To read Ruskin Bond’s fiction is to feel the transforming Indian society post-Independence, combined with the inimitable knack of storytelling with which Bond characterizes daily life in a small town. An astute observer, Bond paints a vivid picture of the overlooked sections of the society, while maintaining a leisurely pace with attention to minute details, which reminds the reader of RK Narayan. The short volume contains thirty stories about disreputable and morally suspect characters, as the title suggests. Admittedly, villainous characters are always more interesting than the ones who take the straight and narrow road and the villainy portrayed in the tales is mostly lighthearted. Some of the stories deal with serious themes, while others are hilariously funny crime tales. In ‘A Man Called Brain’, Bond portrays a self-obsessed sybarite doomed to a lonely existence with fast approaching old age-painting an evocative picture of pre-Independence India with round cigarette tins and bullock carts. In ‘Sher Singh and the Hot-water Bottle’, a distiller is able to drive a wedge in the orderly society around him by concocting large quantities of forbidden liquor which is enthusiastically consumed by the bored residents of the hillside. There seems to be a common theme of aging and decay in some of the more serious stories like ‘Strychnine in the Cognac’ and ‘A Case for Inspector Lal’. Although he professes to be unlike Dostoyevsky in his bid to define the motivations behind a crime, the subject of criminal responsibility is dealt with, albeit always tinged with Bond’s characteristic humour. Can criminality be justified in certain circumstances? This moral conundrum is taken by a conscientious policeman Inspector Lal, whose emotions get in the way of his duty when a known child trafficker is found murdered in her house. Such nuanced tales like ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’ and ‘A Job Well Done’, deal with the duality of conventional morality and the very tough choices that an individual has to make in order to survive.
In a book that puts braggarts and murderers together, the author is at his best in the plain simple-hearted stories about the exploits of children. Bond knits childhood memories and local legends into beautiful stories like ‘The Four Feathers’, where some school children steal a baby mistaking it for an orphan; and ‘When the Guavas are Ripe’, in which some children strike up an unusual friendship with a watchman while stealing guavas from his orchard. Bond writes about people living on the margins of society—incorrigible drifters—who remain defiantly unreasonable while facing the ire of society. One of Bond’s all-time favourites, ‘The Thief’s Story’ is also included in the collection, where the necessity of a life of crime as a result of penury and maltreatment comes to the fore. In some hilarious stories, even supernatural mischief-makers are dealt with, where prets and jinns come together to camp in the homes of unsuspecting people. Weaving interesting historical anecdotes with fiction, bond creates a magical atmosphere, at once familiar and unknowable. The forests filled with wild animals and shady ravines filled with trout may not resonate with the urban reader, but evoke an image of a world fast dying or lost altogether. In ‘Grandfather’s Private Zoo’, the author paints a vivid picture of animals and humans coexisting—perhaps casting a nostalgic light on a lost and more harmonious past.
Bond combines social commentary with keen political acumen in ‘Voting at Fosterganj’, poking gentle fun at the ‘rich maharishis and industrialists’ who have replaced the erstwhile ‘sahibs and rajas’ post-Independence. While the seats of power might have shifted, the hierarchy between the powerful and the powerless remains firmly in place; and it seems only fitting to include some politicians in Ruskin Bond’s ‘Gallery of Rascals’. The author is unsparing in portraying the reality of the society in which he lives but is hardly ever gloomy, transforming the bleakest tales with his unfailing humour. While the stories included in the collection are not particularly aimed at children, Bond’s sharp and effortless prose can easily be enjoyed by people of all ages. The barely respectable and morally suspect protagonists hook the reader right from the beginning; as Ruskin Bond shrewdly observes in the Foreword, ‘Let’s face it. Good people are usually rather dull, especially in literature.’
Gulbahar Shah is a PhD Scholar in the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.