Bonding with Ruskin over pickles and eggs
On the eve of his 86th birthday, and with a new book out, Ruskin Bond holds forth on food and the reason why he is a ‘pickle fiend’
The chaat shop in Dehradun played a very significant role in The Room On The Roof, my first novel, published in 1956," says author Ruskin Bond during a phone call from Landour, days before his 86th birthday on 19 May. In fact, quite a few friendships in his books have been forged over pakoras and chaat. “I love them. Just this morning I was hinting to my granddaughter that we haven’t had pakoras for some time now. You know what, after this call, I will have onion ones this evening," Bond says.
Reading a Bond story always gives one hunger pangs. Whether it is descriptions of his granny’s cooking, his Uncle Ken’s love for roast duck stuffing or chance encounters over piping hot pakoras in the bazaar—food is an integral part of the narrative. “You are right. Food does find a lot of mention in my books. But personally, I am not a fussy eater. I went to a boarding school, where you had to eat what you were given or you went hungry. So I never complain about food," says Bond.
In the 1980s and 1990s, childhood was ruled by a trinity of authors: Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Ruskin Bond. While the former two spun fantastical worlds around enchanted forests, conniving wizards and young detectives, Bond added a magical touch to places that were real and alive. Over the years, he has painted vibrant portraits of the jungles of the Terai, the busy bazaars of Dehradun, the sleepy town of Shamli and the people of Landour—in tales of horror, delight, mystery and poignancy set in the misty mountains of the north.
A lifelong student of human nature, Bond wrote in Tales Of The Open Road, “Human beings and the worlds they make for themselves are as fascinating as the wonders of nature." And the delightful universe of stories that has emerged from his study is inhabited by tea sellers, chaatshop owners, bakers, hoteliers who serve squishy eggs, teachers who love to cook, and friends who love to eat.
My introduction to Bond came at age 7 through Big Business, a short story about a young boy, Ranji, and his quest to buy syrupy hot jalebis from the Jumna Sweet Shop. He makes a series of exchanges with his friends—an old coin for a fishing rod, a rod for a flute, a flute for a necklace, and a necklace for a shiny one rupee coin that finally leads him to a paper bag full of jalebis, “those spangled, golden sweets made of flour and sugar". Such was Bond’s description of this sweet that I remember pestering my mother to buy me jalebis every day of the week.
“This was one of my early short stories for children. In a way, Ranji was an amalgamation of two-three boys—these were kids I encountered during vacations when I would come home. But Koki (who finally gives the one rupee coin to Ranji) was one particular girl, who liked to join the boys in their adventures. She even got into the boys’ cricket team. In the 1950s-60s, that was unusual," Bond says.
In his latest book, Miracle At Happy Bazaar: My Very Best Stories For Children (Aleph Book Company), Melaram’s tea shop in the Dehradun bazaar becomes the backdrop for some unusual encounters. In the opening story, as the author is contemplating a dish of pakoras, he comes across Dr Cosmos, from a small town in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, who goes on to gain fame as a miracle healer.
And then there are glorious descriptions of the peanut toffees, stuffed turkeys and meat pies from his grandmother’s kitchen. These find mention in several of his books, such as The Adventures of Rusty, and offer a sense of what spending vacations in a rambling bungalow, populated by a gardener’s family, a Siamese cat called Suzie and a mongrel called Crazy, must have been like. It etches the image of a simpler life, spent in a household that was part-English, part-Indian, of finding freedom in the bazaars, and much more.
Uncles and aunts flit in and out of the tales, especially Uncle Ken, who had the uncanny ability to lose his job again and again. The kitchen and the dining table serve as backdrops to the narration of Uncle Ken’s misadventures, as both he and the author compete for Granny’s many specialities, especially the roast duck and pickles. “My love for pickles is one that has endured and kept me going all these years," says Bond, who calls himself a “pickle fiend" and has a collection of hot, sweet, tart and pungent varieties from around the country. “On my dining table, there is hardly room for anything else. There are so many bottles, including common ones, such as mango and lime," he adds. “But I also have asafoetida or hing pickle, which is very strong, and a jackfruit one as well." There are pickles made of garlic, ginger and lotus stem too.
Like his books, Bond’s conversation is alive with vignettes from the past. As he wrote in a memoir, “We are, after all, the products of history, creatures of our own pasts." He talks about surviving on eggs when his friend Daljit and he ran away from boarding school to Jamnagar. “Someday I am going to write a book on 50 different ways of boiling an egg. That’s the extent of my cooking. I have occasionally made an omelette but it comes out all squishy," laughs Bond.
At school, he was part of the Boy Scouts and, for some peculiar reason, was vested with a cookery badge and put in charge of the rations and dinner when they went camping. “So I made a dish, which became famous as the Bond bhujiya. In that, we cut up all the vegetables and ingredients that we could lay our hands on. I added stinging nettle and tomato sauce to the dish, and even jam. It was a sweet and sour concoction. The next day everyone had a tummy upset and they took my cookery badge away," he says.
As a student, Bond hated the marathon: He found running 5 miles around the hill a pointless exercise. But on the route there used to be an old man selling bhutta, or roasted corn. “During the course of the race, I would stop there, help myself to a couple of them while everyone ran past me," he says. Of course, he would come last. “But I used to be so far off in the rear that I would be first in the next race."
Not many know that Bond used to have a collection of pocket books and cookbooks. In the story A Pocketful Of Thoughts, from Notes From A Small Room, he writes about these, including his father’s prayer book and psalter with his name, Aubrey Bond, inscribed on the back, and The Humour Of Charles Lamb. Alongside these books was his grandmother’s recipe book, small enough to slip into her apron pocket. “Its charm lies not so much in its recipes for roast lamb and mint sauce but because the margins of each page are enlivened with little maxims concerning good food and wise eating," he writes in the story.
Some examples of these homilies included: “Dry bread at home is better than roast meat abroad", “light suppers make long lives" and “let not your tongue cut your throat". The last was reserved for Bond if he spent too much time at the table. He even has an old address book from 1964, which he opened some years ago to find that a few of his old friends were still around. He writes about them in Landour Days: A Writer’s Journal.
Hetty Prim, in Palampur, was a teacher who used to write children’s stories on the side. “I remember her with gratitude and affection because she taught me to cook at a time I was living on my own, surviving on boiled egg and bread and butter," Bond writes. In the story, he records some of the recipes he tried out, the most notable being “Soup a la Hetty" made with tomatoes, cabbage, onion and ginger. “Many years back, somebody told me he could get a good price for the old cookbooks I owned and I let the person take them away. I neither saw them again nor the price that he had mentioned," says Bond.
In these days of covid-19, he is busy writing homespun philosophy at home. “I have written some 10,000 words so far," he says. He has also been ruminating over the fact that many youngsters now want to be writers—a stark departure from the time when he was the only student who was interested in taking it up as a profession. “When I told my mother about it, she said, don’t be silly, join the army. Fortunately for the army, I didn’t, or there would have been another Beetle Bailey-like situation. Someone has asked me to do a book on how to be a writer. I could do that, but certainly not a book on how to be a cook," Bond says.