Lower Himalayas: Regional Representation in The Works of Ruskin Bond

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Representation of the Lower Himalayas in the Works of Ruskin Bond

Introduction to the Author:

Astha Saklani is a postgraduate from Miranda House, Delhi University. Her areas of interest include Post-Colonial Studies, Regional Literature, and Eighteenth-Century British Literature.



Ruskin bond’s works have been hailed by several critics as depicting the life of the hills he calls his home. Some have even called him a “regional writer”. However, upon investigating closely, one realizes that there appear some discrepancies in the way he portrays the Garhwal Himalayas in some of his fictional and non-fictional works. While in several of his fictional writings, he represents the rural life of Garhwal quite realistically and points out several social issues pertaining to the hills, his travel writings about the same region stand in sharp contrast. In his travelogue, his attitude is more like a European observing the orient but more without his own biases and a sense of superiority. This paper analyses two of his fictional novellas, A Long Walk for Bina and Vagrants in the Valley and excerpts from his travel-writings on Garhwal, On the Road to explore these contradictions and also seeks to find a possible explanation for the same.



Ruskin bond has been living and writing about the hills for more than three decades. He has often confessed that it is in the hills that he feels at home. The backdrop of most of his writings is either the Doon valley or the nearby hills. Bond himself states that he writes “about mountains and people who live in the hills of Himalaya. Most of [his] books are set in a small town like Dehradun or Mussoorie or a small village.” (Mirza) This has led several critics towards the simplistic conclusion that he portrays the life of the people in the hills realistically without actually considering all of his works. Meena G. Khorana states:

Like Narayan, he [Ruskin Bond] has come to be known as a “regional” writer, who evokes the local colour and atmosphere of the small towns and villages of the lower Himalayas. He brings a unique insider’s perspective when describing the lives of simple rural or small-town people. (Khorana 2)

When one reads his travel narratives about the region, one realizes that this may not be the case with all of his works. In his non-fictional travel-writings, he rarely delves upon the lives of the locals. The hills he describes seem almost empty of any inhabitants. When he does talk about them, which seems rare, he is not really interested in their customs or social problems. His narration becomes journalistic, very different from his more insightful fictional stories. His eloquence only finds its way to describe some British dweller of the nineteenth or twentieth century Garhwal. He often quotes British sources while describing the hills. The contradiction in his works in representing the same region is reflected in this paper. Can one really say then that he represents the realities of Garhwal Himalayas? His own works, as the paper explores, provide such varied and contrasting accounts of the hills that it is difficult to provide credibility of any one version. The paper also aims to find a possible explanation for this contradiction.

          Several of Ruskin Bond’s fictional works provide an insight into the lives of rural Garhwalis. In A Long Walk for Bina, Bond portrays the life of a village around the historical town of Tehri which would soon be submerged in water. The story is about a small school-going village girl called Bina. Through her life, Bond is able to bring out certain aspects of the rural life of Garhwal. From the children having to walk miles in order to reach their school to the fear of wild animals which haunts the people who struggle to save themselves and their crops from these animals, Bond very minutely reports the lives of rural Garhwalis. A Long Walk for Bina, begins with the three children, Bina, her younger brother Sonu and Prakash walking five miles and crossing a stream to reach their schools. In a passing reference the readers are told that Bina’s father is a soldier and her mother takes care of her children, the fields and cattle. Though seemingly unimportant, this statement highlights what is known as the “money-order economy” of Garhwal. Due to the lack of job opportunities, most of the men from Uttarakhand enroll themselves in the Indian Army while the women stay back in the villages to raise their children and take care of their crops and fields. In Vagrants in the valley, the narrator talks about another village near Lansdowne:

There were not many men about, and the few that could be found were either old or inactive. Most young men joined the army or took jobs in the plains, for the village economy was poor. The women remained behind to do the work. They fetched water, kept the house clean, cooked meals, and would soon be ploughing the fields. (Bond 372)

The figure of a soldier is integral to the Garhwali imagination and literature. As early as the two World Wars, a lot of youth have been attracted towards army. Fairs like the one held in Chamba in the memory of Gabar Singh Negi, a soldier who won a Victoria Cross after giving away his life in France during World War I, are celebrated to commemorate the brave soldiers who died fighting for their country. Thus, in the very first chapter, Ruskin Bond provides a peak into the backbone of the economy of the hill state.

