When you read a union, you’re always hungry. Whether it’s his grandmother’s culinary skills, his uncle Ken’s love for roast duck stuffing or chance encounters while preparing hot pakoras in the bazaar, it’s all part of the story. You’re right. You’re right. Food is often mentioned in my books. But personally, I’m not a fussy eater. I went to a boarding school where you had to eat what you had or you were hungry. That’s why I never complain about the food, Bond says.
In the 1980s and 1990s, childhood was dominated by a trinity of authors: Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Ruskin Bond. While the first two fantasy worlds revolve around enchanted forests, cunning wizards and young detectives, Bond has given a magical touch to real, living places. Over the years he has painted striking portraits of the jungles of the Terai, the bustling bazaars of Dehradun, the sleepy city of Shamli and the people of Landour – stories of horror, joy, mystery and precision that unfold in the misty mountains of the north.
Bond, an old student of human nature, wrote in Tales Of The Open Road: People and the worlds they create for themselves are as fascinating as the wonders of nature. And the delicious universe of stories that grew out of his studies is inhabited by tea vendors, chaatshop owners, bakers, hoteliers who serve soft-cooked eggs that like to cook, and friends who like to eat.
I discovered Bond at the age of 7 through Big Business, a short story about a little boy, Ranji, and his search for hot, viscous blinds in the Jumna candy store. He exchanges a series of exchanges with his friends – an old coin for a fishing rod, a fishing rod for a flute, a flute for a necklace and a chain for a shiny single-coloured coin, which eventually leads him to a paper bag filled with jalebis, those golden flaky sweets made from flour and sugar. That’s how Bond described this candy, which I remember teasing my mother every day of the week to buy me jalebis.
It was one of my first children’s stories. In a way, Ranji was a mix of two or three boys – they were children I met on holiday when I came home. But Koki (who eventually gave Ranji a one-line coin) was a special girl who liked to join the boys in their adventures. She even joined the boys cricket team. In the 1950-60s that was unusual, says Bond.
Miracles of a cheerful bazaar – my best children’s stories: By Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company, 456 pages, ₹382 (digital price).
In his latest book, Miracle At Happy Bazaar: My Very Best Stories For Children (Aleph Book Company), Melaram’s tea room in the Dehradun Bazaar will be the setting for some unusual encounters. In the opening story, the author meets Dr. Cosmos, a resident of a small town in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, who later becomes famous as a miracle healer while watching a dish of Pakoras.
And then there are the delicious peanut caramels, stuffed turkeys and meat pies from his grandmother’s kitchen. These are mentioned in several of his books, such as The Adventures of Rusty, and give an idea of what it must have been like to spend a holiday in a spacious bungalow inhabited by the family of a gardener, a Siamese cat called Suzie and a cross called Crazy. He paints a picture of a simpler life in a partly English and partly Indian house, of freedom in the bazaars and much more.
Uncle and aunts rush into the stories, especially uncle Ken, who had the strange ability to lose his job over and over again. The kitchen and dining table serve as a backdrop to the story of Uncle Ken’s setbacks, while he and the author argue about the grandmother’s many specialties, including roast duck and gherkins. My love for pickles is a love that has lasted all these years and kept me alive, says Bond, who calls himself a pickle fanatic and has a collection of hot, sweet, spicy varieties from all over the country. There’s hardly room for anything else on my dining table. There are so many bottles, even ordinary ones like mango and lime, he adds. But I also have asafoetida or hanging gherkins, which are very strong, and also a jackfruit pickle. There are also gherkins made from garlic, ginger and lotus stems.
Just like his books, Bond’s conversation is animated by vignettes from the past. As he wrote in his memoirs: After all, we are products of history, beings from our own past. He tells how he survived on eggs when he and his friend Daljit ran from boarding school to Jamnagar. One day I will write a book about 50 different ways to boil an egg. This is the size of my kitchen. I made an omelette once in a while, but it’s all soft, Bond laughs.
At school he was a scout and for some strange reason he was given a chef’s badge and was given the task of providing food and dinner when they went camping. So I prepared a dish that became famous as Bond bhujiya. We cut all the vegetables and ingredients we can get our hands on. I added nettles, tomato sauce and even jam to the dish. It was a bittersweet brew. The next day everyone had indigestion and I had my chef’s badge removed, he says.
When he was a student, Bond hated marathons: He thought it was useless to walk five miles around the hill. But there was an old man on the road who sold Bhutta, that’s roasted corn. During the race I stopped there, helped myself to some of them, while all the others passed me, he says. Of course, he’d come last. But before I fall so far behind, I’m the first in the next race.
Few people know that Bond once owned a collection of paperbacks and cookbooks. In A Pocketful Of Thoughts he writes about it, among other things about his father’s prayer book and psalter with his name Aubrey Bond on the back and The Humour Of Charles Lamb. Next to these books was his grandmother’s recipe book, which was small enough to fit in her apron pocket. His charm lies not so much in his recipes for roast lamb and mint sauce, but because the edges of each page are animated with small propositions about good food and smart eating, he writes history.
Some examples of these sermons are included: Dry bread at home is better than meat toasted abroad, light meals allow a long life and don’t cut your tongue in your throat. The latter was reserved for Bond when he spent too much time at the table. He even has an old address book from 1964 that he opened a few years ago to see that some of his old friends were still there. He writes about it in Landour Days: A writer’s diary.
Hetty Prim, in Palampur, was a teacher who wrote stories for local children. I remember her with gratitude and affection because she taught me how to cook at a time when I lived alone and ate boiled eggs, bread and butter, writes Bond. In the story he includes some of the recipes he tried. The most remarkable is the Hetty soup with tomatoes, cabbage, onions and ginger. Many years ago someone told me he could get a good price for the old cookbooks I had, and I let him take them. I never saw her again, nor the price he mentioned, Bond said.
In these Covid-19 times he is at home writing homemade philosophy. I’ve written about 10,000 words so far, he says. He also thought about the fact that many young people now want to become a writer – a clear break from the days when he was the only student who wanted to become a writer. When I told my mother, she said: Don’t be stupid, join the army. Luckily for the Army I didn’t, otherwise there would have been another Beetle Bailey situation. Someone asked me to write a book on how to be a writer. I could, but certainly not a book on how to become a cook, Bond says.