Perhaps the first book I held in my hands was the stories of Krishna, when I was about three or four. It was a slim volume in Hindi, published by Geeta Press and had a picture on each page with a few lines explaining the story in the picture. Some pages were garish blue, some green and others pink. I could remember every detail in the pictures and ‘tell’ the story much before I learnt to read Hindi. One could call it a picture book. My elder siblings would tell me stories from the mythologies and I became a storyteller of sorts myself at five, when I would make up stories and narrate them to the children in the neighbourhood.
In my early childhood, I had been struck by some bug that laid me up in bed, unable to move my lower limbs, for many weeks. My elder brother — the second of the two — kept me entertained with stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. How I loved those sessions as I waited eagerly for him to get free and come to my bedside.
So the sum total of my exposure to stories was limited to the mythological tales of Rama and Krishna and the ones I made up!
When we came to Nagpur and I joined school straight in the third standard, reading became a passion. Having so many books to read was new to me. I could read all the three languages fluently – English, Tamil and Hindi. I would read all the stories and essays in my school books and then read from the books of my other cousins who were in different classes. We couldn’t afford to buy books, not that affordable ones were available in India those days. Indian publishing was largely restricted to text books.
Our grandparents’ house was just a street away and we would spend many hours during summer there, running up and down the stairs playing hide and seek or some indoor game in the large two storey house. For me and my other cousins who lived in one and two-room houses in the adjacent streets, our grandparent’s house was a veritable palace. We envied the cousins who lived there and had the run of the huge house all the time, while we only visited.
That was where I discovered THE MAGIC ROOM!
It was a largish, slightly dark room on the first floor and filled with rows and rows of books. Even the loft had books! It was the collection of my youngest mama who was a book lover. There were fairy tales, volumes of Reader’s Digest — some of them American editions and every issue from the time it came to India, unabridged classics, a volume of Aesop’s fables in Tamil, and hundreds of comics – Phantom, Mandrake, Little Dot, Sad Sack and Richie Rich. (Are they still available?) The Grimm’s Fairy tales was an oversized yellowing imported edition that broke into bits like biscuits. There were also Tamil periodicals and novels. I read some of those novels too, Parthiban kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki, among them.
Summer holidays in hot Nagpur meant ice creams and sleeping out on the terrace, but most importantly books. I could read all I wanted. I cajoled my uncle to let me borrow books from the ‘library’ room in grandfather’s house. We didn’t have holiday homework as kids do now, but my brother insisted that I learn the problems in math for the next year 😦
Summers were story times too. There was a bhajan sabha where religious discourses and harikathas were conducted during summer months. Some of the performers stayed in our grandparents’ house for the duration of the programmes which went on for a couple of weeks. I remember one particularly, a grandfatherly figure, who regaled us with the children’s version of the epics during the day, forgoing his noon siesta. How we loved those sessions!
Coming back to the library room, after I completed reading the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables, and the comics, I began reading the classics. The language was tough for an eight-year-old and went over my head. But it didn’t stop me from reading up all of Charles Dickens’s works, the novels of Jane Austen and P.G.Wodehouse, Lorna Doone, Heidi, The song of Hiawatha, and even Wuthering Heights! I hardly understood them though I meticulously noted down difficult words and looked them up in the dictionary. (We had an ancient one that all but fell apart in one’s hands having been passed down two generations or more!)
That first summer in Nagpur, I fell deeply and irrevocably in love – with books.
By the time I was 12, I had read stacks of Perry Mason novels – the courtroom dramas used to be so interesting to me at that time. O.Henry, Hemingway, H.G.Wells, Pearl.S.Buck, P.G.Wodehouse, and — Lobsang Rampa! Have you heard of his books on metaphysics and the occult? Well, I read him gamely and tried to understand the contents. Along the way, I read Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale too. Then I read the books of R.K.Narayan But let me put it on record that I only liked Swami and Friends, maybe because it was about children or maybe because it was the only one I fully understood at that age.
I was introduced to Enid Blyton after all these heavy tomes, in the eighth standard by my school friend in Mumbai. She had a great collection of them. We lapped them up, discussed the stories and drooled over the impossible to imagine/see — leave alone get to taste — the scrumptious goodies that were so graphically written about by Blyton. For the first time, I was reading books appropriate for my age and enjoying them! I don’t remember seeing Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books. Maybe they had not yet come to India in the 60s or maybe my friend didn’t have them.
The teens saw me savouring A.J.Cronin and the bestsellers — Alistair Maclean, Frederick Forsythe, Ken Follet and others. I also read Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Kamala Das, Kamala Markandeya, the feminists writers and many many others. It is just not possible to list all the books I read during those impressionable years. I just read every book I could lay my hands on. It was an eclectic mix of books, many of them bought by my brother and the rest borrowed from the libraries at college and the University. One of the books that made the most impact on me at that time was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, followed by the holocaust books by Leon Uris.
Reading is a passion in our family. My father was the champion of them all. He had temporarily given up reading during his work years when he sometimes worked double shifts to make that bit of extra money to meet expenses. But after his retirement, he read continuously, anything he could lay his hands on. By then, my elder brother had begun buying books and once he finished them, he would begin reading my college books – I had taken humanities. He even pored over the newspaper bits that came as wrapping from the grocer’s! After losing vision in one of his eyes due to retinal detachment, he read with one eye and when vision began failing in that too, he held it close to the eye and read. He never quit reading till the end. All of us siblings have no doubt inherited his reading genes.
It was therefore natural for me to get my boys interested in books too. But that is matter for another post!
So which was the first story you had heard as a child? The first book you read by yourself? Wouldn’t you please share the memories associated with them?
(I began this post little realizing that it would lead me from one topic to another. Stay tuned for more…..)
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