A few months ago, I dialled a number to speak to perhaps one of the most well-known and loved Indian writers. It is a Mussoorie number and I usually call on the landline around mid-day, when I know the person I want to speak to would be free to talk and in a chatty mood.

Since the line connects to a place high in the hills, it is often out of order. Either a monkey has got to the wires, or a passing storm has. But that day the phone rang and on the second ring, it was picked up. “Buckingham Palace,” answered a voice briskly.

Here I must add that I am always wary when calling this number, for the person at the other end has earlier impersonated a lady and another time his own grandson’s voice when answering the phone. So I was prepared.

I couldn’t help letting out a small giggle as I asked, “It’s me, sir. Is this how you are answering the phone nowadays?” Pat came the reply, “Oh it’s you. Yes, this house is falling apart in the winter, and needs so much repairs that I am calling it the Buckingham Palace these days.”

Man of letters

And that, really, is just one example of the many delightful encounters I have had over the years with Ruskin Bond, the writer who lives on the hill. As a children’s book editor, it’s been my good fortune that I have edited a number of his books. This means speaking to, or exchanging letters with, him every few months. In fact, one of the delights of being his editor is to still receive letters with stamps in the postbox.

In this day of email and instant messaging, I learn the art of patience when I go through the process of working on a book with Ruskin Bond. Typically, after our phone calls discussing the idea and structure of the book, I wait for the postman to ring the bell in about a month or so.

And there he comes, a thick envelope in hand, covered with stamps and my name neatly handwritten on it. The handwriting is sloping, attractive, and I stop a moment to stare and savour it before I tear open the envelope.

Inside, there are handwritten pages, all in that beautiful writing. It could be a story or a chapter of a new novel, and I immediately find the nearest cosy spot to sit and read it through at once. More often than not, it is a piece that has me laughing to myself. Or I put the pages back on my lap to stare out at the sky for a while, digesting the simple beauty of the words I have read.

I once asked Ruskin if he ever thought of getting a mobile phone or a computer. I think it was after a book we had worked on when the post had acted really badly, delaying our go-to-press date, and there was good reason in my mind to curse this quiet charm of letters and the postal service.

We were in a car together, driving to a school where he would speak on his new book. He thought for a moment and said, “Yes, I tried holding a mobile phone once, and nothing ever happened. I realised later that I was holding it upside down and had switched it off! In my younger days I used the typewriter and in fact had a very good typing speed. But now, with age, I feel I am free to do what makes me most comfortable…so I just write by hand and send it off to my publishers.”

I may have muttered something about the conveniences of the modern world in reply, but that was that.

Patience personified

Working with him also means being by his side while he visits schools to talk to children or at literary festivals. At these places, where the adulation flows strong and loud and there are auditoria full of children hanging on every word of his, he is a little island of calm and good humour.

Most times, the pile of books to be signed after the session grows into an alarmingly tottering tower, and he mildly suggests they be sent to his hotel room where he can sign them after a bracing drink perhaps. And so they are carted off and produced later in the evening when he sits and signs each one.

I have been amazed by his patience at answering questions from the audience, which rarely change. One favourite reply is the story about the monkey he once found in his toilet, calmly taking a breather on the pot!

Sometimes he may be sitting in a restaurant when other customers walk up to him asking to take a picture with him. It happened once in Delhi, when he sent them off to return after he had finished his fish. When they returned and posed with him, I moved away from his side where I was sitting, but I forgot to move my handbag. Later, when they had gone away with their picture, perhaps to post it on Facebook, I told Ruskin people looking at the photo would wonder why he was sitting with a ladies’ handbag. Right at that moment the waiter produced a comments card for him to fill up. There, under “name of spouse” he wrote with a flourish: “Handbag”.

Perhaps it is this humour that has drawn readers to his stories for more than sixty years now. Ranging from the adventurous to the wickedly funny, these stories combine the different shades of the writer. But the darkness is never overpowering and there is always a little tinge of laughter.

Calm, good-humoured and immensely funny. When an author combines all these characteristics, there is little reason not to look forward to working on his next book. It has happened that he has been unhappy once in a while with something. Once a dedication he sent me went missing and that upset him immensely, but he was quick to forgive and I was struck anew by the generosity of his personality.  At other times an illustration may not match what he had in mind while writing the story, and he will mildly complain about ‘butterflies which should look like butterflies and not fairies’.

Each time I talk to him I thank the serendipity that made me an editor, and a children’s book editor at that. As he turns eighty-one this year I wish Ruskin sir a wonderful birthday, with lots of cake and a relaxing drink at the end of the day when he has finished answering the phone in many voices and seen off the last of his visitors. And I turn once again to these lines by him that never fail to move me:

I haven’t stopped writing about love. My life has been one long love story, and I have loved people, I have loved books, I have loved flowers, the sun, moon and stars, old roads, old trees, children, grannies, butterflies, seashells, fairies.d stars, old roads, old trees, children, grannies, butterflies, seashells, fairies… And of course I keep falling in love, for where love begins, there is the border of heaven.'
- Introduction to Falling in Love Again: Stories of Love and Romance.