There is a popular quote (falsely attributed to Buddha) doing rounds on WhatsApp circuit for a while: “In the end only three things matter, how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you”.
People may have a contrary take on this philosophical stance. However, Ruskin Bond seems to be a living epitome of this impossible ideal.
Reading his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, one couldn’t help but wonder about this man, who has regaled generations of readers and their children with his absorbing stories of the hills, pangs of adolescence, lives of the ordinary and not so ordinary people and their ghosts in the hills.
This is the story of a man who was born in British India, to an English father and an Anglo-Indian mother, but made the newly-independent India his home. A man whose first and most enduring love of his life remained his father and with whom he lived his best, very short years in an army tent near Nizamuddin in Delhi. A man who could witness, from the very early days of his childhood, the withering away of his parents’ marriage while he watched the stars sitting outside his home. A child who was lugged around like many other uncomfortable belongings which his family couldn’t decide what to do with, especially after his father’s untimely death due to repeated bouts of malaria.
He got sent to boarding schools in Dehradun and Simla, made some amazing friends and memories, discovered his love for literature and a flair for writing. He then decided to try his luck as a full-time writer even as his mother was building a new life with another partner. A man, who constantly remained in search of a home, never giving up that longing despite the fact that people whom he called his home gave up on him very often.
He persisted in his gentlest manner, just like his prose, in the end winning them all, creating a family, the members of which have grown so large that he could never have imagined it to be.
And while doing all this, he almost became a hermit, living a life of solitude in the hills of Dehra and Mussoorie, away even from the local population. In the Prologue Bond writes, “I had a lonely childhood growing up in a broken home and a boarding school in the hills. Later, companions came into my life and went away, often never to return. Or it was I who left them behind and moved on.” A little later, he goes on to say, “Hope, love and pig-headedness.
Without these, I would not have survived into my eighties and remained in working order”.
So, this is not the story of a writer in search of his creativity, different milestones, or how he evolved as a writer for adults and then later for adolescents and children. He himself admits that that may be a separate book, for some other day. This is more like an intimate story of his loves and losses, and his undying optimism amidst all this.
Yet, in many ways, those who have had the fortune of reading his stories, very often thinly veiled memoirs, will obviously see how many of his characters appear in these, whether his very first Room on the Roof or later ones like Susana’s Seven Husbands. At places, he mentions some of these characters and how he got inspired to write particular stories e.g. Flight of Pigeons.
But the point of a writer’s autobiography is not simply to re-read his/her characters through an intimate memoir. That would be a lazy thing to do.
To come back to the central narrative of this tale, it can be divided broadly into two halves of Bond’s life (though I wonder if it was by design). The first half consists of his short stays, right from the days of his infancy, where he was born in Jamnagar, then a princely state; and then to Delhi, when his father joined the Royal Air Force; then to Dehradun, where he stayed with his mother at grandmother’s place; then back to Delhi, with father after his parents’ marriage fell apart; then to hostels in Mussoorie and Simla, where eventually, he faced the news of his father’s death that he never came to terms with; then back to Dehra, to stay as a semi-independent member of his mother’s new family and her new husband.
His decision to undertake a writer’s pilgrimage to England followed (a short, struggling stint despite his first major love and its quick loss and his conversations with Diana Athill, the publisher of his first book, The Room on the Roof, where you do get a glimpse of the way this book evolved even though it was published after he had returned to India) his return to Dehradun and then to Delhi. It was where his mother was trying to resettle her family with his two younger siblings and a new husband, while he worked for CARE, an American Charity. Here you get the first glimpse of the evolving social sector in India. You also see a glimpse of expanding Delhi through his walks, and his forays into his another short-lived love.
This rapid fire journey of different places, different struggles, has a common thread running through it: the search for a lost home. After which he chose wilderness.
And then you have the second half of this journey, almost frozen in time, primarily divided between two houses in and around Mussoorie. He eventually comes to terms with his solitude, not in resignation, but with a determined step to focus on his writing, while living in an isolated cottage off Mussoorie with very few neighbours or visitors, and later to Dehra with his adopted family members which continues to grow till date.
