India's pioneer of modern children's tales

He addresses his audience as "Gentle Reader." It is only that sort of reader, says Ruskin Bond, who is likely to enjoy his stories - of kids stranded on a wild river, of crickets that talk to crocodiles, and of a village shepherd girl named Binya who finds that a blue umbrella has changed her world.

A Britisher who grew up and "stayed on" in his beloved India, Mr. Bond is a novelist, diarist, essayist, and script writer, and he may be the best-known author among ordinary Indians. From Calcutta to Madras to Bombay, Bond is known for rich but easygoing stories, written from a Himalayan hideaway called "Ivy Cottage" where he has lived for 50 years.

Bond's main fame is due to his children's stories. He is in fact the pioneer of modern children's literature in India. In this land of a billion people, kids often learn oral "nana-nani ki kahani," or maternal grandparent's tales. Yet when Bond began to adapt his own vivid memories of mid-century India with the observations of two generations of the Indian family that lives with him, the genre caught hold.

Bond's own stories, reprinted in school texts throughout India, are always of discovery: adventures exploring train tunnels, climbing guava trees, making a zoo of rabbits and lizards, learning to get along. Yet there is a mixture of shrewdness and innocence in Bond's stories, say his publishers. Just as one thinks the story is too sentimental, Bond injects a dose of realism, says one.

In his 1996 award-winning "Binya's Blue Umbrella," for example, a girl finds a lovely umbrella left by wealthy city picnickers. Walking in her village with the umbrella, Binya's status is suddenly enhanced. Yet she catches wind of a shopkeeper who is jealous of her find and plots to take it away.

"In some ways the lives of Indian children aren't very different from anywhere else," Bond says from his hill station aerie in Mussoorie, which looks out on misty peaks. "Their aspirations, what gives pleasure or sorrow, are universal. Jumping in a pool of water, playing games, making friends, losing friends, making friends again - are common to children everywhere.

"The differences are mainly in geography, customs, and the economy that rural children live in."

The past 15 years have seen Bond's published stories grow into a half-dozen fat collected volumes. His work reaches new children's magazines published by Scholastic that go to village classrooms. Bond has also reworked traditional Indian tales. A series of nine stories adapted from the Sanskrit poem "The Ramayana" are published as "The Adventure of Rama and Sita" - where prince Rama and his beautiful wife Sita do battle against the forces of evil.

The rise of new children's literature in India is partly due to the breakdown of the traditional family and the rise of media entertainment and telecommunications. In response, publishing houses like Tulika in Madras and Penguin India in Delhi are bringing out stories that communicate history, culture, and "Indianness." Tulika's title "Under the Banyan Tree," for example, uses the setting of a Banyan tree where travelers rest, disputes are settled, and stories told - for a series of educational tales.

(Thousands of schools in Maharasthra state this year witnessed an "Indianization" of old stories and rhymes: "Mary had a little lamb" has been adapted to "Meera had a little cat," and "Rain rain go away/ Come again another day" has been changed to "Rain rain do not fail/ Paper boats we will sail.")

Bond, who lived all over India when his British father joined the merchant marines, says he benefits from a "dual inheritance" - the English literature his father bequeathed him (he is named after John Ruskin) and the Indian landscapes that he feels inexplicably tied to.

When he went to England for college, Bond wrote, he was always "longing for the languid easygoing, mango-scented air of small-town India: the gul mohur trees in their fiery summer splendor, barefoot boys riding buffaloes and chewing on sticks of sugarcane ... and most of all my Dehra friends."

In the US, Bond contributes to Highlights, a preteen magazine. ("Adventure in the Banyan Tree," his contribution in April, describes a Kiplingesque fight between a mongoose and a cobra.) Bond has also written for years on life in the Himalayas for the Home Forum page of this newspaper, those essays producing the collected "Rain in the Mountains."

*Robert Marquand is the Monitor's South Asia correspondent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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