From the prolific writer comes another grandfatherly, reminiscing tale of a once beautiful woman, someone perhaps based on a real ageing maharani. Maharani is my first Ruskin Bond novel in a while, and reading it I am transported back to the hill stations he loves to write about, Dehradun and Mussoorie, at the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. The best way to read a Ruskin novel is to lie back and let the author weave the tale, so I do just that.
Neena, the title’s Maharani, also called H.H. (presumably for “Her Highness”), is the ageing widow of the Maharaja of Mastipur. She has inherited a considerable amount of wealth from her deceased husband, and the narrative focuses on her lavish life in the 60s and 70s. She has abandoned her two adult sons, one of whom has become a drug addict, and the other a weakling of another sort. She tethers them to allowances, but does not let them share in the late Maharaja’s wealth, and they both live away from the mansion she occupies in Mussoorie.
And this old house is where the Maharani lives with the caretaker Hans, and a number of Pekinese, and later Pomeranian, dogs — those tiny ones that yap a lot and come across as cute and cuddly or pesky and annoying, depending on whom they are loyal to, and whose heels they nip at. The Maharani loves them. Our narrator, Ruskin, does not.
Along with these more or less permanent characters in the narrative, there is also a mysterious nun who keeps entering and leaving the story and whose identity is worth discovering. A family of Bolivians stays with the Maharani for a while and Ricardo, the cultural attaché at the embassy, becomes one of the Maharani’s lovers. Ruskin writes that the Maharani watches him at a party like a “caged tiger watching its keeper approach with the day’s hunk of juicy red meat. She was ready to pounce on her meat. And she wasn’t going to share it with anyone.”
And thus an arrangement is made where even Ricardo’s wife does not speak of the affair directly. But their two children are also staying with them at the mansion. The boy becomes friends with the narrator, and our lonely old Ruskin is given a companion on his long walks through the countryside, and his previously solitary visits to the local cinema house.
As the story ambles along, the Maharani hosts many parties, inviting dental surgeons, faded princesses and others — characters who are not given much space or time in the novel. The Maharani’s excessive drinking grows more excessive over the years and her beauty begins to fade. Ruskin politely praises her looks, of course. What are friends for, after all? Some revelations about the past also come to fore, as the Maharani divulges details about her husband’s gruesome death. It leaves an impression, for sure, that her husband kept as pets hundreds of white rats, and that he also met his end through them. Even the Maharani, will suffer because of the rats, as they never really go away. Ruskin is the only person to make it out unscathed from the mansion and the Maharani’s life.
The author Ruskin Bond may not be the same as the narrator Ruskin Bond, but the two are at least similar. By inserting himself in the story, like he often does, Ruskin gives it an authority of realism. He serves the many roles of witness, narrator, friend and testifier to the will of the Maharani. Of all these, the worth of his friendship and loyalty are most interesting, for their bond of friendship is strong even though it does not seem to go deeper than a surface layer.
Ruskin and the Maharani’s friendship is characterised by a mutual understanding and tolerance of each other’s lifestyle, and mental compatibility exhibited by repartee rather than genuine conversation. As an example, consider this exchange:
“Where’s your younger son?” I asked.
“He’s at boarding school. Expelled last year, but they had to take him back. The chairman of the board is an old friend.”
“What did he do?”
“Made love to me, of course.”
“Not the chairman. Your son.”
“Oh, he was caught smoking pot. They all do, you know, this younger generation. Ever since the Beatles came to Rishikesh.”
“Well, if he can sing like a Beatle, we’ll forgive him.”
Some real humourous sequences do come up, but mostly the conversations are predictable and unnecessarily naughty. In the rest of the narrative too, if flaws were to be looked for, there are plenty of uncle jokes and nostalgic interludes and commentaries that I would smile at meaninglessly, if they were related in company. While reading, they pass like water in a murmuring brook, lacking overt purpose.
Maharani is best read in the summer, on a vacation, day-dreaming of the life a writer would lead if he had such interesting characters as friends. That is the kind of reverie possible with some of the best Ruskin Bond novels. Maharani comes close, and that says a lot for both the 74-year-old author and his latest novel.
By Ruskin Bond
Penguin Books, India
192pp. Indian Rs350