Growing Up With Books



Growing Up With Books

By : Ruskin Bond  /  Nov 2011

Contrary to what we assume today, books were not easily accessible in India in the years of my childhood, the 1930s and 1940s. True, the bigger cities had some fine bookshops, but in the smaller towns we were hard put to find something to read.

Certainly in Jamnagar, where I spent the first six years of my life, there were no bookshops and no libraries. My father had started a small school for the Palace children, and there I learnt to read from the school primers that were current at the time. But at home there was only an old and battered copy of Alice In Wonderland which my father read to me, and a large tome of Nursery Rhymes, which I devoured. By the time I was six I knew all the rhymes by heart. My father made a brief visit to Bombay and came back with a gift edition of Peter Pan, in a handsome blue case, the title embossed in gold. I was so over-awed that I was scared to touch it in case I sullied its physical beauty.

Things were not much better in Dehra Dun, where I spent the next few years. The Club had a library, but we were not members of the Club. My mother possessed two best-sellers, Gone With the Wind and Little Women. I revelled in the latter, but could make no headway with the life and times of Scarlett O’Hara.

My mother and stepfather were fond of shikar, and took me along on one of their weekend excursions into the jungle. The shikar bored me, it being such a one-sided affair (the animals not being equipped with rifles), but in the forest rest-house I discovered a shelf of old books, and thanks to it I made the acquaintance of P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, W.W. Jacobs, and the ghost stories of M.R. James. Almost seventy years and hundreds of ghost stories later, I still find M.R. James the best writer on the supernatural.

I was sent to a Convent School in Mussoorie, but it had no library; then to a Prep School in Simla, which had a tiny cupboard which they called a library; then to a bigger public school where there was a real library. Not a huge one, but big enough for a boy of twelve.

Here, at Bishop Cotton’s I discovered Dickens, and journeyed steadily through almost all his works, my favourites being David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby. I also devoured the plays of Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, and J.B. Priestley. Priestley’s wonderful novel, The Good Companion, made a great impression. As did the short stories of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, William Saroyan, and H.E. Bates. Bates’s lyrical stories of the English countryside were to be a strong influence on my own writing. Tagore’s plays and poems, and Rumer Godden’s early novels, also played their part in my literary development.

In my last year at school I was given charge of the library, which meant that the keys were kept with me. So, whenever I had some spare time, or whenever there was a holiday and the other boys were rushing around with cricket bats or hockey sticks, I would slip off to the library where I knew I would not be disturbed (schoolboys were even more averse to reading than they are now), and explore the many bookshelves and their treasures.

A year later, back in my hometown of Dehra Dun, I was writing my own stories and submitting them to the editors of magazines. My first short story was published in The Illustrated Weekly Of India in August 1951.

And believe it or not, dear reader, I had not, till then, stepped inside a single bookshop!

Ruskin Bond, a well-known writer of books for children, lives in Mussoorie.