Categories
Excerpt

Ruskin Bond Recalls…

Title: Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills

Editors: Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

She was eighty-six, but looking at her you wouldn’t have guessed—she was spry and took some care to look good. Not once in the five years that we spent together did I find her looking slovenly. The old-fashioned dresses she wore were clean and well-ironed, and sometimes she added a hat. Her memory was excellent, and she knew a great deal about the flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife of the area—she hadn’t made a serious study of these things, but having lived here for so long, she had developed an intimacy with everything that grew and flourished around her. A trust somewhere in England sent her a pension of forty or fifty rupees, and this was all the money she had, having used up the paltry sum she’d received from the sale of her property.

She’d had a large house, she told me, which she had inherited from her parents when they died, and she’d had an ailing sister whom she had nursed for many years before she too passed away. As she had no income, she kept boarders in the house, but she had no business sense and was losing money maintaining it. In the end, she sold the house for a song to one of the local traders and moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of Maplewood Lodge, a kindness for which she remained grateful to her friends, the Gordon sisters.

It must have been lonely for Miss Bean, living there in the shadow of the hill, which was why she had been excited when I moved into the floor above her. With age catching up, she couldn’t leave her rooms and her little garden as often as she would have liked to, and there were few visitors—sometimes a teacher from the Wynberg Allen School, the padre from the church in town, the milkman twice a week and, once a month, the postman. She had an old bearer, who had been with her for many years. I don’t think she could afford him any longer, but she managed to pay him a little somehow, and he continued out of loyalty, but also because he was old himself; there wouldn’t have been too many other employment opportunities for him. He came late in the morning and left before dark. Then she would be alone, without even the company of a pet. There’d been a small dog long ago, but she’d lost it to a leopard.

Camel’s Back Road, going to a tea party at a friend’s house, the dog sitting in her lap. And suddenly, from the hillside above her, a leopard sprang onto the rickshaw, snatched the dog out of her hands, and leapt down to the other side and into the forest. She was left sitting there, empty-handed, in great shock, but she hadn’t suffered even a scratch. The two rickshaw pullers said they’d only felt a heavy thump behind them, and by the time they turned to look, the leopard was gone.

All of this I gathered over the many evenings that I spent chatting with Miss Bean in her corner of the cottage. I didn’t have anyone to cook for me in the first few years at Maplewood. Most evenings I would have tinned food, and occasionally I would go down to share my sardine tins or sausages with Miss Bean. She ate frugally—maybe she’d always had a small appetite, or it was something her body had adjusted to after years of small meals—so I wasn’t really depriving myself of much. And she returned the favour with excellent tea and coffee.

We would have long chats, Miss Bean telling me stories about Mussoorie, where she had lived since she was a teenager, and stories about herself (a lot of which went into some of my own stories). She remembered the time when electricity came to Mussoorie—in 1912, long before it reached most other parts of India. And she had memories of the first train coming into Dehra, and the first motor road coming up to Mussoorie. Before the motor road was built, everyone would walk up the old bridle path from Rajpur, or come on horseback, or in a dandy held aloft by four sweating coolies.

Miss Bean missed the old days, when there was a lot of activity in the hill resort—picnics and tea parties and delicious scandals. It was second only to Shimla, the favourite social playground of the Europeans. But unlike Shimla, it had the advantage of being a little more private. It was a place of mischief and passion, and young Miss Bean enjoyed both. As a girl, she’d had many suitors, and if she did not marry, it was more from procrastination than from being passed over. While on all sides elopements and broken marriages were making life exciting, she managed to remain single, even when she taught elocution at one of the schools that flourished in Mussoorie, and which were rife with secret affairs.

Do you wish you had, though,’ I asked her one March evening, sitting by the window, in the only chair she had in her bedroom.

‘Do I wish I had what?’ she said from her bed, where she was tucked up with three hot-water bottles.

‘Married. Or fallen in love.’

She chuckled.

‘I did fall in love, you know. But my dear father was a very good shot with pistol and rifle, so I had to be careful for the sake of the young gentlemen. As for marriage, I might have regretted it even had it happened.’

A fierce wind had built up and it was battering at the doors and windows, determined to get in. It slipped down the chimney, but was stuck there, choking and gurgling in frustration.

‘There’s a ghost in your chimney and he can’t get out,’ I said.

‘Then let him stay there,’ said Miss Bean.

Excerpted from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

 ‘What is it about the hills that draws us to them again and again?’ asks one of the editors of this collection. In these pages, over forty writers—from a daughter of the Tagore family and a British colonial officer in the 19th century, to a young poet and an Adivasi daily-wage worker in the 21st century—show us what the many reasons could be: Green hillsides glowing in the sun; the scent of pine and mist; the wind soughing in the deodars; the song of the whistling thrush; a ritual of worship; a picnic, a party, an illicit affair. They show us, too, the complex histories of hill stations built for the Raj and reshaped in free India; the hardship and squalor behind the beauty; the mixed blessings of progress.

