Ruskin Bond — my favourite, favourite author — was 17 when he wrote his first book, The Room on the Roof. Although I have read quite a few books of Bond’s, it didn’t occur to me to read his debut. A couple of months ago, Penguin Books India published a special edition for its 60th anniversary, and I am glad I pre-booked.
This copy is indeed a collector’s edition. The hardbound features Ahlawat Gunjan’s lovely illustrations, which capture the heart of the novel in pleasant watercolors. I think I will not loan this copy to anybody. 🙂
Bond writes in his preface, “What makes it (The Room on the Roof) ‘different’, I think, is that it is a novel about adolescence by an adolescent; and for this reason I have never changed a word or made any revisions. It reflects the writer as he was when he wrote it — naive, trustful, eager for love and friendship. It was born out of the loneliness I felt as a young man on his own in a big city.” The book, which won The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, carries everything that a Bond-book offers: rain, mountains, jungle, friendly strangers, inconsiderate relatives, quirky names (a dog named Prickly Heat, and a cow named Maharani), heartwarming friendship, unexpected death, and sad departures.
The first chapter of The Room on the Roof is a great prelude to what one can expect from the novel. Rusty is returning home, and he is crestfallen. He hasn’t figured out his life yet. He is sadder, for he has to live with his cruel guardian. As he walks homeward, Somi — a young Punjabi boy — offers him a ride on his bicycle. While Rusty refuses first, he succumbs to Somi’s friendly pressure. On their way, Somi’s friend Ranbir, a young wrestler, joins them. Their happy ride is then disturbed by Suri, who insists on finding his place on the bicycle. With Suri and Rusty on the crossbar, and Ranbir on the carrier, Somi negotiates hairpin bends, and retains his balance on steep hills. Did I mention that it’s raining already? I love the image of four young boys on a vintage bicycle, basking in nature, enjoying the company of strangers, and being carefree at least for a fleeting moment. I read the first chapter three times.
Somi’s and Ranbir’s friendship changes Rusty. The diffident teenager becomes a rebel, creates a revolution at home when the guardian canes him for playing Holi, and exploring the bazaar. Rusty assaults the guardian, and runs away. Where would he go? He spends a bizarre night in the market, steals a kiss from a sex-worker who is in her twilight years, sleeps in a playground, before Somi rescues him, and agrees to share his house.
Rusty doesn’t want to be Somi’s guest for a long time, although Somi loves sharing his food and shelter with him. So, Somi helps Rusty to find a job; Rusty is then employed by Mr and Mrs Kapoor to teach English to their naughty, young boy called Kishen. Meena (Mrs Kapoor) declares that they cannot offer him a standard salary, but they can give him food, and a room on the roof.
Teenage troubles begin to engulf Rusty after he moves to his room on the roof. He falls in love with Meena. To my surprise, his advances do not scandalise her; his love is her welcome respite from her miserable marriage with her drunkard of a husband.
Just when Rusty begins to think that life cannot be more perfect, Meena dies in a car crash. Kishen leaves the village to live with his aunt. Somi goes on a long travel. Mr Kapoor doesn’t return after the crash. And, Rusty is now unemployed, lonely, and brokenhearted.
The nineteen-year-old Rusty is not aware of his roots. His hair is fair, his eyes are blue, his guardian tells him he is English, but Rusty feels that he doesn’t belong anywhere, and yet he belongs everywhere. When he doesn’t find a reason to stay in the village any longer, he chooses to go to England. On his way, he decides to say goodbye to his friend Kishen, and learns that Kishen is now a successful bandit. Rusty cannot leave the boy in the rut, for his love for Meena, and for his love for the boy himself. As though returning Meena’s kindness, Rusty rescues Kishen, and the friends return to their room on the roof.
Bond shows an India that I cherish. The Room on the Roof is replete with brilliant descriptions about bazaar, chaat shops, cattle, local vendors, monsoon, the tropical heat… Bond’s India is not devoid of problems. But, it feels like home. Reading Bond’s books is like returning to my childhood, when we wrote letters and waited for responses with bated breath, when teenage troubles were all about exchanging furtive glances with the lover, when our summer vacation was spent at relatives’s, when travelling on a train was an adventure, when monsoon’s arrival was observed and celebrated… Bond’s stories are magical. It belongs to everybody, who remembers an India that was sleepy, warm, and generously populated with ordinary people, who were extraordinary in their own ways.
The postman brought a letter from Somi.
Dear Rusty, best favourite friend,
Do not ever travel in a third-class compartment. All the way to Amritsar I had to sleep standing up, the carriage was so crowded.
I shall be coming back to Dehra in the spring, in time to watch you play Holi with Ranbir. I know you feel like leaving India and running off to England, but wait until you see me again, all right? You are afraid to die without having done something. You are afraid to die, Rusty, but you have hardly begun to live.
I know you are not happy in Dehra, and you must be lonely. But wait a little, be patient, and the bad days will pass. We don’t know why we live. It is no use trying to know. But we have to live, Rusty, because we really want to. And as long as we want to, we have got to find something to live for, and even die for it…
Rusty folded the letter carefully, and put it in his shirt pocket; he meant to keep it forever.