'What is it, sahib?' asked the watchman. 'Has there been an accident? Why are you running?'
'I saw something — something horrible — a boy weeping in the forest — and he had no face!'
'No face, sahib?'
'No eyes, nose, mouth — nothing!'
'Do you mean it was like this, sahib?' asked the watchman, and raised the lamp to his own face. The watchman had no eyes, no ears, no features at all — not even an eyebrow! And that's when the wind blew the lamp out.
The introduction of Ruskin Bond's book A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings (of which the above excerpt is a part) begins with that well-known line from Hamlet addressed to Horatio, about how there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy. And fittingly so, if one considers what constitutes the scare in his stories: strange elements and unexplained occurrences.
He insists that ghosts are not intent on scaring us (with the exception of malevolent ones). He goes on to portray them with empathy, "even affection. People find this strange. Perhaps I am a ghost myself, then?" he asks. Questions of his haunting aside, what drew Bond to this genre was the fun he had while writing ghost stories. "It is reaching out to the unknown, you could say. And speculating on what might be, in some other dimension," is how he puts it. Now, his horror stories are being adapted for a digital series titled Parchayee, which will be streamed on ZEE5. The first four episodes of this series are based on the stories The Ghost in the Garden, The Wind on Haunted Hill, Wilson's Bridge and The Overcoat. In this conversation, he speaks about the importance of style, what awards mean to him, and the answer to the question: Does one need to believe in ghosts to enjoy a ghost story?
The most striking aspect of his horror stories are the ghosts themselves — at times melancholic and lost, at times humourous ('the supernatural has its funny side too'). "I’ve had the odd jolly ghost every now and then. One even left me a Christmas cake once. That one has to be written about. It was a very old Christmas cake, going back a hundred years or so. So, I was hesitant to eat it. But apparently the one who had made the cake had used a lot of brandy, so it turned out to be quite tasty," he said. We don't quite know if he was joking or serious!
His horror writing, as well as much of his other work, draws from the place he stays in — the hills. The local people residing here have strong belief in spirits he says, even believing that certain places are haunted. Certain rocks are thought to be haunted, and indeed, certain types of individuals are thought capable of turning into leopards. The latter belief is more Indian, he says. "Our hill stations have plenty of ghosts. Many of them left behind by the British in dak bungalows and colonial cottages. After some residents of hill stations had died, dramatic stories would emerge about them reappearing."
Interestingly, he has never been skeptical about people adapting his works, because he has seen the success that can be achieved. "I can rattle off the names of hundreds of films that were based on books and were, very often, good films. So, I have never been scared of or reluctant about having a story of my own filmed, provided the director is a known director and a good one. Then I feel he’ll do a good job of it," he explains.
He acknowledges that changes are bound to be made in the process, because film is a different medium from writing. He says that some writing also lends itself better to being recreated visually. "Some authors film very well. Like Charles Dickens. Whereas there might be some who wouldn’t film as well and probably don’t get filmed." Bond himself is a visual writer — he describes himself so — across genres. He says he sees his stories as he sees films. "I visualise it first before I put it down on paper in words. Maybe that’s what makes some of them suitable for the screen," he says.
"I can’t say I have seen a ghost. But I have heard things. I often hear things that seem to be voices from the past.
Or in an old house, sounds which may or may not mean anything. I feel there is a sort of spirit world around us, but we can’t really get in touch with it. Except occasionally, when we see something unusual," he adds.
Bond's name is counted in the list of Indian authors who have managed to capture the imagination of readers young and old, sometimes with the same piece of writing. One would imagine that his creative process changes according to the audience the book is meant for, but he says he is never aiming at any age group. "In a way, I am writing for myself. If I am enjoying the story, then somebody else would enjoy it too. Whether a story is for a specific age group or of a specific genre comes later. The publisher might feel this story will be good for children and that story will be good for adults and market it in that way. But when I am writing it, it is just for my own pleasure," he says.
He emphasises on the importance of style — about how a writer must have an individual, distinct style in order to stand out among others. This reflects in the writers he admires, such as Somerset Maugham, MR James and Algernon Blackwood. Bond also enjoys — unsurprisingly — literature that is considered classic and Gothic. Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Walter De La Mare's stories and poems like The Listeners are his favourites.
Bond began writing when he was all of 17, but he continues to churn out titles even today, many of which still win awards. Does he believe that writers need to reinvent themselves from time to time? "It helps a bit if you can now and then. One should try to be a little different from time to time. To not get into a rut. Read as widely as possible. See things from a different angle, from a different viewpoint," he explains. On the subject of awards, Bond is not coy at all; he says he is glad to be at the receiving end of appreciation and even a material reward, such as money or a trophy. "I take awards in good spirit and share them with the ghosts who I wrote about if it happens to be for a ghost story (laughs)," he says.
Previously, he has written that one needn't believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. But does believing in the supernatural elevate the experience? "I’m not sure about that. A believer will start asking questions. He’d want to be convinced. A normal person who is not a believer can take it all as an essay in the macabre, enjoy the story for its own sake, without being fussy about it. People who believe a lot in the supernatural, conduct experiments, have seances and it all gets a bit artificial and phony. I don’t think you’d have to be a believer to enjoy a ghost story more. An average reader would enjoy a ghost story if it’s well-written and he sort of suspends disbelief, for a time anyway," he says.
Bond is not afraid of running out of ideas, because he has the most unique card up his sleeve — his ghosts. "Basically, a writer writes about people. Most of my stories are about living people and they are realistic, about their loves and their joys and sorrows etc. But sometimes you run out of ideas about people, so then I try writing about animals, birds and wildlife. And then if that runs out, then I know that I can always fall back on a good, old ghost. The ghosts are what have kept me going. Because I can always invent a ghost. Even if I don’t make them very scary, they can be memorable in some ways. They liven up a story if it’s getting a bit dull. You can always rely on a ghost to make a story interesting. In a way, they are just as helpful as living people. For a writer anyway," he says.
The first episode of Parchayee aired on ZEE5 on 15 January, and the series will go on till June 2019.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 15:30:44 IST