Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra is a collection of short stories by Ruskin Bond with each story tracing his life from childhood to adulthood. The writer’s journey begins from Java and reaches India with cities like Bombay, Delhi and finally cradling in the Himalayas.
The voyage travels through the myth and mystery of the Himalayas with its hallmark mountains, streams and the people. Semi-autobiographical in nature, there is interaction with the author’s family, friends, and various other people who influenced him.
We visit Bond’s beloved small towns, villages and Garhwal hills too. Then he takes us to the undiscovered places of Himalayas and paints a true picture of India, honouring the mountains and its affable inhabitants.
Maplewood: An Introduction
The story takes us to Maplewood Cottage in Mussoorie where the writer wrote many of his tales. He reminds us of the natural beauty especially the forest surrounding the cottage that was under the supervision of an 86 year old English lady, Ms Mackenzie.
Bond is thankful for the place because it was kind to him when he left his job and the city of Delhi to start his life as a freelance writer and hopefully build a future.
He expresses the pain of seeing the forest cut down for the requirements of modernization especially for someone who flourished in the place. Through his memories, he pines for Maplewood and its sweet people.
Escape From Java
The story narrates Bond’s escape from Batavia, now Java during World War 2. He lived with his father and after the Japanese attacked the island they were in the process of moving. He writes about his friendship with their neighbour’s son Sono the only kid who spoke English.
He shares his experience of the near-fatal incident when they both survived a bomb drop by one of the Japanese fighter planes. Bond and his father take a seaplane off of the Island two days after the incident.
Sono gives Bond a blue jade seahorse as a lucky charm and it comes in handy when their plane they have to ditch their plane in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They survive on a dinghy (floating boat) with seven other passengers from the plane for days before they are picked up by a Burmese fishing boat.
Bond and his father go to Bombay where his father pawns his stamps to get enough money to afford a hotel.
After that, he gets a job with RAF (British Army) while young Ruskin is sent to a boarding school in Simla, Himachal Pradesh. Bond carries Sono’s gift with him and his final words to him, “We will go everywhere. No one can stop us.”
The Bent Double Beggar
The story is about Ganpat, a beggar with a bent back. He has a man with a lot of tales and wisdom. The narrator is intrigued by various rumours about him like he was rich and had a European wife once or that he was CID spy.
To uncover the man behind the lore, the narrator asks him about he became a beggar. He promises to give him money if he believed the story. He narrates a story about a ghost named Bipin which possessed him and gave him an immense amount of wealth.
When pressed by his relatives to divulge the secret behind his new found wealth, Ganpat discloses the truth about Bipin to them. This angers Bipin and he retaliates by cursing him with a bend back.
After that, his wife left him and he could not work in his fields and had to become a beggar. The narrator gives him the money even if he did not believe the tale, just in case he was a government spy!
Ganpat has many astute and wise words to give like, “’It is difficult to love your enemies. Much simpler not to have enemies” or “In this life, all our desires are fulfilled, on the condition that they do not bring the happiness we expected from them.”
It is a story about a young sweeper boy and the scourge of untouchability. A part of Hindu caste system, Untouchability was a harrowing reality of life in India until it got abolished.
In the story, the author’s father is sick with malaria and so, the author is alone at their bungalow. He does not like other kids in the society because they are spoiled and discriminate with the sweeper boy.
The author only sees the sweeper boy that too because he guards the place and sleeps in the kitchen at night. One night the author gets scared due to lightning and being alone in the bungalow which is in the middle of a forest.
Therefore, he rushes to the kitchen to stay with the sweeper boy who turns out be scared himself. They strike a beautiful friendship defying the social prejudice that had separated them all this while.
All Creatures Great and Small.
The story narrates the stay Bond had with his grandparents in Dehradun when his parents were in Burma. His grandfather is fond of animals and has a menagerie of pets that he keeps adding to.
True to his love for animals there are anecdotes with Toto the mischievous monkey, a young python that was fond of its own reflection but not visiting Aunt Mabel, a tortoise, few frogs from the nearby pond etc.
The story celebrates the gifts of nature and coexistence. There is also a young Indian boy whom Bond befriends and learns swimming from. Unfortunately, once he leaves Dehradun they lose each other, unlike the birds that meet again after every winter.
Coming Home to Dehra
The story narrates Bond’s return to Dehradun. His father had died and he was to stay with his mother and stepfather. He remembers the news of father’s death but has not seen his dead body he yearns for the closure. He still harbours hope that he might see him again.
He writes, “I suppose if one is present when a loved one dies, or sees him dead and laid out and later buried, one is convinced of the finality of the thing and finds it easier to adapt to the changed circumstances.”
His headmaster loses his father’s letters, the last relic that connected Bond to his father. When his train arrives at the Dehra station, there is no one to pick him up. So, he hires a tonga and goes to his grandmother’s house.
