Ruskin Bond’s Notes on Simple Living

A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills, Speaking Tiger Books, 2015

As I walked home last night,

I saw a lone fox dancing

In the cold moonlight.

I stood and watched; then

Took the low road, knowing

The night was his by right.

Sometimes, when words ring true,

I’m like a lone fox dancing

In the morning dew. (9)

I picked up this lime-coloured, hard cover, slim volume from the Speaking Tiger stall at the World Book Fair at Delhi last month. I liked the title, the orange dipped page corners, I liked the uncluttered cover with its tasteful, spare water colour illustration of a bird perched on a branch, and, it had been years since I had read Bond seriously, beyond the occasional newspaper column and one odd short story and of course the two films based on his works.

I expected to be charmed, but not to be floored. If Bond the storyteller has children in thrall, Bond the diaryist has the adult enamoured. For these pages contain the best of the author through the years: his unassuming grace as a writer, his keen eye for beauty in the natural world and his compassionate gaze on human frailties. As the older creative yesteryears lie crumbling around us, with the last year seeing the demise of many cherished artists, this book with its deep yet light wisdom helps one cope with the end of an era. It is refreshing to say the least, reading these quiet musings of a simple, talented man basking in the shade of age and experience, amused at the verdict of eccentricity, as others of far lesser talent throng the limelight.

The entries are varied, mostly disconnected and brief. The sudden connections he makes between innocuous experiences and observations strike the reader with the sudden beauty with which the writer himself seems to have been stirred. His reflections on talkative godmen culminate in the brusque, humbling words of the sabzi-wala.

His ruminations on love and friendship are shorn of sentimentality and self-pity and speak instead of buoyant memories and an openness to unlikely, spontaneous relationships that grow of their own will, at their own pace and a complete surrender to rare intimacies of the mind. Unhurried, unforced. Like the romantic man who in an age of hankering after scientific certainties, is rather old-fashioned about preferring to have certain mysteries intact, “sweet and satisfying and entirely…(his) own” (16). Forgiveness and letting go of past hurts are as important as taking new paths in the hope of new friendships, we learn.

But the most soul-fulfilling of these ‘trivets’ are his searing insights into plants, trees, animals, hill, sky, rain — the natural world that he insists have the potential to save humans from themselves. His is not the arrogance of the master ( human, male, colonialist), but the humility of the one seeking to form lasting friendships — with the bird or the squirrel on his window sill. As we become more and more absorbed in new media technologies and move further away from the natural world, we cannot but feel admiration and envy for one who still writes by hand, and draws strength and inspiration from trees and clouds. Do we have eyes that can draw succour from a stubborn flower, a heart that allows itself to be soothed by the cooing of a pigeon or reassured by the sight of nesting swallows, or ears that can decipher the language of cuckoos and hill streams? Can we offer ourselves in friendship to a firefly or a dying plant or a shelterless boy?? Are we blessed with the grace that bows down in awe before a tree-climbing, fruit-filching woman (Do you remember ‘Grandma Climbs a Tree’?!)?

As with most evolved souls, this one too sets much store by a healthy sense of humour, gentle and wicked by turns, but clean of heart, indulgent of others and often lightly self-deprecating. He tickles the nostalgic reader with thoughts of Rusty as he mischievously claims, “Growing up was always a difficult process for me, and I gave up trying many years ago.” (20). Reflecting on his arrest following the publication of a short story, he writes: “Warrants make bad reading, except in detective stories. So how does a writer of modest prose and light verse take it?” (113).

On being asked about his philosophy of life by a bright young schoolgirl, Bond professes himself stumped. He muses, “Should I tell her that I had just bumbled along? Would I disappoint her if I said that I was old but had no wisdom to offer?” (85). And yet, it needs no great discerning eye to recognise the pearls of wisdom and simple lessons strewn across this precious book: “Live close to nature and your spirit will not be easily broken, for you learn something of patience and resilience. You will not grow restless, and you will never feel lonely” (26). “When all the wars are done, a butterfly will still be beautiful” (28). “Slow down and listen. There are things that are good to hear.” (32). “If you owe nothing, you are rich” (48). “To know one’s limitations and to do good work within them: more is achieved that way than by overreaching oneself.” (73).

Ruskin Bond the man sums up his wisdom through the things he has come to value with time: stillness, laughter directed at oneself and life lived at one’s own pace. But his one-line summation? “A long and ne’er-say-die search for the perfect window” (22). Ruskin Bond the author professes his inability in writing of momentous events and sums up his writing style in thus: “I am a writer without regrets” (75).

What this book ultimately offers is so much more than a brief respite for the soul. Ruskin Bond teaches us the deep, invigorating pleasures of simple, uncluttered, unhurried living, whether it is by setting off on long, meandering “tramping to nowhere in particular”(70), filling up a puddle with water so that a bird keeps visiting, watching the resolute march of ants, or drawing happiness from that of others. Who else could teach us so beautifully: “Not that the ladybird is going to change my life. But by acknowledging its presence, stopping to admire its beauty, I have paid obeisance to the natural scheme of things of which I am only a small part” (35)? This is no course on meditation, but a practical demonstration on contemplative living, and he himself signals the difference between the two. His exhortation of solitude calms the mind and lifts the spirit .

It offers hope, it shows contentment and draws into its embrace the unsuspecting reader, with the wisdom of the lone fox dancing in the morning dew. Clarity and honesty, his two aims as a writer are amply manifest in this book, sending us deeper into the worlds of our favourite characters and protagonists of his numerous stories and essays over the decades. As he drew upon the wisdom of the literary and philosophical greats before him, we will draw upon his, and leave with our souls much disencumbered. Read, to learn the importance of zigzag walks and creative idleness and how to behave around mirrors. Read, to feel a bond with what the poet Wordsworth has described as “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”.

“I may not have contributed anything towards the progress of civilisation, but neither have I robbed the world of anything. Not one tree or bush or bird or flower. Even the spider on my wall is welcome to his space” (140). Oh, for a conscience that can make this proud claim!