He writes almost wistfully, “One way to get over a failed affair is to get married. Another, is to trek into beautiful, deserted places”. This is the phase when his journey becomes almost metaphorical. Here you are running all over, desperately seeking friends, family, companions, losing them again and again — and, then, one day you decide to sit almost in a trance with sheer determination and then your family becomes so large that your solitude looks just one side of the same coin. Then random visitors barge in any time of the day even when you are in your towel, half-shaven to get a photograph clicked with you, he recalled in a brief Landour diary in the Outlook a few years ago.
As he writes himself, “As a boy, loneliness. As a man, solitude. The loneliness was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found”. This is also the phase which gave him strength to make peace with his mother even as she lay dying of cancer, laying out his barely hidden sorrow of being abandoned and getting to understand his mother’s viewpoint.
But his decision to be a full-time writer after leaving the well-paying job at CARE (barring one short stint with Imprint in between) had to be managed with some meticulous planning and work. While he had begun to contribute to weekly and monthly magazines for a while, it was at this moment that you also get a glimpse of what goes into the hard determination to be a writer where he made an extended list of all the English magazines, both in India and outside, carefully rating them at their paying potential and pursuing the same with a doggedness that gave him enough to survive in a cottage where he had only an old British woman as his neighbour.
Mussoorie has been home to some of the British people who chose to stay after the Raj bid its farewell, including the famous Alter brothers as well as Bill Aitken (about whom Bond has some interesting anecdotes to share, rather more on his lover, a Maharani). Through his eyes, you see an entire generation of such people who simply couldn’t call Britain their home even as others kept leaving. His life is an ode to all of those people. You almost wonder at times, how can one remain so dogged in claiming India as a home, when racially, legacy-wise you are branded as a foreigner. He mentions this too, almost in passing through an anecdote, in his signature gentle style. In the words of another such character who chose to retire to Mussoorie, “I don’t mind being dead, Ruskin. But I shall miss, being alive”.
Lone Fox Dancing An Autobiography (Hardcover)
By Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Price: INR 599
Gandhi and the elusive Nobel
By Amitabha Bhattacharya
Many a genius missed the Nobel Prize. Leo Tolstoy in literature, Lise Meitner, Satyendranath Bose and MeghnadSaha in the sciences; even Einstein was awarded one for the photoelectric effect, not for his revolutionary ‘Theory of Relativity’. Why then is there such lament on Gandhi missing the Nobel Peace Prize? A book of 171 pages titled ‘Gandhi And The Nobel Peace Prize’ written by the noted author Dr.Rajinder Singh of the University of Oldenburg, Germany provides for the first time an authentic and comprehensive account of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of this case, based largely on his research at the Nobel Peace Prize Institute, Oslo.
The book explains the process of filing nominations, short-listing of candidates based on expert advice and how the final decision is taken. Once the basic rules are explained, Singh goes into chronological details of what happened every time Gandhi’s name came up for the prize. Were the nominations sent in time? Was the expert opinion not favourable? Who were the competitors? When was he short listed? All these issues have been discussed threadbare with supporting evidence. At the end of the book, which is rather non-judgemental, the reader appreciates the complexity of the process and the bureaucratic diligence with which assessments were made and comes to terms with the final decision, with a tinge of sadness.
The fact that a large number of persons – present and past members of the Nobel Committee, advisers at the Nobel Institute, members of national assemblies and governments and International Court of Justice, holders of Nobel Peace Prize and even university professors of law, political science, history and philosophy – can nominate helps one understands why till 1964 fourteen Indians from Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Nehru, Aga Khan III and Radhakrishnan to insignificant ones like Hari Mohan Banerjee could be nominated.
Gandhi’s name was raised in 1924, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948 in around 100 nominations. No wonder that GeirLundestad,
permanent secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, admitted “Our record is far from perfect and not giving Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Prize was the biggest omission”. Gandhi was first nominated in 1924. But the nomination, from the Council of State, Delhi, missed the deadline of 31 January 1924.
