Small town life isn’t always as idyllic (read boring) as it seems

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(This is partly a review of Ruskin Bond’s new book Tales of Fosterganj (Aleph), and partly a trip down nostalgia, reliving my time at Landour, a small hamlet in the hills of Uttarakhand and, more importantly, Bond’s place of residence.)

Landour, the home of writer Ruskin Bond, is decidedly a sleepy little hamlet. If you travel far enough up the cantankerous Mall Road of Mussourie, you will reach a narrow, winding little street, along which sit four tiny shops selling everything from shampoo sachets and tooth-brushes to excellent waffles,aloo paranthas and vanilla shakes.

If you sit here for a couple of hours, you will eventually sample their best teas and coffees, have meandering conversations with residents of the town, and even be offered lessons in Hindi by a Caucasian woman from one of the Scandinavian countries. Sundays see perhaps the most amount of excitement, as almost the entire population, numbering a few hundreds, turns out for Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral next door.

If you go beyond a two- kilometre radius from this point, there is nothing but wind-washed pine trees, long winding roads, panoramic views and a deep peaceful silence to keep you company. Landour is just the kind of place you’d want for a quiet vacation, where nothing really ever seems to happen.

The Fosterganj of Bond’s latest novel is deeply resonant of his chosen homestead. “Straddling a spur of the Mussourie range, as it dips into the Doon valley, Fosterganj came into existence some two hundred years ago and was almost immediately forgotten…a cluster of modest cottages, a straggling little bazaar, a post office, a crumbling castle, a mountain stream at the bottom of the hill, a winding footpath that took you either uphill or down…It reminded me a little of an English village, and indeed that was what it had once been; a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the larger hill station. But the British had long since gone, and the residents were now a fairly mixed lot, as we shall see,” begins our protagonist, a writer in search of a quiet corner and some recluse from the bustle of the big city.

Charmed by the apparent stillness of Fosterganj, he rents a room above the resident baker’s shop-cum-home; and makes friends with several very interesting oddballs rolling about town: Foster, the impoverished “landowner” and mendicant, the namesake of the town, who spends his time gardening, thinking up elaborate schemes to make some money that he will then spend on his daily ration of cheap whisky; Hassan the baker, the silent, wise watcher with a brutal history and whose 11 children are a constant source of amusement for our protagonist; Vishaal, the diligent banker and accountant rolled into one, taking care of everyone’s financial matters; and Sunil, the local thief who tries to turn over a new leaf by catching lizards for a man who makes saande-ka-tel that promises to make the user’s sex life a whole lot better.

What follows are adventures of all kinds — from serious threats like a spate of rabies and man-eating leopards, to a silly scramble for lizards all over the hillside — that constantly defeat the writer’s claim that nothing ever happens in Fosterganj. Among all the stories that he becomes a part of, the one about the ramshackle castle lost in the woods stands out, even in his own experience. Occupied by a strange mother-son duo that claims to be relatives of the royal family, the place is deliciously haunted, replete with ominous crows on windowsills and skeletons inside the king’s bed.

The story of Fosterganj, then, is the story of the people that inhabit it. Building narratives around a space is a fairly popular trope — the stories in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days reveal this fictional village in south India through the eyes of a group of schoolboys; Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge does the same for the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, through the complicated but unconnected stories of the brash junior high school maths teacher. Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio is the story of this town told by George Willard, who spends his childhood and young adulthood in the small town; Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut brought the capital of Bihar to life, lending it a degree of exoticism, when seen through the eyes of Ritwik Ray, the reporter who has returned to his hometown fresh after completing his master’s degree in Delhi. The charms of life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, are considerable; the matrix this creates becomes the sustaining force for the space. That is the essence of this genre.

As is often the case with Ruskin Bond novels, a lot of which revolve around the first-person narratives of a writer-journalist type (characters you’d suspect of having a strong likeness with the author himself), it is his own experiences in the Doon valley, in Shimla and Delhi, enhanced for your reading pleasure by Bond’s rich imagination and signature easy style of prose, that populate his latest work of fiction too. Fosterganj is effectively Landour, but perhaps a looking glass version of it — a little inverted, and therefore so much more entertaining. Time may not run backwards here, as in C.S. Lewis’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this certainly is an alternative world, one which Bond inhabits as completely as his quaint hometown.

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