Light holiday reading: A gallery of rascals

EducationWorld January 2020 | Books

A gallery of rascals: My favourite tales of Rogues, Rapscallions & N’er do-wells, Ruskin Bond
Aleph Book Company, Rs.385; Pages 208

A gallery of rascals

To read Ruskin Bond’s fiction is to feel the transformation of Indian society after independence, combined with the inimitable knack of storytelling with which Bond characterises daily life in small town India.

An astute observer, Bond paints a vivid picture of overlooked sections of society, while maintaining a leisurely pace with attention to minute detail, which reminds the reader of R.K. Narayan. This short volume contains 30 stories about disreputable and morally suspect characters, as the title suggests. Obviously, villainous characters are always more interesting than the ones who take the straight and narrow path and the villainy portrayed in the tales is mostly light-hearted. Some of the stories deal with serious themes, while others are amusing crime tales.

In A Man Called Brain, the author portrays a self-obsessed sybarite doomed to a lonely existence with fast approaching old age — painting an evocative picture of pre-independence India of round cigarette tins and bullock carts. In Sher Singh and the Hot-water Bottle, a distiller is able to confound orderly society around him by concocting large quantities of forbidden liquor which is enthusiastically consumed by the bored residents of a hill town.

There is a common vein of aging and decay in some of the more serious stories like Strychnine in the Cognac and A Case for Inspector Lal. Although, he professes to be unlike Dostoyevsky in his bid to define the motivations behind a crime, the subject of criminal responsibility is dealt with, albeit always tinged with Bond’s characteristic humour.

Can criminality be justified in certain circumstances? This moral conundrum confronts the conscientious Inspector Lal, whose emotions get in the way of his duty when a known child trafficker is found murdered in her home. On the other hand, nuanced tales like Susanna’s Seven Husbands and A Job Well Done, deal with the duality of conventional morality and the very tough choices an individual often has to make to survive.

In A gallery of rascals that lumps braggarts and murderers together, the author is at his best recounting simple-hearted stories about the exploits of children. Bond knits childhood memories and local legends into evocative stories like The Four Feathers, in which some school children steal a baby mistaking it for an orphan; and When the Guavas are Ripe, in which some children strike up an unusual friendship with a watchman while stealing guavas from his orchard.
Bond also writes about people living on the margins of society — incorrigible drifters — who remain defiantly unreasonable even if they receive the ire of society. One of Bond’s all-time favourites The Thief’s Story is also included in this collection. It narrates the necessity of a life of crime which is the result of penury and maltreatment. In other amusing stories, even supernatural mischief-makers like prets and jinns come together to camp in the homes of unsuspecting people.

Weaving interesting historical facts with fiction, Bond creates a magical atmosphere, at once familiar and mysterious. Forests filled with wild animals and shady rivers replete with trout may not resonate with the urban reader, but they evoke the image of a fast dying world, perhaps lost altogether. In Grandfather’s Private Zoo, the author paints a vivid picture of animals and humans coexisting — perhaps casting a nostalgic light on a lost and more harmonious past.

In several stories included in this anthology, Bond combines social commentary with keen political insight as in Voting at Fosterganj, poking gentle fun at the “rich maharishis and industrialists” who have replaced the erstwhile “sahibs and rajas” after independence. While personal power might be different, the gap between the powerful and the powerless remains wide as ever and it seems only fitting to include some politicians in Ruskin Bond’s Gallery of Rascals.

But although the author is unsparing in portraying the reality of the society in which he lives, he is hardly ever gloomy, lighting up the bleakest tales with unfailing humour.

While the stories in this compendium are not especially for children, Bond’s sharp and effortless prose can be enjoyed by people of all ages. The barely respectable and morally suspect protagonists hook the reader right from the beginning. As the author shrewdly observes in the foreword, “Let’s face it. Good people are usually rather dull, especially in literature.”

Gulbahar Shah (The Book Review, November)

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