          There are often mentions of leopard killing people in the story. The hills have been notorious for many man-eating tigers and leopards that become a nightmare for the rural areas. When the master Mr. Mani is found missing from the village and his clothes are seen near the forest, it is presumed that the leopard has killed him. Such references emerge time and again in the novel. At the end of the story, a leopard is seen watching the children Bina, Prakash and Sonu with her cubs. It is beautiful image with animals and humans living in complete harmony with each other. Bond’s fascination with the tigers and leopards emerges in several of his stories. Panther’s Moon is the story of how the villagers come together to kill a man-eater who menaces the village. But the villagers make it clear that tigers don’t start killing humans without a reason. “We should be safe as long as a shikari doesn’t wound another panther. There was an old bullet wound in the man-eater’s thigh. That’s why it couldn’t hunt in the forest. The deer was too fast for it”, remarks Kamal Singh in the story. (Chatterjee) Porcupines also cause grievance to the farmers as they eat up the formers’ crops, especially potatoes, at night. Mr. Mani in the story is always concerned about his potato crop which he finally gives up due to the porcupines. The narrator informs the readers:

Mr. Mani was having trouble with the porcupines. They had been getting into his garden at night and digging up and eating his potatoes… For Mr. Mani it was as though they were biting through his own flesh. (Bond 23)

Bond’s acute sensitivity to the problems which only a villager from Garhwal could enumerate is reflected through such scenes. In the words of Partha Chatterjee, “The writer obviously knows these people and their way of life. He loves and respects them as he does all the characters who figure in his stories.” (Chatterjee)

          Bond’s story is set in a village near Tehri, a town doomed to submerge in water for the construction of a dam.  At the time Bond wrote A Long Walk for Bina, the Tehri dam was a burning issue in Uttarakhand. Several protests were being held against the construction of the dam which would lead to dispersal of large number of local population which had made Tehri their home generation after generation. More than four dozen villages would also meet the same fate and the people would be force to give up their ancestral homes and fields. Anxiety of the soon to be displaced locals is voiced in the story. “To be uprooted like this- a town and hundreds of villages put down somewhere on the hot, dusty plains…” (Bond 39)Bond provides a picture of the thriving town of Tehri, “the clock tower and the old palace, the long bazaar, and the temples… All those people would have to go.” (Bond 38). A discussion between Bina and her teacher ensues while they visit the town of Tehri regarding the construction of the dam which would submerge the town in water. Bina asks her teacher if it would have any benefits for the locals. The teacher, though not convinced about the utility of dam tries to reason out its importance for the people who will benefit from the electricity produced. Although the teacher tries to divert from the topic, Bina herself is thankful that her village is not near any river. The lively town with the market selling everything from fruits and sweets to jewelry, radios playing songs in the shops, buses blaring their horns and monkeys and cows searching the dustbins for treats would soon be deserted by the humans and animals and become a memory of the past.

          In sharp contrast to this is the way he narrates his travel writing. While he is still mesmerized by the beauty of the hills, he does not really delve into the issues of the inhabitants of the areas he visits. He seems more fascinated by the British predecessors who at some point of time might have lived in those hills. In his excitement to narrate the lives of these British colonizers, he at times ends up eulogizing them and neglecting the perspective of the locals about these colonizers. One such example of a British colonizer is that of Frederick Wilson, a deserter of the British army who after the Anglo-Afghan wars sought refuge in the hills. Soon he began selling the timber from the hills to a London-based company. (Smith) Due to his greed for money, he blindly deforested a large number of forests from the Harsil valley near Gangotri and became of the richest men in northern India. He also hunted a large number of animals to the extent that several species like the blue sheep, musk deer etc were almost extinct. Sundarlal Bahuguna, a leading environmentalist from Uttarakhand charges Wilson of destroying the flora and fauna of Garhwal. Wilson through his indiscriminate cutting of trees and hunting of animals destroyed the entire landscape of the region as the forests also stabilized water flow and prevented landslides. What the loss meant to the local Garhwalis can be estimated by understanding what the forests mean to these people.  Ramchandra Guha states:

