Friday, February 3, 2012

Strange Men Strange Places by Ruskin Bond

There are two types of histories, one is about the life of nations and people who decide their course and the other is about ordinary people who live their lives under the cross currents of big events (social, political and economic) that are never of their own making but often shape their lives and circumstances.

I am reading a book by Ruskin Bond which visits the lives of people who live in the backwaters of history, and even though some of their lives and achievements may be extraordinary, they never attract the interest of historians and are seldom remembered beyond the span of their time and space. 

To exhume these characters out of obscurity, Bond visits the early years of British rule in India when the British were yet to establish themselves as a national power and parts of India were still ruled by small-time rajas and chieftains who had their own armies and used to employ Europeans in them, much in demand for their ability to coalesce ragtag armies into disciplined fighting units. Apart from soldiers, the book also documents the lives of European marchants, mercenaries, bootleggers, etc.

Many of these Europeans returned home wealthy men and some of them met with their end in India.

It was a time when lot of social intermingling between the ruling English and natives existed; which stopped following the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny that shocked the British and forced them into a social stratosphere, bringing up a separation from Indians that would last until the end of the Raj. There are stories that give the glimpses of pre-1857 society and social trends.

One of the stories tells the tale of the hukkah, a smoking pipe much in use during those days by English men and women who had taken to Indian ways. But with the passage of time as division rose between the English and Indians, the hukkah fell out of favour with the British.

Bond has had to undertake extensive research to write the book as the material on the men he has written about would have been hard to come by. These men lived in different places in India and served different masters, but some of them knew each other and you will find the recurrence of one character in the life/story of another.

Writers are generally a recluse lot, but modern-day writers are hardly so (at least if you go by the visibility they enjoy thanks to TV shows and literary festivals). However, Bond continues to be a throwback to the idea of the writer as a recluse.

I have never heard him make any political statement or seen him involved in a public spat. He continues to stay in Mussoorie, which is a recurrent theme in his writing, and deals with the ordinary. Therefore Strange Men Strange Places may be an oddity as a book of history, but it sits well with Bond’s general body of work, which is neither about nations nor national heroes or villains, but about ordinary people, places and events.

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