Rich in deep experience and lyrical expression, and containing some stunning images of the hills, Between Heaven and Earth is a glorious collection put together by two of India’s finest writers, both with a lifelong connection with the hills. Among the writers you will read in it—who write on the hills in almost every region of India—are Rumer Godden, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Emily Eden, Francis Younghusband, Jim Corbett, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khushwant Singh, Keki Daruwalla, and of course the two editors themselves. Together, they make this a book that you will keep returning to for years to come.

ABOUT THE EDITORS

 Ruskin Bond is one of India’s most beloved writers. He is the author of nu­merous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the hills of north India. Among his best-known books are The Room on the Roof, Time Stops at Shamli, A Book of Simple Living, Rain in the Mountains and Lone Fox Dancing. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie.

Bulbul Sharma is an acclaimed painter and writer, author of best-selling books of fiction and non-fiction, including My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Auber­gines, Murder in Shimla and Shaya Tales. Bulbul conducts ‘storypainting’ work­shops for special needs children and is a founder-member of Sannidhi—an NGO that works in village schools. She divides her time between New Delhi, London and Shaya, a village in Himachal Pradesh.

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Categories
Essay

What’s Novel in a Genre?

                                        

By Indrasish Banerjee                             

  I mostly read commercial fiction and novels the first eight to ten years after I started reading. At that time, I was not familiar with the concept of genres and didn’t know – much less cared – about them. I was taking my first steps into the world of books and reading a new novel and finishing it was all that mattered. A decade or so later, now much more comfortable in the bibliographic world, I started experimenting with other types of books. Freakonomics (2005) by Steven Levitt was my first foray into non- fiction.  Then I experimented with a few more history non-fiction books (history was one of subjects in graduation) mainly by William Dalrymple and Jawaharlal Nehru but also by other writers. Keen on territorial conquests of another kind, I experimented with Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, RK Narayan and a few works by a few more Indian writers. Further from home, I tried out Charles Dickens (had read some abridged versions of his novels in school), Thomas Hardy, EM Forster and more. I read their novels, short stories and essays whatever I found.

 I had travelled very far from where I had started many years ago, crisscrossing genres. But my idea of what makes a good read had hardly changed. Whether it came to fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or classic, it still revolved around ‘a story well told’. Of course, some characteristics had changed. I had become more patient with slower narratives, more adept at handling complex narratives, more comfortable with narrative calisthenics and more at ease with diverse types of writing. I had also developed an understanding about the basic differences between literary and commercial works. Even so, my idea of a good read had remained resistant to transformative changes, engendering the question in my mind: “Do genres really matter?”

 The answer is both yes and no. Genres help categorise books based on what the reader can expect of them. There are millions and millions of books in the world and just imagine there being no basis to separate one book from another. The reader would have to go from the beginning to end of a book to understand what it was all about or start a journey without knowing what lay ahead. As much as it could be a delightful experience, it would bring in its own challenges. One of them would be to market the book.

Even if we don’t want to overlook the importance of commerce to art, let’s admit that no two things in the world treat each other with as much suspicion. Be that as it may, writers have, from to time, expressed their derision for genre. Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written many genre benders, once said in an interview that genres have no profound literary purpose or any substantial contribution to literature. They are creations of book marketers and their purpose is solely to sell books.

  But is literary genre’s relevance to literature only archival and commercial? Maybe a minor digression will bring in a new perspective.

 In Hindustani music, genre plays a vital role: it adds variety and richness. There are multiple gharanas (schools) in Hindustani music. Their identity is based on their geographical regions (Lucknow gharana, Carnatic gharana) they come from, the distinct musical heritage and ancestry they represent and the musical form they practice. However, the uniqueness of each gharana is determined by the raga it engineers by combining several suras (pitches). There are seven suras (notes) in Hindustani music.

 Film genres contribute to films, of course, in terms of variety but also by creating slots based on audience preferences, social anxieties, aspirations and various other factors which allow filmmakers to address the associated emotions by placing their films in the predefined categories which helps to find a ready audience. Film genres are more fluid than Hindustani music genres. They come and go and also get clubbed creating a hybrid genre where different genres are built into one narrative to appeal to a wider audience.

On the other hand, traditionally, book genres have had rigid boundaries with very minimal or no cross-genre exchanges. In fact, the boundaries have been so rigid that authors of one genre have never shied away from expressing their disdain for their counterparts in another genre. Broadly speaking, the two warring factions have been literary and commercial fiction.  

