Ruskin Bond loves putting pen to paper. Not the fancy fountain pens that are gifted to him by the dozen, but the ball-point. This relentless pursuit for over four decades has resulted in a huge body of work - and plenty of ghost stories.
In his newest Whispers in the Dark: A Book of Spooks by Puffin Books, Ruskin Bond invites his old pal Sammy, who now lives in Spiritland, to write the introduction. Sammy who drowned in the school swimming pool eons ago and has since been an active member of the world of spooks, writes that Ruskin Bond's stories "aren't too bad" and wishes that the book sells "a million".
That's an insider perspective. Catch gets another from the living legend himself.
Ruskin Bond, who turned 82 in May, tells us that he may have never seen a ghost but he can sense them around him, that the voices he hears at night in his house don't scare him, that the idea of being caught at a 5-star hotel without money to pay bills is scarier.
He also talks about his life in the hills where he moved over four decades ago, the love for writing, and why he would want to live this life all over again - never mind the angst of the bank balance running low.
Here are the edited excerpts:
LH: In the introduction to the book, your old pal, Sammy the ghost, complains that you are not very psychic. He waves out to you, walks right into you, but you don't notice him.
RB: (Laughs) I wouldn't say I am particularly psychic. Most of these [ghost] stories are inventions of mine. Or may be they are tales I have heard from other people who might have had those experiences.
I have to confess I don't see ghosts and spooks.
LH: You've never seen a ghost? That's unbelievable.
RB: I have to say that - I haven't seen, but sometimes I feel they are around. I live in an old house and sometimes very late at night - around 2 or 3 in the morning I can hear voices, I can hear murmuring, a conversation. People talking in normal voices to each other, but I can't make out the words - I don't know if it's in Hindi or some language from Timbaktu - but I hear those conversations.
Of course, may be they are there because there is nobody up in this wing of the house at night. They could be ghosts.
LH: These voices don't scare you?
RB: No, because they don't sound agitated (laughs). It seems they are having a normal conversation.
LH: Do they lurk in your subconscious since you write a lot about them? Do you end up dreaming about them?
RB: No. I have different kinds of dreams. The scariest dream I have had is - and I get this dream quite often - in the dream I am staying in a 5 star hotel, and I have been invited there by some publisher. Three or four days have passed, the people who asked me to stay there don't turn up and I am wondering how I am going to pay the bill.
The bill is mounting up - all the breakfasts and lunches and dinners - that I keep signing away and there is no one to come and pay for it. So I don't know what I am going to do in the end. Fortunately I wake up just as the bill is being paid.
The hotel is in some part of Bombay and the bill goes into a few lakhs - which I wouldn't have been able to afford on my own.
This is scarier than any ghost. And the ghosts don't bail me out. (laughs)
LH: Deep down you do believe they exist?
RB: Yes, to a certain extent. I am conscious of spirits moving around but I don't just see them.
There was another (ghost) that touched me at midnight. I am a very restless sleeper - the razai or blanket had fallen off the bed and somebody put it back on me. When I put on the light there was nobody there.
Most of them are quite friendly, actually. I had a little girl complain to me once - I like your ghost stories but your ghosts are not scary enough. Can't you make them more frightening?
But I get scared when I see them on television. Not just ghosts, but monsters, aliens...
LH: In a short story you describe the various types that exist.
RB: Ghosts are really people who have died and who want to come back and make an appearance or leave a message. In India, we have bhoots and prets.
There are also churails. She is a woman who dies in child birth and for some reason she is supposed to have feet facing the wrong way.
Prets live in peepal trees. If you yawn beneath a peepal tree - you must close your mouth or snap fingers or it might just jump down your throat. (laughs)
In different parts of the country they will have different names - what we call pret in north India will have a different name in Tamil Nadu or Kerala.Pret is a mischievous ghost. A bit of good and bad mischief. It is the Indian equivalent of a poltergeist. You don't see him, but pictures will fall down. It's a restless spirit which wants to bother and pester people. It doesn't kill anybody but it creates confusion. It's a prankster -- probably a boy or girl who would have died young and still wants to trouble people.
Bhoot is a general name for a ghost. It is somebody who wants to scare you.
LH: Do you enjoy writing about ghosts more than people?
RB: I write about ghosts when I run out of people (stories). It is something I fall back on.
I enjoy writing, actually. About people, nature, birds and animals.
LH: Whats your writing schedule?
RB: A write a bit every morning before breakfast.
LH: How difficult is it to write for children?
RB: It is not all that easy writing for a child - because you have to catch the attention of the young reader early, there must be something interesting happening right away. And then you've got to get the reader to identify with may be the girl who is the main character, the story must move along fairly rapidly.
Whereas writing for adults you can waffle along, or have descriptive pieces, become philosophical - but a young child doesn't have time for all that.
May be for some people it is more difficult to write for children, but you get used to it.
Then of course naturally you have to restrain yourself - well now of course children read everything - you obviously keep out sex or too much of it, bad language, anything gross, indecent or obscene because parents and teachers won't let the children read them anyway.
Children by the time they are 12-13 are reading adult books, I was reading them when I was 12. The transition is quick from children's books to adult reading.
And I just write a story. It might be good for children, it might be good for adults too. Especially these ghost stories. Whispers in the Dark can be read by anybody, so I particularly do not keep the age of the reader in mind while writing.
LH: You think you missed out on life by moving to the hills in your prime?
RB: I lived in London for 5 years, then I lived in Delhi for 5-6 years. I ran away from Delhi and came after the hills. I freelanced for newspapers and magazines. Back in the 1950s-60s, I had a column in practically ever newspaper, but didn't get paid much by any of them.
There were no good publishers then, so I had to write a lot for the magazines. It was a good thing because all those stories I wrote then for magazines and newspapers - in the last 20-30 years they've gone into collections.
LH: Even this book has a few stories from back then?
RB: Yes. A lot of spooky tales that I have written over the years are in this collection. And now that I am well into my 80s, I might meet a few real spooks (laughs).
LH: Do you like being around people?
RB: Not too many. I don't like crowds. I try to avoid very crowded areas. But otherwise yes - individual, person to person basis I get on with most people. But you need solitude too, that's what I think.
LH: You've lived a happy life?
LH: Are you happy that you ran away from Delhi?
RB: I am lucky. I have been able to make a living doing the thing that I enjoy doing the most - which is writing.
For many years I was struggling along, but somehow it worked out. And even now there are times when the bank balance falls pretty low. You have to keep working in a way.
If I had to live my life all over again, I wouldn't change it very much. Writing, surrounded by nature, surrounded by books, surrounded by good people, not too many ghosts (laughs).
LH: I am sure they love you.
RB: The odd one may be (laughs).