utter delight, I am not disappointed as Strychnine in the Cognac and Ghosts of the Savoy bring the majestic hotel into the premise. I would have never guessed the events of the former took place at the Savoy, had it not for the common thread called Nandu in both the stories. As for the latter, it was rather short and gave a feeling that many spectres remained unintroduced.
However, the story that scared me to the core was The Monkeys, a rather disturbing encounter between humans and animals. It’s a story that I am perhaps reading for the third or fourth time, but it never fails to frighten me.
Life in the Mountains: Mundane Yet Exciting
The second section, Himalayan Drama, is wonderful assortment of stories of everyday life in the Himalayas. It is inevitable to mention that this section features the remaining two new Bond stories: Breakfast at Barog and The Garden of Dreams.
Breakfast at Barog, along with The Funeral, take us through some extremely personal movements in the author’s life, with the former being Mr Bond’s tribute to his father. Both stories touch upon the emotional undercurrents brought about by the death of loved one, especially a parent, and the consequent loss of childhood, of innocence that forces an individual early on the path to maturity. We find a similar personal theme in Love is a Sad Song, in which the author talks of love and loss. On the other hand, The Garden of Dreams is a charming tale that speaks of the kind of love that will find its way to you no matter what the odds. And, also a one where Mr Bond gives himself the title of “Collector of Quaint Corners”.
A notable sub-section in Himalayan Drama narrates The Tales of Fosterganj, which is a separate book in itself. To be a part of Mr Bond’s adventures in Fosterganj—some hilarious, some sinister, and a few tragic—is nothing but pure bliss. He remarks how books gather dust in Fosterganj…possibly because the people of this quaint little place are busy reading the book called life at their own pace.
Other stories in this section include The Blue Umbrella, that has been adapted into a film, and The Cherry Tree, one of my all-time favourites.
Why Pick Up This Ruskin Bond Book
Ruskin Bond has always been one of my favourite authors, the others being Sudha Murty, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie. His stories have a magical quality that transports the reader into the mountains, far away from the chaos of the city and worries of daily life. And, don’t forget the personal touch that gives you a relatability to characters you find in them. For instance, when he speaks about the perils of being single when your friends are not, I can quite relate to it.
This anthology is replete with the author’s tidbits of wisdom—“India would always be haunted by its history”, “…routine and settled ways are the curse of life…All beautiful things are easily destroyed.”, originality and range of Indian cuss words, goats as lethal weapons—as well as some funny word play (“patient patient” in Getting Granny’s Glasses).
Now, I am ashamed to say that I took more than five months to read it. Under normal circumstances, I would have just finished the book in two days straight. However, considering the uncertainty of our current times, I was savouring the book, story by story. It’s not often you get to visit the mountains from the confines of your city home. This gave me a lot of time to contemplate on the stories and perhaps notice things that I probably never paid attention to.
The stories in this book not only give us a glimpse into the lives of mountain people, but also remind us of the things we often take for granted or even fail to notice. Like the soothing music of a moving train, or the smell of earth when the first drops of rain hit the ground…as W. H. Davies laments, “We have no time to stand and stare.”
There are subtle undercurrents of feminism, more so female resilience, in the stories—be it Binya, Puja, their single mothers, and even the Anglo-Indian ladies who lead respectable lives in the hills. Even the female transgressor who Mr Bond met in Fairy Glen at Fosterganj displays a certain courage, that is unfortunately too little, too late.
The life of these people is not as idyllic as it seems and each of them has their own struggle. They are all marching on in their own ways; the beauty lies in the fact that they are willing to share even when they don’t have enough for themselves. Mr Bond is right when he says that the God is “The Great Mathematician”, for his world is made up of myriad of such fractions that add up to a whole.
Like always, Mr Bond’s stories have successfully aroused a longing in me to be in the mountains, in those high-altitude forests, where I can smell the pine after a surprise shower. I am sure, by the time you finish reading the book, you may also seriously consider moving to the mountains for a quieter life close to nature. But then, that is always the case with a Ruskin Bond book.