With his latest collection, quirkily titled Uncles, Aunts and Elephants, Ruskin Bond gently reaffirms his place as one of the best writers for children today. All the hallmark Bond elements are there to be enjoyed in this book, beginning with the simple, elegant prose, which conveys the twinkle in the eye of the narrator as he recounts tales about his eccentric relatives and encounters with animals. Most of the stories are drawn from Bond’s own life and the writer’s connection with nature – his delight in wild flowers, his knowledge of wild animals, be it the tiger, elephant or mongoose – runs like a delicate thread through the pieces.

This collection aims to bring together some of Ruskin Bond’s best work in a single volume and therefore includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. For fans of this prolific writer, it may mean re-reading much-loved tales rather than new stories, but so huge is Bond’s reservoir of stories that the reader is sure to find some new anecdotes about Bond’s grandparents and their menagerie, the redoubtable Uncle Ken and Mr. Oliver the scoutmaster.

There are a couple of brilliant stories that make this a book worth owning just for the pleasure of reading them. Escape from Java tells the story of the author’s thrilling escape from the island in the middle of the Second World War. Grandfather’s Many Faces, which reveals the writer’s penchant for disguises, is a chuckle-a-page masterpiece. Young Jai rescuing his lambs from the predatory eagle (The Eyes of the Eagle) has, quite literally, an edge-of-the-cliff excitement to it. Bond’s indisputable touch with supernatural stories alternates between the deliciously dark Return of the White Pigeon and the lighter The Black Cat, written when his broom finds a new user. The ten poems in the poetry section display Bond’s talents with verse and are charming.

The classification of the writing into fiction and non-fiction, however, is a little bewildering as most of the stories are drawn from Bond’s own life. So, if the altercation between the young Bond, his three friends and cranky Miss Gamala in The Canal appears in the fiction section, why does Good Morning to You Uncle, which tells the tale of two Gujjar boys and their encounter with a tiger, feature in the non-fiction section? This confusion is mirrored in the blurb too, when it pegs the book as a “collection of poetry, prose and non-fiction”. Is there a kind of non-fiction that is neither prose nor poetry?

Since the book sets out to collate the best of Bond’s work, wouldn’t it have been appropriate (and politically correct) to omit the Burmese folktale, Bitter Gooseberries, bitter as it is, with the clunky gender stereotyping that folklore is sometimes guilty of? “But women all over the world, from Burma to Bermuda and beyond, are never satisfied with only one of anything, and so she said…”(Pp.16-17)

Some of the pieces seem like they might have been written for the wider readership of a newspaper column and sit a little uncomfortably amidst writing meant primarily for children. Surely, the non-fiction piece, Miss Romola and Others, which ends with the depressed Mrs. L choosing to commit suicide by flinging herself out of a window only to land on a hapless colonel and crush him to death, is the kind of story that one would usually keep away from children.

The cheerful red cover and cover illustration are very eye-catching. The illustrations capture the mischief in the stories nicely. However, the placing of the illustrations should have warranted closer scrutiny. On three occasions at least, the illustration appears after the story or poem instead of on the page facing the title or in the middle of the piece.

Ruskin Bond’s books will always be a good buy simply because of his amazing talent as a storyteller. After many decades of delighting readers worldwide with his prose, fiction and poetry, Ruskin Bond deserves that every new collection of his be nothing less than a definitive one in which every element showcases his versatility and skill. Uncles, Aunts and Elephants may please the reader, but sadly falls short of its intention of bringing together the ‘best’ of the maestro’s writing.

By Asha Nehemiah

Author: Ruskin Bond
Illustrator: Archana Sreenivasan
340 pages
Rs. 299.00
ISBN No: 978-0-143-33262-6
Puffin Books, 2014
Subject category: Contemporary/Anthology/Prose/Fiction/Poetry

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