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Four New Books at Ninety

Friends of fifty-fve years

By Ganesh Saili

To be ninety years old and write four books within a year is not for the faint-hearted. Only the brave can diligently plough their lonesome furrow. Granted, it takes a bit of pluck, a large dollop of luck plus God’s Amazing Grace in no small measure.

Memories of our first meeting are laser burnt in my mind. In 1969, as a student at the local post-graduate college, I can still hear my friend Shiv Sharma whisper in my ear: ‘Let’s bunk class? We’ll go and see this author chap who, they say, writes all day!’

That had me intrigued. I imagined him to be like the Phantom – ‘the ghost who walks all night.’

But it was my turn to be surprised as I stumbled down a rubble-strewn path that led onto Maplewood Lodge. I hear a voice complain: ‘Ten years old and pregnant again!’

Maplewood Cottage 1970

It was the writer chiding Toffee, his pet dog. ‘Look! Last year she had an affair with our neighbour’s cocker-spaniel and I had to take her in a pram to the vet near the Library! Now she’s gone and done it again!’

In a small place like our hill station news tends to travel fast. By the time I met him, he had already earned the reputation of being a sort of Dr Doolittle, who was willing to listen patiently to the baker’s complaint of poor yeast, or even the milkman’s tale of a bad monsoon.

In July 1973, RV Pandit, publisher of Imprint magazine wrote in his editorial: ‘I have a confession to make – from March 1968 this magazine has been run by remote control from abroad. I have a guilt to own: I have been able to spend only less and less time on Imprint. And this neglect – steadily gaping from the pages of this magazine – is giving you all, our ever-patient readers, an unfair deal.

Working for CARE 1960s

‘To remedy this situation, I have appointed Ruskin Bond, the author and short-story writer, Managing Editor of Imprint. Mr Bond, whose work is known for its warmth and humanity is already known to our readers. Mr Bond will be responsible for fiction in the magazine.’

Unbeknownst to me, my life was about to change gears, as it were. Initially, I was tasked with helping in editorial chores. Later, I began to type manuscripts for Ruskin and occasionally, I stapled pink rejection slips on manuscripts before returning them to their authors. Typically, Ruskin was too kind-hearted and wanted every budding writer to be given a second chance.

Around the time of his stint with Imprint, a sixteen-year-old Prem Singh came into his life. It took Ruskin from being a bachelor to a great-grandfather without marriage in between!

Let me explain: Prem’s uncle was working for Ruskin. Prem was visiting him.

‘Have you come from your village?’ Ruskin asked the boy.

‘Yes! Yesterday I walked ten miles to Pauri. And from there I took a bus,’ said he, looking unusually clean. And taller than most.

‘Do you smoke?’ Ruskin asked.

‘No. Sir!’

‘It’s true,’ said his uncle, adding: ‘He does not smoke – neither bidi nor hookah.’

‘Do you drink?’

‘It makes me sick.’

‘Do you take bhang?’

‘No. Sahib!’

‘You have no vices. It’s unnatural.’

‘He is unnatural. Sahib.’ said his uncle.

‘Does he chase girls?’

‘They chase him. Sahib.’

‘So he left the village and came looking for a job.’

Ruskin looked at Prem.

‘Your name is…?’

‘Prem Singh.’

‘All right, Prem. I will try to do something for you.’

Two years went by before Prem dropped in at Maplewood Cottage again. His stints elsewhere had led to dead ends.

‘Your uncle has left me. So will you work for me now?’ asked Ruskin.

‘For as long as you wish.’

‘For as long as the gods wish.’

That small step was the beginning of a new journey. A few years later, Prem married Chandra, and they had four children, including Suresh (who passed away in infancy), Rakesh, Mukesh and Savitri.

Today Rakesh, Prem Singh’s firstborn, his wife Bina, and their three children: Siddharth, Srishti and Gautam dote on Ruskin and take care of him.

God bless them all!

(Ganesh Saili, author-photographer, has written and illustrated twenty books, some translated into over two dozen languages. He belongs to those select few who illustrate their writing. His work has found publication in periodicals, columns, and journals.)