‘The Photograph’ is a reflective short story penned by the prolific writer Ruskin Bond in the 1950s at Dehra in the early years of his literary career. At first, ‘The Photograph’ may seem like a reminiscent story of the past, especially Ruskin Bond’s past. However, if you read Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing, you realize that Bond’s relationship with his grandmother was not very cheerful and carefree, as depicted in his short stories. Therefore, one can undoubtedly term this story as an entirely fictional account having a distant relation to a made-up reality. In the story, a ten-year-old Bond rummages through the family heirlooms of his maternal grandmother’s home. Within the pages of a pictorial album, he finds an old, faded photograph of a young girl probably from the late nineteenth century dressed austerely but with a naughty devilish expression on her face. Bond asks his grandmother who the girl was, to which the elderly lady gives veiled answers. As Bond compares the photograph with his maternal grandmother’s face, he realizes that the little girl in the picture was none other than his own grandmother. He keeps the revelation a secret but compares the girl in the photograph with his grandmother as he sits beside her on a string bed under a mango tree one summer.
This story happens to be one of the many ‘Rusty’ stories penned by Ruskin Bond to chronicle the life and adventures of a young boy called Rusty, who is none other than Ruskin Bond himself. However, most early Rusty stories like ‘The Photograph’ are not precisely based on fact. As mentioned earlier, Bond did not have a good, carefree relationship with his maternal grandmother or with his own mother. Bond was closer to his father, who passed away when Bond was very young. Bond craved for the love of a family full of pleasant people who would care for him and spoil him, which never really materialized. It seems, therefore, that Ruskin Bond brought out his yearning for a loving mother, grandmother, and grandfather through his literature, especially his Rusty stories. All these details are mentioned in greater detail in his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing.
The Rusty stories like the one we are currently analyzing is a typical fun-loving and invigorating read of a make-believe Ruskin Bond or Rusty spending the summer holidays with his maternal grandparents at their home in Dehra. Like a very active but reflective child, he plays cricket at the maidan. He enjoys reading books, especially picture books about nature and musing over family heirlooms. His mother takes an active interest in Rusty, which never actually happens in Bond’s real life. In ‘The Photograph’, Bond’s mother is caring and ready to correct the mistakes made by her son. In reality, Ruskin Bond’s mother did not give him enough time or indulge him. Bond, in this story, was studying a picture book of birds and butterflies which was a common pastime of the young in the twentieth century. He finds a photograph of a girl in nineteenth-century clothing. He takes it to his maternal grandmother to identify who the girl is.
Bond’s grandmother knows quite well that the girl was her but is shy to admit the same directly to her growing grandson. This is because Bond’s grandmother in the picture looked mischievous, probably even more playful than ‘Rusty’ was. We know that there were a lot of similarities between Bond and his grandmother when she was a little girl. They both did not like wearing too many clothes, they never followed conventions, loved playing with rough boys, swam in mud-holes or mud pools, loved to ride on the backs of buffaloes, and had ruffian boys as playmates. Both did not like wearing the somber clothing they were forced to wear. We know that Bond or ‘Rusty’ used to do all these activities from the Rusty books penned over six decades. We know this by the description of the little girl in the photograph that Ruskin Bond’s grandmother was more mischievous and unmanageable than himself because:
- She hated dressing up and wearing clothes.
- She threw temper tantrums.
- She defied her elders.
- She used to kick, scratch, and pull the hair of ruffian boys who would tease her.
- She loved spending hours wallowing in mud pools.
Bond seems pleased that the girl in the photograph was believable and likable. By comparing the girl’s face with his grandmother and hearing his grandmother‘s descriptions of where the picture was taken, he realizes that the little girl was indeed his maternal grandmother. In the photograph, a pair of hands is faintly visible that were getting ready to come over the wall. The hands probably belonged to Ruskin Bond’s grandfather or the sweeper boy with whom the grandmother was friends. The grandmother cannot recall who it was. However, her assessment and reflection on the photograph are sharp, indicating that her memory was still good. Bond, or rather ‘Rusty’, realizes that all adults were the same when they were children. He realizes that his grandmother, who corrects and admonishes him at every step, was as naughty as a child as he was.
Regarding the photograph, there is one discrepancy in the text. In the first description of the little girl, Bond states that she has loose hair. However, when he is studying the photograph again in the latter part of the story, he describes the girl as wearing pigtails! This is the only discrepancy in the narrative. Probably a hint is given here in this text by Bond that his grandparents fell in love when they were children. Another indication given by Bond is that, like him, his grandmother too loved nature, as:
- It was a hot summer’s day with a warm wind blowing, yet the grandmother sits on a string cot or bed under a mango tree knitting a woolen shawl for the winter.
- She loved to concentrate on her stitches and usually admonished her grandson for interrupting her. However, when a yellow butterfly rests upon her knitting needles, she does not move it away.
- Looking at the photograph, she cannot remember who the pair of hands belonged to but identifies the purple bougainvillea creeper in the corner, the marigold flowers heady scent, and the fact that the season when the photograph was taken was in Spring with a very cool breeze blowing in the air.
Bond, in this story, dresses his grandmother in a plain white saree, indicating that she was a simple woman or that his version of his grandmother is the universal one of every young person’s grandmother in India. This is not indicative that she was a widow because Bond, in this story, mentions his grandfather’s bony hands in the present tense, so he was still alive. Bond’s grandmother is a woman who has retained her child-like innocence. That is why her hair may have grown white, but there were not many wrinkles on her face. She was disciplined now because of her marriage, but earlier, while a child, she was as carefree and wild as a bird. She keeps on calling herself a ‘wicked girl’ when she looks at the photograph mainly to indicate to Bond that he should not follow her example and that his grandmother was not so wild anymore.
The story ends with Bond realizing that the girl in the faded photograph was his grandmother. She keeps wondering aloud who the hands in the picture belonged to. We get a beautiful view of reminiscence at the end of the story. Still, it is highly deceptive because of Bond’s own statements in Lone Fox Dancing.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story penned by Ruskin Bond titled ‘The Photograph’. If you want to check out my other reviews of Ruskin Bond’s books, you can check it out here. If you are interested in reading some award-winning LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to read and review more of Ruskin Bond’s books in the coming days.
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