In 1937, Ole Colbjørnsen, a Norwegian journalist, economist and politician, on behalf of ‘Friends of India’, nominated Gandhi. The ideals of ahimsa that marked his struggle against colonialism as also the fact that Rabindranath Tagore had proclaimed him ‘Mahatma’ were highlighted.
The expert of the Nobel Committee, Jacob S. Worm-Müller, a historian and politician, made a factual assessment of Gandhi’s achievements but was rather critical of his approach and unconvinced of his internationalism. “Many of his actions though religious and moral, are tactical with sly calculations. He is frequently a Christ, but sometimes suddenly a politician…” He noted that Gandhi had fought only for oppressed Indians in South Africa rather than the natives who were in worse condition, supported WW I and been inconsistent in his approach, especially on rescinding Satyagraha after the burning to death of twenty policemen in Chauri-Chaura. The expert advice was fairly detailed based on which the Nobel Committee “did not see Gandhi’s work as finished and ignored him for the prize.”
Gandhi was again nominated in 1938 by Colbjørnsen, supported by 27 members from the ‘Friends of India’, Denmark. C.F. Andrews wrote, “There is no one in the world who deserves more to receive the Nobel Prize than Mahatma Gandhi. I have known him for twenty-three years and have seen his work of non-violence which has again and again brought peace in the midst of strife…” Gandhi’s Christian followers saw him as a ‘holy Christian’. Even Romain Rolland supported the nomination. Despite such support, Gandhi’s name was not short-listed. Colbjørnsen again wrote, in 1939, reiterating the earlier arguments and adding that ‘the relaxed political situation in the provincial governments is due to Gandhi’s influence.’ This also did not work.
By January 1947, three proposals favouring Gandhi were sent by B.G. Kher, G.V. Mavalankar and G.B. Pant. Rajagopalachari also played a role. Finally, Gandhi was shortlisted amongst six. The Nobel Committee asked historian Jens A. Seip to prepare a new report which Seip did by complementing the old one with Gandhi’s contributions since 1937. This period was crucial, both for his achievements and failures. Seip analysed this period through three conflicts – one between Indians and Britons on the autonomy of India, on the question of India’s participation in WW II and the inner conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Extensive analysis followed. Eventually, Gandhi’s role as a leader of violence- free resistance and as a pacifist was appreciated. However, in the Nobel Committee, two members in Gandhi’s favour could not convince the other three. In the midst of the India-Pakistan conflict, a reported statement by Gandhi that if there was no other way to secure justice from Pakistan, the Indian government would be forced to go to war (The Times, September 27, 1947) was also perhaps taken into consideration.
Gandhi was finally nominated for the prize in 1948 from different countries like the USA, UK, France, Norway and India, with more than 20 from USA alone. Suddenly, it appeared that the whole world was pleading for Gandhi, almost in unison. Seip again added Gandhi’s contribution between the period of August 15, 1947 to Gandhi’s assassination (30 January 1948). The Nobel Committee, according to Singh, was considering a posthumous prize. But the issue was to find an appropriate successor to receive the prize money.
The Nobel Committee was told that Gandhi left no estate and no testament and that The Harijan Trust, SarvodayaSamaj and The Gandhi Memorial Fund took responsibility to work in his spirit and name.
The Indian authorities had no concrete plans and thought that the Norwegian Parliament would ensure ‘The Gandhi Memorial Fund’ receives and controls the prize money. Nothing came out of this confusion. As such, Singh feels, the Nobel Committee could not perhaps be blamed ‘for not awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Gandhi.’
This long process from 1924 to 1948 when Gandhi’s name came up again and again was also the most tumultuous period of our freedom movement. Globally also, it was a turbulent time. Emotional appeals likening Gandhi with Buddha or Christ did not help.
Various forces working at the national and international levels might have made it difficult for the Nobel authorities to make an objective assessment of Gandhi at that time. Though gentle, his methods were so radical and original that they created different strands of opinion even in India and were adopted in many parts of the world mostly after his demise.
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.