[The] dependence of the hill peasant on forest resources was institutionalized through a variety of social and cultural mechanisms.  Through religion, folklore and tradition the village communities had drawn a protective ring around the forests… Often hilltops were dedicated to local deities and the trees around the spot regarded with great respect. (Guha 29)

           It is strange that Bond would eulogize such a person given that his sensitivity towards plant and animal life. In an interview with Amrita Aggarwal, he reflected, “Problems of deforestation and pollution of environment and decay of wildlife have been the subject of my stories and essays.” (Aggarwal 166-167) Although Bond dedicates almost half of a chapter to Wilson, he fails to mention the above-mentioned facts. Moreover, Wilson is said to have exploited the local people. According to the local legends, Wilson, due to his ruthless exploitation of the region was cursed by the local deity, Lord Someshwar who pronounced the doom of Wilson and his successors and that no one would remember him in future. It seems ironic that Bond points that the “awe and admiration” that the locals still hold for Wilson who was rarely remembered by any inhabitants, let alone the whole world until he was resurrected by another British writer, Robert Hutchison who titled him as “Raja of Harsil”.[1]

          Bond, on the other hand, concentrates on the single good thing that Wilson did in his stay in Harsil, the apples he introduced to that area. Bond believes that now it is only these apples which provide identity to that region. Wilson is hailed as bringing modernity and civilization to that area which of course after his death gradually collapsed and now is “out of bounds to civilians”. He praises Wilson thus:

Wilson’s life is fit subject for a romance… Some men leave a trail of legend behind them because they give their spirit to the place where they have lived, and remain forever a part of the rocks and mountain streams. (Bond 411)

          Bond’s version of Wilson’s story is based on a selective study of the latter’s life. Harsil becomes for Bond, the abode of Frederic “Pahadi” Wilson which is the former’s only claim to fame. Bond seems to suggest that whatever Wilson did for the region might not have been favoured by the locals because they did not know what is good for them. Edward Said points out the conviction of the colonizer in another context, “they [natives] are a subject race, dominated by a race that knows them and what is good for them better than they could possibly know themselves.” (Said 35)So Wilson was a harbinger of modernity and prosperity to the Harsil region which had been shrouded in darkness and superstition. It was a “triumph of English knowledge and power”, of “superior talents and unselfish conduct” (Said 35-37). Bond does not feel the need to talk about the local narratives and the legends. Throughout the travelogue, he quotes British sources which reflect the fascination of the British writers towards the exotic hills. He rarely listens to the stories of the locals. He describes Rudraprayag thus:

Perhaps its [Rudraprayag’s] chief claim to fame is that it gave its name to the dreaded man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag who, in the course of seven years (1918-250 accounted for more than 300 victims. It was finally shot by the fifty-one-year-old Jim Corbett. (Bond 423)

          Apart from the highly exaggerated number of the victims of the man-eater, the statement smacks of chauvinism and is offensive to the region which is reduced to being the hunting ground of Jim Corbett. Rudraprayag, one of the “panch prayags” is the land of Shiva and the place of origin of Rudra music according to the folk legends. It is believed that it was here that Narada learnt music from Lord Shiva. With famous temples like Koteshwar, Rudranath and Chamunda Devi, all that Bond found worth mentioning was the British Hunter, Jim Corbett. Bond believes that due to Corbett’s compassion for the locals, the latter is “still a legend in Garhwal and Kumaon amongst people who have never read his books” (Bond 425-426). Interestingly, according to an article in Times of India, Jim Corbett is not even known to the residents of Nainital, the town Corbett made his home before moving to Kenya. (Manjesh) Is it then Bond’s own allegiance to the British predecessors combined with his wishful thinking which makes him believe that Garhwal owes its existence to the British colonizers? He associates the rainfall and thunderstorm at Tungnath temple with Emily Bronte’s novels, the “runda” (pika) with the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

