The unexpected is one super reservoir of joy but it is equally true that the unanticipated sound or a visual that is like a detour from the usual will inevitably trigger fear in us. Like our own shadows that sometimes scare us. Or an echo that seems linked to the unnatural. It is not just imagination playing games with us. Well, stories written by Ruskin Bond tell us that deviations from the normal ire not always the work of imagination alone… or is it that every scary story is after all, just another tale told well?

Imagine the density and spread of goosebumps on your body if you were to suddenly wake up in the middle of a night in a lonesome cottage on a hilltop and ‘moonbeams crept over the windowsill’ as ‘the mist crawled through the broken glass, and the wind rattled in it like a pair of castanets.’ Or as you walk back late on another cold and bleak night to watch the crooked, tormented branches of oak trees throw ‘twisted shadows across the path.’ What if you are ‘stalked by the shadows of the trees… some threateningly, others as though they needed companionship.’ Well, I did not have to move to a hill station during these covid-infested times to get to experience all this… I simply opened ‘The shadow on the wall’, a new book released by Ruskin Bond, and met all sorts of apparitions, spirits, jinns, ghosts, ghouls, and other supernatural beings and even managed to quote the author to one of these in a hoarse whisper: ‘Is it time that is passing by, or is it you and I?’ They luckily did not choose to reply, nor did they insist on having a prolonged conversation with me.

The shadow on the wall - Ruskin Bond - Aleph - Rupa - Book review
The shadow on the wall – Ruskin Bond – Aleph – Rupa – Book review

Yes, Ruskin’s stories are such that they flow into a reader’s being to bring out imagination screaming with delight out of its reluctant cave. This happens because the mind, while reading his stories, is not struggling to decipher some complex metaphor or an abstract link with another obstruse conceptual premise. No, his writing is not the sort that needs one to have a tharoorosaurus by the side but let me also add that this also does not mean that the stories are only for young readers. Yes, there is that occasional wretched skull ‘embellished with bits of wrapping paper and Sellotape, bouncing down the hill’ and some leopard in some story that springs at the throat of a mean old teacher and drags her into the bushes… but then every haunted tale does need to have just the right dose of malignant and mischievous spirits, right? Ruskin knows the art of writing such tales in a way that goosebumps pop up again and again without a reader ever wanting to leave the reading of the book to some other time.

It is at the start of one of the stories in this collection that Ruskin tells us about the British who ‘left India in 1947, but they left their ghosts behind. In dak bungalows across the country, in forest rest houses, in hill stations, in cantonment towns and seaside resorts… determined to stay on, in spirit if not in the flesh’… and, I believe, we are fortunate that the author decided to introduce us all to at least a few of them. Well, it is certainly more than ‘a few’ because I have been reading his horror tales for decades now and his repertoire of ghostly sonatas seems to be unending. This volume, however, does have a few stories that I recollected having read earlier… but then, I re-read them all as it is impossible not to begin one and murmur: ‘Lets skip this one.’ This never happens… because just as one thinks of leaving it in the middle and hopping to the next story, there will invariably be some watchman raising his lamp to show us his face that has ‘no eyes, no ears, no features at all – not even an eyebrow!’ And this is when a reader will look up to confirm that there is an electric bulb and not just that watchman’s lamp that a sudden gust might blow out, leaving us alone with our skittish imagination.

Before I forget, Ruskin has helpfully revealed his secret source that inspired him to write these magnificently horrific tales. Yes, besides the fact that he happened to have nearly always lived in one or the other spot that spirits prefer to be in. Ruskin has been reading a lot of supernatural fiction and he does tell us that he ‘wallowed in the ghost stories of M R James, Edith Wharton, Oliver Onions (that was his real name), and others who had been rescued from oblivion – Henry S Whitehead with his ‘Voodoo Tales’ from the West Indies, and Mrs. J H Riddell’s whimsical Irish ghost stories called ‘Night Shivers’.’ I am somewhat surprised that Ruskin has never thought of bringing characters from the stories of one or more of these writers into one of his own… and I say this because he has one story where he does meet Kipling near the V&A Museum in London. This particular story is interesting because it

These stories are short enough to let the ghosts and other spirits do whatever it is that they want to do, without giving them that extra space to begin thinking about popping out of a book’s page to do their acts in real-time to scare readers. These stories are not using complex verbiage as a crutch and, I believe, the ghosts and other supernatural beings in them love it and stay on there… besides, of course, leaving their imprint on the reader. Something tells me that this is how they survive… hopping from one generation to another, riding stories.


Details of the book:

Title: The shadow on the wall
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-93-90652-78-5




Arvind Passey
18 January 2022