The Bond with Ruskin
The right birthday present in a set of inimitable books
“Please, no sarees,” Amma says emphatically as she adroitly pours the coffee back and forth in the tumbler until a nice froth evolves.
It is Sunday morning, a week ahead of her 77th birthday. My Sunday mornings typically start with a trip to Amma’s house, across the landing, for filter coffee. Incidentally, coffee at Amma’s is an institution, as it is in most thoroughbred Tamilian families. The aroma of fresh decoction wafts through pairs of thick doors to tickle my sleepy nostrils.
“No sarees please,” she repeats, fully aware that the first time she said so, my focus was on the coffee.
I don’t respond yet. Not because I am still focussed on the coffee, but because, seriously, I have run out of gift ideas. This mother-daughter duo has been gorging on Bengal tants and tangails for several years now. And the acquisition of these sarees is no longer a once-in-the-year phenomenon. All that glitters, including gold, is not our poison either.
Two things that we find excruciatingly painful to decline are books and the mountains. And, if we can have both of these at the same time, we are in our little piece of heaven. While Appa spends his days tinkering with Silicon Valley’s gifts to the world, Amma sits by the window in her favourite upright chair with her feet placed on a pouffe made specifically for the purpose. Every now and then she raises her head from the page she’s reading and stares out of the window – a habit that resonates with most readers. Oftentimes, the poignancy of a word or two is so powerful that you have to look away to recover.
Somewhere between sipping coffee and turning a page, age stealthily crept up on her. Well, that’s not true, but how I wish it were. In Amma’s case, age descended upon her in a ruthless onslaught. Using an armoury of arthritis, sciatica, vertigo, hearing loss, hypertension and dental problems, age took over in a fell swoop. Pain became an unwanted companion, rendering her fit to travel to the mountains only through Nat Geo and Discovery channels.
Books have remained loyal, even though it takes exceedingly long before she turns a page.
Amma’s ‘no-saree’ injunction is a no-brainer. She is pointedly asking for books as her 77th birthday gift. No it’s not as easy as you think it is. What book do you get one who reads Tamil and English almost at the same pace, has more books than clothes on her shelves and yet-to-be-unpacked cardboard boxes?
Appa’s enthusiastic suggestion, ‘Kindle!’, is maliciously turned down with a whittling stare from Amma.
In a flash, my mind replays the image of a cheerful man of ruddy complexion, bespectacled, and bent over a book in a bookshop nestled in the middle of a typical hill station market road. Mussoorie and Ruskin Bond are synonyms. Just as mountains and books are for some of us.
Swiftly, everything begins to fall in place. I know Amma is a big fan of Bond. I can’t think of anyone I know who isn’t it, child and adult alike. I also know that Amma has read and probably owns several of his books. Still, I am confident I will find something the gentleman of the hills has penned that she doesn’t have. Thus begins the exploration on Amazon.
The books arrive a couple of days before her birthday. It is agonising to withhold the surprise from her. Two mornings later, at the crack of dawn, Amma sits joyously holding the books in her trembling hands.
The first book is bound in textured finish of an alluring pistachio colour with a rose etched on it. A Little Book of Happiness is really little in contrast with the imposing Himalayas – Adventures, Meditations, Life.
Ruskin Bond owns the mountains, as much as he owns the hearts of their simple folk. His pithy observations of the routine things in life are his masterstrokes. A Little Book of Happiness is a lovely anthology that brings together pearls of wisdom – his and those of thinkers he admires. “Why be happy and how, and why not to worry if you think you are not. Why it is easy to be happy, and how you can miss happiness even if it stands before you. How a bird can fill you with joy and how a stranger’s smile can soothe you. Why happiness may not even be the word for what we really need.”
The second book is a comprehensive volume with over 50 essays on the mighty and tranquil Himalayas, bringing together a dazzling range of voices – among others, Fa-Hsien, Pundit Nain Singh, Heinrich Harrer, Fanny Parkes, Dharamvir Bharati, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Rahul Sankrityayan, Amitav Ghosh, Jawaharlal Nehru, Frank Smythe, Paul Brunton, Edmund Hillary, Mark Twain, Sarat Chandra Das, Dom Moraes, Manjushree Thapa – and the two editors themselves (Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale) – in an unparalleled panorama.
Amma’s emotions swing like the ascents and descents captured in the book. She holds the books to her heart and looks up at me through tear-rimmed eyes.
These two Ruskin Bond books are ‘adult’ books that trigger pure child-like emotions of glee and joy. That’s our Bond for you. The octogenarian can touch the heart of a 77-year-old and make her rejoice like a child, age crumbling at her feet.
On my visit in the evening, I am greeted by the two books lying on the centre table, now lovingly encased in transparent jackets. Cover credits: Appa.
“Open, open,” Amma urges. I open one of the books to the first page. Written on the top of the page in shaky black ink are the date and my name.
Is this my gift to Amma or hers to me? I am still choking.
Meanwhile, far away up in the mountains, as the moon hangs out of his window, a little man smiles in his sleep for the two happy hearts that flutter in eternal gratitude. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-bond-with-ruskin/article19699275.ece