About the Author & the inception of The Room on the Roof…
Ruskin Bond was born to British parents in Himachal Pradesh during India’s pre-independence era. He grew up in various northern regions of India one of which was Dehradun, which forms the central location to this novella. The source material for his book ‘The Room on the Roof’ was his own journal that he kept during his school years in Shimla.
Apart from the tense atmosphere that plagued the world in those mid-war years, the environment that in reality cultivated such a rich, perceptive and sensitive writer was his own childhood which was littered with experiences, from bad to worse- some of the impacting events being- his parents divorce when he was just 4, to the death of his father when he was 10. All of this led to a lonely reclusive childhood wherein the only comfort he could find was within the pages of books that he read. These experiences translated through his thoughts onto the pages of his personal journal, eventually leading to the birth of several of his written works.
After completing his school in Shimla, he left for England, where he finally decided to convert all his experiences, observations, and learnings which he had thoroughly soaked in, in India, into a (semi-autobiographical)work of fiction. The Room on the Roof was soon published and it went on to receive the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
What indeed makes this book special is not only the fact that it is a great book on childhood, dreams, love, friendship, and the diverse (North) Indian culture among many other things, but also that it is a portrayal of ‘adolescence written by an adolescent’, in the words of the author himself. All of this is verily palpable. As you begin turning each page the book progressively continues to create a delicate and vivid impression of childhood on your mind. As a reader, you are soon sucked into the story of this small lonely boy/author and in time, it becomes clearly evident that it will surely leave you with memories of this beautiful journey, most of which will be undeniably unforgettable.
I do not want to rot like the mangoes at the end of the season, or burn out like the sun at the end of the day. I cannot live like the gardener, the cook and the water-carrier, doing the same task every day of my life….I want to be either somebody or nobody. I don’t want to be anybody.
The book speaks clearly and touches elegantly on those fine aspects, which are a part of almost everyone’s childhood- the moments of feeling lost and not knowing what to do or where to go, those irregular bursts of loneliness that engulf us entirely and leave us stagnating with time, the bubbling emotions that often surface when met with our first crush as if it were love at first sight or just sheer infatuation, the empowering sense freedom which we got from escaping the familial boundaries and embracing the warmth of friendship and many more shades and tones of boyhood which you will get to experience through the hands of a great writer.
Then there are those little mischievous yet innocent moments which are evocative of every kids first attempt at crossing the line, by doing what you are not supposed to. Like when the engulfing fear of breaking a strict rule evaporates into the joy of discovery, leading to the ensuing excitement born out of new experiences, all of which is driven by the hungering curiosity broiling inside of us that compels a young heart to keep moving forward.
Such instances are peppered across the story in the form of wild and rambunctious Holi (Hindu Festival of Color) celebrations, trespassing of cultural boundaries, binge eating, venturing into prohibited territories, wilderness escapades with friends and close people, romantic encounters violating the social norms and other small and large adventures filled with emotional ups and downs. It is all about youth and its freshness and more importantly, the resilience that keeps youth this fresh.
…there was nothing like loneliness for making Rusty conscious of his unhappy state. Madness and freedom and violence were new to him: loneliness was familiar, something he understood.
It is the tale of a boy that has lost more before even forming a basic identity of himself which is why he keeps on searching, wandering around with a kindling flame burning within that propels him past the bounds of familial chains and into the vast, colorful and lively world nesting in the arms of the Indian subcontinent.
It is a semi-autobiographical work, hence, the author and Rusty share a lot more similarities than just a common childhood. So as the reader progresses through the book and gets to know more about Rusty, he concurrently acquaints himself more and more with the author-Ruskin Bond, who by the way was also fondly called Rusty. Having written it when he was just seventeen, the book can be looked at as a mirror that reflects the author’s own adolescence.
Rusty, an English kid who, having lost his parents at an early age, now lives with his guardians in the European community that borders the outskirts of Dehra (Dehradun). Mr. Harrison, his father’s cousin along with his wife have been his guardian since the demise of his parents. They have no kids of their own, but they have Rusty, who is basically ‘owned’ by Mr. Harrison as he has gradually become a slave to his guardian’s despotic command over the family through stiff rules and regulations. In some ways, Mr. Harrison resembles Maharani- the queen of bazaar cows, persistent and intolerant. There is barely any meaning in between the relationships of this fated sort of family- no hearty exchanges, no emotional connect or any other occurrence of sweet family moments.