In The Naive And The Sentimental Novelist (2011), Orhan Pamuk says commercial novels (detective, crime, romance, sci fi novels) lack a ‘centre’ – a profound reflection on the meaning of life – which is integral to literary novels. This absence of a centre in commercial novels makes almost all of them same with nothing substantial separating one genre novel from another except their characters, plot twists and the murderer. This lack of substance makes it important for genre novels to always provide excitement to their readers, he alleges. On the contrary, according to Pamuk, a literary novel is a constant quest for the centre not just for the reader but also for the writer.

 Some writers may not know the centre to start with discovering it while writing the novel as an act of serendipity. Some may structure their plots such as to illuminate the centre.  Tolstoy had to change War and Peace (written in 1869, Translated in 1899) many times to discover its centre. Pamuk informs that Dostoyevsky had suffered epileptic attacks, after writing The Devils (1871-72, translated 1916), when he had realised that he had made a mistake leading to the sudden appearance of a new plan. And he had changed everything radically, Dostoyevsky had claimed.

 Howevee, in The Miraculous Years, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s biographer had said Dostoyevsky was exaggerating. The new plan had indeed changed the novel from a mediocre novel with one dimensional characters to a brilliant political one, but Dostoyevsky hadn’t changed more than forty pages of the 250 pages he had written the previous year. Apparently, it’s the ‘centre’ of the novel the great writer had referred to when he had said he had radically changed it, Pamuk concludes.

  In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh blames this obsession of serious literature with daily humdrum, or the ordinariness of life has traditionally kept it away from dealing with subjects which are not considered ‘serious’ leaving them for the humbler genre fiction. Climactic events like a gale flattening a town or massive rains drowning it were considered too incredulous, not making the cut for nineteenth century literary gravitas.

 Until 19th century the division between fiction and non-fiction was fuzzy. In the 19th century, thanks to Industrial Revolution, there was a profusion of factories – moving workforces from unorganised, ruralized setups to more disciplined and controlled environments.  What followed was people constructing their lives around their workplaces. This transformed rural and agricultural societies into orderly and urbanised ones bringing about a new kind of society which was far more cloistered, sober and unexciting than earlier societies which, being agricultural and rural, were far rougher and exposed to vagaries of life and nature. The colourful stories of pre 19th century couldn’t adequately capture this new reality; it needed a new kind of literary tool. In came the serious fiction or what we call today the literary novel.   

Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), Shamela by Henry Fielding (1741) and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1760) were the first attempts at literary novel dealing with such solemn themes as social differences, inner conflicts and women’s sexual autonomy. This style of writing travelled far and wide. Among others, it was adopted by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, among the earliest practitioners of the novel in India, digressing from the earlier traditions of storytelling in India, the Jataka tales and so on, informs Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

 Over a period of time, puritanism around contours of literary fiction set in, and it’s difficult to say when the wall between serious and literary fiction collapsed – in fact one can say it never did. But just as literary novels had emerged to accommodate a new kind of reality in 19th century, breaking away from genre fiction, genre benders have accounted for another kind of changing reality which is presenting challenges hitherto unimagined within the conventional boundaries of human life, like the effects of climate change and technological advances like artificial intelligence and machine learning.

  To capture the idiosyncrasies of modern life, many literary writers have flouted the boundary between literary and genre novels by setting their plots in the genre format while retaining the treatment of literary fiction. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000), Christopher Banks, now a private detective in London, sets out to investigate how his parents disappeared from Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  The novel is about life’s profundities like memory, nostalgia at its heart, although it’s written like a detective novel. The plot constantly moves from one incident to another keeping the reader waiting for the end, even as it draws a detailed picture of Shanghai society during the war. In Ishiguro’s recent book – Klara And The Sun (published in 2021) – he explores what separates human from robot even after the robot has acquired human-like intelligence. The book has a children’s book like element to it which is its main charm.

  Many writers have experimented with multiplicity of forms, but among the notable books are Kobo Abe’s 1950s novel, Inter Ice Age 4, which starts as a hardwired sci fi but slowly evolves into a political thriller and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) whose plot bifurcates into two in the middle of the novel. There on, in some chapters, the reader is solving literary mysteries while the other chapters are the first chapters from other novels of varied styles.

 The novel like any other art form has survived and moved ahead through adoption from within its various forms or external influences. When a new form arrives as a reaction to a social change or occurrence or an enterprising writer pushing back the boundaries, puritanism sets in to preserve the form in its purest state if it achieves literary acceptance and fame. Novels with magic realism and migration are some examples. When the form outlives its utility or is made obsolete by emerging trends or excessive repetition, it gets subsumed by another form and survives as part of it or slowly dies out. And thus, a new form, a mix of the two or many more, emerges. And the novel lives to fight another day.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL