A puffing steam engine thunders through a tunnel in the hills, like a beautiful monster straight out of Ranji’s dreams. Fascinated by the spectacle, the young boy waits for the midday train daily. And soon the tunnel becomes a portal to adventures—of lush jungles, unexpected friendships with the tunnel watchman, leopards lurking near the tracks, and more. This is part of a new short story, The Tunnel, by Ruskin Bond, illustrated by Priya Dali and published by Puffin. It takes you back to a simpler time, when people would derive happiness from the smallest of things. In an interview, Ruskin Bond talks about his associations with the train, and upcoming books. Edited excerpts:
Ranji makes an appearance yet again in this book after stories such as Big Business. Could you talk about the person behind the character?
Ranji is a childhood friend and I put him into stories now and then. Back in the early 1950s, I had finished school and was in Dehradun. I had lots of friends and he was one of them. His real name was Ranbir but I changed it in the stories to Ranji.
The train has been a character in itself in your books, be it in the horror stories, or in chronicles of your journeys from Dehradun and Shamli. Why this enduring fascination with rail journeys?
This particular story could have happened at any time, be it 50 years ago or today. We still have tunnels in hills and forests, caretakers who look after them and leopards wandering around. But back in the 1950s-60s, everyone travelled by train. Air services were not fully developed and hence train travel was the norm. I always found stories somehow on trains and railway platforms. Sometimes I would buy a platform ticket just so that I could sit on a bench at a station and wait for something to happen. And usually something did happen, sometimes to me and sometimes to others.
The characters from these train journeys are particularly interesting. Today, with the frenetic pace of life, not everyone pays attention to the train conductor, watchman, and the ticket collector. How did those observations help you as a writer?
We had a little more time in those days. Life is so much faster now. To make a living, people have to rush around. Things moved at a leisurely place back in time. To go to England, I had to get on a ship for three weeks. With time at hand, you noticed things more. And if you were a writer, even more so. I would go to the maidan or parade ground, wander about and conjure up a story. Today, it is hard to get to know people intimately, to simply stop and talk. Say, in earlier days if I was coming by bus from Delhi to Dehradun, I would inevitably pick up a conversation with a fellow traveller. He would want to know all about you and you would want to know all about him. That’s more or less gone now. But in small towns, hills, there is still time for gossip and getting to know one another.
If you could recall some of the memorable conversations or associations from such journeys...
I would go to boarding school in the hills and leave Dehradun by mid-day. The journey involved changing trains several times, at Saharanpur and then Kalka. Today, this distance can be covered in six to seven hours by road. Changing trains would be hectic, I would sometimes miss the connections. Or, the train would be hours late, and one would end up sitting on the platform, eating chaat or chhole. Railway stations were great places for eating all sorts of things and having a tummy upset the following day. Water was not filtered or treated. One had tap water, which you got used to.
One night, I missed a connecting train at Ambala. I was 11 or 12 and was travelling alone. A kind lady befriended me. While we were waiting, another school boy came along with his mother, and they mistook this kind lady for my mother. She didn’t deny it. We carried on this pretence as I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. When I got on the train with this boy, this kind lady had tears in her eyes. And I also said, ‘Goodbye mother’. I never saw her again, of course, but it was a rather touching experience. Maybe she could have been looking for a lost son, or might have been a little disturbed.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I have kept a journal. These days, daily, I put down some thought or a memory or observation, connected with today’s events or the past. Sometimes the two come together. I have started calling it my golden notebook. I may publish it next year, when it is more substantial. From being a story writer and essayist, I am now becoming a diarist.
‘The Tunnel', Rs. 199, 48 pages, Puffin India