Every day he walked aimlessly along the road, over the hillside, brooding on the future, or dreaming of sudden and perfect companionship, romance and heroics; hardly ever conscious of the present.
Such being the situation at home, Rusty has learned to cope by escaping into his minds imagination and fantasies. This way he is doing well in his own world until one rainy day, while walking home, he is noticed by a local cyclist. The cyclist is interested in this uncommon sight of a European kid(Rusty) walking alone in the streets of Dehra. That guy on the cycle is the friendly and jovial Somi, a Sikh kid, who within a couple of encounters becomes Rusty’s first and ‘best favourite’ friend in Dehra. Somi becomes the starting point of this new unexpected life that awaits Rusty. He leads Rusty into this unexplored world of India and it’s culture, something which Rusty has only wondered in his daydreams.
..explore, get lost, wander afar; even if it were only to find new places to dream in..he threw himself on the bed and visualized the morrow…where should he go-into the hills again, into the forest? Or should he listen to the devil in his heart and go into the bazaar? Tomorrow he would know, tomorrow…..
Somi plays the central role of initiating a sudden change in Rusty’s life by bringing him to meet new people, participating in worldly antics, being part of some loving and amusing relationships, few unsolicited romances, following a twisting and winding road, filled with a series of events, all of which come together and help free Rusty from the bounds of his own people and lead him to the vast open world full of possibilities that lay before him.
He wanted this to go on for ever, this day of feverish emotion, this life in another world. He did not want to leave the forest; it was safe, its earth soothed him, gathered him in, so that the pain of his body became a pleasure…
There are certain cliched moments, or rather one big major cliched twist that has a significant impact on the protagonist and related characters and also as a result re-directs the flow of the story. This event soon becomes predictable as you near it. As it comes to pass it does not feel that bland and superficial either, but its bitterness sure hits like a sharp thorn piercing the heart. It leads to a brief yet pervasive period of depression in Rusty’s just renewed joyous life, but also contributes to the further growth of the character. (AND considering the fact that it is a 50s book, that plot element feels quite natural and original)
They walked back through the dappled sunlight, swinging their clasped hands like two children who had only just discovered love.
Each character has an equal impact on the story of the protagonist, be it the random stranger who is only passing by or the vendor in the bazaar store(chaat shop) serving gol guppas and patties. Every single one has their own time and place reserved in the storyline and even though all do not receive the same level of attention in the main story, their slightest appearance and shortest role is brought to life by the writers fine and delicate craftsmanship. The author through such finesse and deftness, easily sketches the readily absorptive nature of the teenage mind, the wanderlust bug that it is prone to catch, and the weight and resilience of emotions that it passes through.
At night he slept brokenly, thinking and worrying about the future…and questions would come to him, disturbing questions about loving and leaving and living and dying, questions that crowded his sleep.
Rusty is everybody. Everyone has been that kid, the one seeking out his own identity, one looking for a purpose, for something to call his own, even when one may or may not have had all the family and comforts they can ever imagine. What Rusty shares with us is an emotional roller coaster, a transitional yet significantly influential part of life that all of us go through. And through Rusty, the author speaks with that part of you.
We don’t know why we live. It is no use trying to know. But we have to live..because we really want to. And as long as we want to, we have got to find something to live for and even die for it.
Ruskin Bond surely doesn’t slack even a little in guiding the reader through Rusty’s journey. Through his charming writing he ensures that the reader lives and breathes each moment with Rusty, be it in the crowded and disorderly bazaar, the hot and steamy chat shop, the colored streets of the town during holi, or the remote and dense forests, the myriad rivers, the vast mountains, the big maidans. Each scene is handled well and the book is supplied with many other beautiful sights and places in and around Dehradun. Being of British- origin, Ruskin Bond balances so well between those two stances. A suave British narrative blended with such pure and astute Indian-ness, that you will be left asking for more of such a fine literary delicacy.
You are afraid to die without having done something. You are afraid to die… but you have hardly begun to live.
And, finally, the best thing of it all is that the journey does not end there, instead, it begins at the end of “The Room on the Roof.” It continues in the form of a sequel to this book titled “Vagrants in the Valley”.
Find the review of Ruskin Bond’s sequel to this book here – Vagrants in the Valley