His grandmother takes him to his mother’s thinking that she might be waiting for her boy. To her surprise, his mother and stepfather had gone on a hunt, leaving their six-month-old baby in the care of the maid.
The grandmother asks Bond to take a bath and have some food. His mother and stepfather arrive in the evening but do not show any kind of excited to see him.
Bond, too, is happy to be left alone in the privacy of his room. To him, the home was his father and without him, he was on his own.
What’s Your Dream
This is a very short story that speaks of a conversation Bond has with a roaming beggar. While he is perched on a tree, Bond is startled by a question, “What is your dream?”.
The questioner is a beggar, an English speaking beggar at that. Bond says he wants his own room, which basically means his freedom. The beggar advises Bond to do everything in order to achieve his dream short of taking anybody else’s dream from them.
He warns him to never give in to greed or take your dreams for granted because realizing a dream is easier than holding on it.
If you desire for more and in the process snatch away someone else’s dream then you lose even your own. He asks him to be live big and strong but never takes away somebody else’s song.
The Last Tonga Ride
The story speaks of an unconventional friendship between young Bond and Bansi, a middle-aged Tonga driver. Bond and his grandmother visit the bank in the city on his tonga. Bond enjoys lemonade while Bansi drinks his tea.
They both talk like friends and plan a trip in the next week. His governess or ayah his disapproving of Bansi but he wants the free tonga ride. So on Ayah’s off day, he goes on that tonga ride with Bansi to the river outside Dehra. They swim, wash the carriage and the horse and have a great day.
Soon, Bond finds out that he and his grandmother are going to move to England. They sell off their house to a local doctor and auction off most of their stuff. Bansi comes to pick them and they take their final ride on the tonga.
Both Ayah and Bansi see them off as they depart Dehra for Bombay on their way to London. In the story, Bond also talks about his friendship with nature with his first friend being a tree, “The tree made the first move, the first overture of friendship. It allowed a leaf to fall.”
In this story, we get a glimpse of Bond’s life in London where he stayed for two years. The occasion is of Christmas where lives in a rented apartment. He finds London and Londoners dull and boring compared to the people in the Garhwal Hills of India.
On this particular Christmas, he invites his friend George from Trinidad. Surprisingly, George does not come alone. He is accompanied with Eric, Marian and her sixteen-year-old daughter Lucy and a couple of young children.
They bring a lot of beer, fried eggs, a gramophone and old music records. They have a frolicsome time with food, music and dancing. In the true celebratory spirit of Christmas. Bond even has his first kiss when Lucy, unprovoked, plants one kiss on his lips.
For Bond, they are the only people in the neighbourhood who truly celebrate Christmas. He remembers the night as the standout moment during his rather unspectacular stay in London.
The Last Time I Saw Delhi
This story sees Bond visiting his mother in the Lady Hardinge hospital in Delhi. She is having an operation and he has come to boost her spirits. He finds an old negative of his grandmother and gets it developed into a photograph to gift his mother.
The photograph brings a lot of nostalgia for Bond. He is surprised to see how much he resembles his grandmother in looks. He remembers all the time he spent at his grandparents’ house in Dehradun.
Doctors have given her mother a year if the surgery is successful. He chats with her for some time but leaves before his stepfamily arrives at the hospital.
He speaks a lot about how Delhi has changed with the influence of its Punjabi folk, settled after partition. He says that in a city like Delhi coming second is like coming last, be it in the queue for an auto rickshaw or in your profession.
The Good Old Days
This is a tale of poignant memories. Bond visits his old landlady Miss Mackenzie in Mussoorie and starts chatting with her. She narrates a reality-based tale about two sisters, May and Charlotte Taylor.
May was a good woman of manners and morals while Charlotte was a troublemaker. They both stayed together as neither had married but used to have a lot of quarrels.
One unfortunate day Charlotte kills May under the influence of alcohol and the family had a devastating and tragic end. Ms Mackenzie though missed May’s eggs more than her friend because she used to sell them at a few annas per dozen which she calls the good old days!
Binya Passes By
The story is about an unconventional romance between a 35-year-old Bond and 26 years old village girl Binya. Bond is mesmerized by the ‘music in the hills’ which is a melodious song by Binya while she takes her animals to graze the fields.
Bond approaches her and even though they come from different worlds, they both grow fond of each other. There are a couple of scenes of intimacy especially one on top of a cherry tree.
But to the author’s heartburn, Binya soon departs for her mother’s house which is some 100 miles away from his place and he is left with the memories of their enamoured times together. It ends without good-byes, maybe giving it a hopeful pause than a dreadful culmination.
