By Atish George, SY BBA LLB Div. E
“Happiness is a mysterious thing, to be found somewhere in between too little and too much.”
These words by Ruskin Bond encapsulate the essence of his storytelling and ideology, which is evident in his book, ‘Rusty: The Boy from the Hills’, which reflect the small moments in life where happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times. Often described as an autobiographical book, it follows the steps of a quiet, curious and imaginative child, Rusty, in Pre-Independence Dehra where strange and fascinating occurrences don’t allow for a single dull moment, with such an energetic child thrown amid eccentric relatives, delusional royalty and good old Indian charm.
The beginning of the book itself indicates that it is no ordinary story, by placing the protagonist in a home filled with an assortment of exotic pets, which included monkeys, pythons and even a great Indian Hornbill. These pets serve to provide hilarious anecdotes as to Rusty’s grandfather’s misadventures with his pets, including smuggling a tortoise on the train, and a bath-loving monkey who almost boiled herself alive. The addition of Rusty’s family to the mix brings added hilarity to the situation, from his eccentric uncle Ken, who impersonates a famous cricketer to get a free lunch, to his grandmother who, quite like grandmothers of old, spoils Rusty by stuffing him with food.
This book explores Pre–Independence India through the lens of a curious child, with Rusty running into an enigmatic princess, the last of a dying breed who held on to her delusions of grandeur and courted a romance with the gardener, to the superstitions that plagued our nation, of ghosts and curses. It also explores the horrors of war in the mainland of Java where his father is temporarily stationed, where he narrowly escapes enemy bombardments. The final chapter deals with the death of his father, with the protagonist struggling to come to terms with this unnerving occurrence at such a young age and wraps with Rusty dealing with having to leave the hometown he had grown to love.
Throughout this book, a fine balance is trodden between hilarity and seriousness, to drawing you into the life of Rusty and, in turn, Ruskin Bond. The period in which the story is set was a tumultuous time as the nation struggled for freedom, and change was sweeping the people along, while World War II raged on. It was a time of harshness and optimism for the country; however, this book does not seek to delve into such matters of gravity. It remains as the viewpoint of a child, exploring his ancestral home, his accidental encounters and his sudden involvement in the clutches of the second world war followed by his miraculous escape in the latter half of the book.
A hallmark of Ruskin Bond’s book is his ability to weave a dreamy atmosphere of childlike innocence and mystery, seeking to entrap the reader in his fantastical world. This is particularly evident in the chapter where Rusty befriends Sono in the war-torn land of Java, where he is enticed by the idea of bicycle rides at a time where air raids were frequent and close by. It captures the beauty of the country, filled with farmers planting their crops and trees shuffling in the wind. This is abruptly brought to an end by an airstrike, which blasts them off their bicycles and covers them with gravel. It reminds us of the gravity of war and puts us in the shoes of a mere child stuck in its midst, a reality that continues even today in the war plagued nations of the middle east. This is further followed by an eventful escape by sea, a full-fledged adventure in the life of a child who was not even 15.
The book also provides the unique perspective of a British child in an era where the ‘whites’ were slowly leaving the land. His exposure to the Indian environment and culture, of princesses and superstitions, serves as a viewpoint both foreign to the land and yet accepting of it. The sadness of the Indian maid on finding out that a snake moved away from the protagonist draws a light chuckle, as she explains that such a matter means that the child’s luck shall run out, a comforting reminder to rituals which hold confidence even among the elders of today.
A final theme that is elaborated upon is that of human relationships, in this case between Rusty and his father. A close bond between father and son is strengthened by the separation of Rusty’s parents, which draws the duo together. It serves as a relationship that is strengthened by mutual love and respect for each other, with the father having a seemingly endless amount of patience to deal with his son’s questions. Rusty’s other relationships with his grandparents, friends and even the hired help showcase his amiable nature, as he effortlessly befriends both humans and animals alike, an enviable skill desired by many. These relationships open new doors for him, with his close relationship with his maid drawing him into a world of superstitions and showcasing the seeming faults of all Indian men, such as Tonga drivers who all have some vice or the other.
While curled up on the sofa with this book, it becomes evident why Ruskin Bond has remained a household name in India. While he deals with a wide range of genres, from horror to autobiographical, his narrative always draws the reader in, where we empathize with Rusty and chuckle at his escapades and shed a tear at his father’s funeral. This viewpoint of curiosity and imagination is carried over into sequels where we follow our author as he matures into a man but retains the heart and enthusiasm of a child and explores the charming towns and villages of a rapidly progressing India. This book serves as a reminder to tap into our childhood innocence and enjoy the small things, which helps to coast through the turbulent waters of life, by finding the ‘happiness between too little and too much.’