          The above examples prove that it would be simplistic to call his works as representing the life of the people of lower Himalayas. One has to consider all his works before coming to any conclusion. What could be the reason for such contradictions while representing his so-called home? Critics have labeled Ruskin Bond as an Anglo-Indian writer due to his parentage. But the implications of belonging to the categories of both the colonizer and the colonized can be most successfully seen in the contrasting representation of the Garhwal region within his works. While it is true to some extent, one can hardly account for his projection of rural life of the hills just based upon his biography. It is true that his social and cultural background shape his writings to a large extent. His short-stories based on Mussoorie or Dehradun, for instance, cater to a certain class and do not usually address the local social issues of the underprivileged. At the time Bond wrote most of his works, Uttarakhand, then under Uttar Pradesh was in turmoil. The Uttarakhand Movement which demanded a separate state for the hills was at its height. People were killed in Mussoorie itself but Bond did not choose to voice them in his works.

          Can an Anglo-Indian belonging to the privileged class truly represent the rural life of the hills? The question is certainly not new in the critical circles. Even in the nineteenth century, poets like Wordsworth were being charged of misrepresenting a certain community.[2] However, one cannot deny the fact that in certain works, Bond is able to transcend the social and cultural barriers to be one with the suffering peasants, the displaced locals, the children of the hilly villages and even the animals. It is in his fictional works like A Long Walk for Bina where he is able to truthfully represent the social issues of Garhwal.

          Therefore, one must keep in mind the contradictions projected in Ruskin Bond’s works before pronouncing that Bond truthfully represents the life of the hills of Garhwal. It becomes clear from the paper that Garhwal is many things for Bond; it is where the British colonials lived and thrived, it is where the rural hill folks fight for sustenance with animals and the modernization which at times displaces them from their homes, it is where his quest for natural beauty ends. It sometimes finds a local flavor in his works and at other times is universalized by him. Most importantly, it is a mysterious realm for Bond, a “sweet-scented mystery”, something which has preoccupied him for decades, which at times he seems to have solved but at other times deludes him. When the writer himself has not been able to reconcile with the region, it is futile to believe that he successfully represents the hills since he presents the readers with several versions and it would be a mistake to choose just one of them since there will always be some silences and absences in each.


[1] Hutchison published a book entitled The Raja of Harsil: The Legend of Frederick “Pahari” Wilson in which he dealt with the life of Wilson, a book which pulled Wilson out of anonymity after more than a century.

[2] The debate between Coleridge and Wordsworth where Coleridge accuses Wordsworth of misrepresenting the peasantry in his works since Wordsworth did not belong to the peasantry himself and was thus incapable of understanding them. Wordsworth also attacked by Francis Jeffrey in 1802 in the Edinburgh Review who critiques Wordsworth’s “affectation of great simplicity”. However, philosophers like Adam Smith in his theory of moral sentiments and Wordsworth himself believed that one could transcend one’s condition and sympathize with the other through the faculty of imagination. In contemporary times, the subaltern theories too deal with a similar debate.


Works Cited:

Aggarwal, Amita. The Fictional World of Ruskin Bond. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2005. Web.

Bond, Ruskin. A Long Walk for Bina. New Delhi: Rupa Publications India Ptv. Ltd., 2002. Web.

—. A Long Walk for Bina. New Delhi: Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 2002. Web.

Bond, Ruskin. “On the Road.” Bond, Ruskin. The Best of Ruskin Bond. New Delhi: Penguin Publishers, 1994. 409-458. Web.

Bond, Ruskin. “Vagrants in the valley.” Bond, Ruskin. Classic Ruskin Bond: Complete and Unabridged. New Delhi: Penguin Publishers, n.d. 266-504. Web.

Chatterjee, Partha. “Bond with the Hills.” Frontline 13 November 2015. Print.

Guha, Ramchandra. The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalayas. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

Khorana, Meena G. The Life and Works of Ruskin Bond. London: Praeger Publishers, 2003. Web.

Manjesh, Sindhu. “Jim Corbett: Memory is a Man-eater.” The Times of India 31 July 2010. Web.

Mirza, Shabir Hussain. “Shabir Hussain Mirza in Conversation with Ruskin Bond.” Indian Literature (2004): 152-160. Web.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1979. Print.

Smith, R.V. “An English Raja of Garhwal.” The Hindu 22 March 2015. Web.

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