As Time Goes By
A story of three friends- Bond, Somi and Dal. It narrates their frolics and mischievous play together. Bond finds a little pond hidden behind the forest cover and it becomes their favourite haunt.
The boys would go on sneaky midnight adventures rejoice the fearless innocence of childhood. However, as Bond grows up and then returns to the place again but much has changed.
Somi died in a car accident and Dal has long left with his family. Even the stream to the pond has dried up. However, in a poetic rebalance of nature, there is another stream and another pond nearby.
Bond peers through the thick forest and finds a bunch of young kids making merry in the new pond the same way as he and his friends used to. Some things never change and time can preserve some things till eternity.
From Small Beginnings
The story is about Prem, who has been an important part of Bond’s life. He has taken care of Bond’s house for seven years. Even before that they had a relationship as Prem’s uncle worked for Bond before Prem joined him.
Bond remembers him as a young and nervous boy who came to Bond’s place for a job. Bond arranged a job at the school head master’s house. The head master’s wife is stoked to have such a dutiful and honest servant.
But soon things go wrong. Head master’s wife tries to seduce young Prem who does not fall for her advances and so she feels hurt and humiliated. She plots for Prem to be thrown out of the house and soon he finds himself without a job.
Bond hears that he has gone to Delhi so he follows him in order to persuade him to come and work for him. He could not locate Prem in Delhi and returns to Dehradun.
One day he finds Prem in the bazaar and tells him about his trip to Delhi and offers him the job. Prem is delighted to hear it and accepts the offer.
Twenty years have passed since then and Prem now has a wife and three kids. They still live with Bond in a new place. Bond reminisces about their friendship that has grown with time and age.
The fact that has dedicated a story for Prem, speaks volumes about the bond. Bond quotes wonderful lines from the Hebrew sage named Hillel,
“If I am not for myself,
Who will be for me?
And if I am not for others,
What am I?
And if not now, when?”
Death of the Trees
The short story speaks about the horrors of modernization and accompanied deforestation. Bond speaks about how building roads for convenience have as led to the destruction of trees and the tranquil life in a village.
He lists all the lovely trees he has befriended during his stay in places like Dehradun e.g. Deodar, Cherry, Banyan, Cicadas, Maple etc. He laments that the roads have killed his friend (trees) and brother.
PWD has done away with the trees while his brother died in a road accident. In the end, though, he makes peace with the inevitable change that life goes through. He finds solace in the following statement: “Never mind. Men come and go; the mountains remain.”
The Bar That Time Forgot
The story talks about the bar room of the Green Hotel in Dehradun… Bond’s mother runs the hotel and he often enjoys watching various people frequenting the bar. The account talks about various rich and famous like a former cricketer, a small-time actor, a woman of royal lineage etc.
They involve in some banter and idle talk while getting drunk. Bond, captivated by their tales brings for his dart game when one of them expresses a desire to play. He also boils eggs for them in absence of the cook who has left for the night.
The night ends with the tragic death of Colonel Willkie who is old and walks with a stick. There is a funeral and soon the owner sells the Green hotel. Bond is sent to his aunt in England while his mother joins a school in Dehradun as a matron.
The story fasts forwards to when Bond returns to the same place but finds a shopping mall being constructed in place of the Green Hotel. He resigns to the fact that he may be the only person who still remembers the old hotel now.
Bond writes about his experience while staying at a rest house on the outskirts of Jodhpur. He spends most of his time in the verandah staring at a nearby pond with youthful kids having fun in the water just like his old days.
He admires the buffaloes and cormorant that visit the place. He is accompanied by the only staff at the rest house, a young boy named Bhim. He brings him delicious food and takes good care of him.
Bond, to his utter disbelief, finds out that he slept in a bed that is teeming with scorpions the previous night. To add further misery, it is followed by an encounter with a snake feasting on a helpless frog.
However, the incident with the snake pushes him on the edge and he decides to leave early by bus for Jaipur. Notwithstanding the reptile, he is amazed at the tranquil ambience of the desert and its inhabitants.
Our Tree Still Grow in Dehra encapsulates places that played where Ruskin Bond’s life and writing flourished. The spectrum of stories is wide-ranging from childhood tales to his struggles as a young writer.
The stories and the language are simple in tone and tenor with a languid casual narrative style that is both melancholy and uplifting in places.
In the Himalayas, from the confines of pines, deodars and maples to modernized city life, the stories portray human life cultivated in an idyllic paradise.
Reading these wonderful stories is like living with Bond. From the vestiges of colonial buildings to thriving new shopping malls and multiplexes, Ruskin Bond pens his memoir.
Stories like ‘The Bar that Time Forgot’ and ‘The Last Tonga Ride stood out for me’. The book forms an exploration into the author’s life through his words.
But in the end he finds one solace: “Men come and go; the mountains remain.”