Launch and Review
From Telegraph, p. 11, 27Nv99
A launch with a difference
In another part of Delhi, 65-year-old Ruskin Bond quietly released his book Season of Ghosts. This gentle writer of stories for children -- and he says they are much harder to write for than adults -- accepts that rnarketing has become a necessary tool for writers today. Very media-shy Bond does not believe in glitzy launch parties. Instead he says that when he first began writing, "we never knew what the author looked like.." Are the Arudhati Roys of the world listening?
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BOOK REVIEW BY GARGI BHATTACHARJEE
A Season of Ghosts
By Ruskin Bond, Viking, Rs 295
From The Telegraph, 3Dec99, [p. 11 in the printed Telegraph]
"Do you believe in ghosts?", Ruskin Bond prefaces A Season of Ghosts by asking. But what is believing? Who among us can profess never to have felt a shiver run up our spines at the thought of "ghosts, phantoms, demons and creatures of the night"? It is this subconscious fear of the unknown holding the spectre of our worst terrors that ghost stories pander to. And Bondís task as ghost story writer has been helped by the existence in India of a fecund fictional landscape peopled with rakhshasas, pishaches, dervishes and witches that are the staple of every respectable bedtime story.
All nine stories in the present collection are set in Bondís beloved hills near Dehradun. These hills reverberate with the remembered voices, the experience, indeed the ghosts, of all those who ever lived in the times when manners were gentler, the landscape greener, the roads less crowded. After all, ghosts are very sensitive to the "noise of the passing traffic". Somehow preternatural presences seem the natural denizens of these thick forests of deodars and pines with the mists rising from the hills and the old dak bungalows with their chandeliers, long corridors and winding staircases.
Most of Bondís ghosts are homely presences, they have no malignant designs on humans. Like the ghost of the school boy on a speeding bicycle who was killed by a passing lorry in "Whistling in the Dark". But there are exceptions. For example, the doomed history of the beautiful Gulabi, the consort of a bucaneering Englishman, Wilson, who made his fortune from the timber of the Dehra forests, proves too much for the young Mrs Ray, and she jumps off the rails of "Wilsonís Bridge".
And then there is "The Rakshasas", straight out of Thakumar Jhuli, full of goats and queens who suck blood, kings with a fetish for collecting wives, singing waters and vanaspati rice that grows cooked on trees. Bondís conservationist ideas are most evident in "On Fairy Hill". This is a Lilliputian fantasy peopled by two inch fairies and elves; the only difference, and Swift would have been appreciative, is that these creatures are naked and instead of shooting arrows at the author they lave him with soothing dew and rose petals.
Bondís mythopoeic imagination takes a macabre turn in "Something in the Water", the story of a succubus that had made its home in the dark waters of a pond and sucked dry the "body fluids" of anyone who had the misfortune of swimming in it. The creatures of the night also have a healthy disregard for wealth as the rich whizkid, Pasand, in "Night of the Millennium", finds to his cost. They claw at his flesh, suck his blood and give his bones to the clamouring jackals; "only the cellphone...[is] rejected".
The pick of the lot is "The Prize". This is a ghoulishly funny tale of a young Booker hopeful who lives a dreadful nightmare in which his body is carved up by the assembled jury. He stumbles, terror struck into bed, to find it already has as another occupant a dead body -- his own -- bearing the legend, "Better luck next time".
The novella, "Who killed the Rani?" is a whodunit, unusual in Bond. Inspector Keematlal and the mystery surrounding the Raniís murder first appeared in The Night Train in Deoli in the form of a short story called, "A case for Inspector Keematlal". Bondís Keematlal is a very unlikely Holmes. He is fat, slow, lazy and a failure, in that he allows a sense of poetic justice to overrule his duty as a law keeper.
The notion of evil, of a malevolent providence, is essential to anyone writing ghost stories or murder mysteries. Bond, who is known principally as a writer of simple stories for children, would seem to have a handicap here given his boundless faith in the innate goodness of human nature. But it is his lyricism, the ability to see life as one flowing continuum that gives him the ability to look ghosts squarely in the eye and let murderers go to school.
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