These days, my grandfather is reading Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing. In age, Mr Bond and Dr Mittal, my Nanu, are only two years apart – the latter having turned 90 earlier this year. As I have learned from him, the events described in the book by Ruskin Bond are close to his own understanding of how the country and ways of the world were during the years mentioned. A large part of the book also describes the city of Dehradun, where my grandfather studied for two years and even today remembers the city’s roads and markets as clear as day.
Every evening, he fondly shares with me where Ruskin – he’s now on a first-name basis with the writer – has reached: “He’s in Shimla today. Oh, Ruskin has just learned that his parents have separated,” my grandfather tells me with a resigned expression on his face.
“Oh my dear Suku, Ruskin’s mother has been going out with a Mr. H,” he tells me very knowingly, shaking his head, almost as though it’s a bit of gossip that’s going around the neighbourhood.
“Today, today it is January 30, 1948 and Gandhiji has been assassinated and I remember I was only 16 at the time.”
My grandfather told me that he likes the book more than any other he has read earlier on my recommendation because, in this one, everything is alive. There’s no endless description of the forest or the sun or the sea without the presence of any human to make sense of it. Everything is living, the people are real, things are happening – it’s all true.
In the most recent news, Ruskin has just purchased a portable typewriter – just like the one my grandfather owns. But this one has been repaired many times over, and it is now so old that it would be somewhat of a miracle to find a shop that sells the same ribbon and ink. In the book, however, the typewriter is new and holds the promise of writing stories, the chance at renewing one’s passion.
Nanu is the only grandparent with whom I have spent enough time as an adult to truly know as an individual, to know about his life, his aspirations, his struggles, his marriage, his views – however different they may be from mine, but he tries every day to keep up with the times. At the grand age of 90, he shares very generously with me a panoramic view of his very active, fulfilling, disciplined, wholesome and healthy life.
This is related to why, I think, reading Lone Fox Dancing has especially struck a chord with him. His own life may be very different from that of Ruskin Bond, but it is still a shared time. A collection of memories, both familiar and new, that he now has access to. This is especially precious, because most of my grandfather’s contemporaries, his school classmates, batchmates, and colleagues of his age, have passed. I can only understand it to a certain extent, but I imagine that on some days it must get lonely, even if he may not always articulate it.
This is also why dear Nanu is most interested in the kind of conversation that creates a space for him to revisit the past, his own past, his younger days of work and family and vitality, to resurrect that experience by sharing it with those who are around him – especially his grandchildren as we will remember it, take something of value from it, and in different ways, extend his life by letting a strand of his own life into our own.
Over the past few years, I have also learned that my grandfather is a natural storyteller himself. His memory is as sharp as a young man’s, and he lays out every detail in a simple, imagistic way with a voice so grounded that you cannot help but listen to. Sometimes the listening begins as a sign of respect, because yes, I’ve already heard this story thrice now, the next thing that happens is exactly what and how he had narrated it last time.
But it’s only a matter of time before we’re all pulled into the story because each time we get a greater insight into the life Nanu has lived, how he has seen the world around him change so much, how much paani puri cost back then compared to now, how every summer he’d have a feast of mangoes and hot milk with his colleagues down by the river, how he remained true to himself and his principles in the face of bureaucratic pressures, how his wife, my dearest grandmother, is the reason for whatever he made of his life.
One morning, he mentioned how he would want to have a photo album much like Ruskin Bond’s, inspired by the few black and white photos attached in the book. He said that he doesn’t have pictures from when he was a child. The earliest photo is from him in Class 12. But, he tells me very cleverly, that he has a solution in mind, “Just put some other baby’s photo and we’ll pretend it was me, who will know after all? Ha.”
It warms my heart that my grandfather liked this book so much, that he has deemed it worthy enough to make it a part of his routine. He reads it religiously, 20 pages every evening after he wakes up from his nap.
Yesterday, he told me proudly, “I’ve reached a hundred pages! Starting part three tomorrow!”
Back when I myself read Lone Fox Dancing nearly two years ago, I remember I liked it enough to recommend it further. Still, I now feel the book deserves a second reading on my part too because this time around, there will be another protagonist alongside Ruskin Bond – my grandfather, a lone fox dancing at 90.
Sukriti Lakhtakia is a recent postgraduate student of English from Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR. Her interests lie in women’s writing, literary theory, film studies, and most recently, birds. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Featured image: amazon.in / Editing: Ujjaini Dutta