“I’m not going to read to you anymore,” my mother announced one day, closing the copy of Noddy and the Seaside she held in her hands. “No!” I wailed; I must have been three at the time. “You can’t!”
The first-born, the apple of everyone’s eyes and generally spoilt rotten, I was incensed. But mummy stood her ground. And since this was our special goodnight ritual, no one else in our large joint family was allowed to interfere.
In hindsight, I think I bugged her to read to me a lot more than just at night, which is why she probably thought it was high time I learnt for myself, which I had no option but to do.
“What do you want to become when you grow up?” my eldest uncle boomed across the dining table, six years later, as we ate in silence. He’d come to Bangalore a little while ago from Hyderabad and as usual was making his presence felt.
I had never been asked this question before, at least not in such a public space, and for a moment I didn’t know what to say.
“A librarian,” I answered, suddenly sure that I could read books all through the day, all through my life, and still not have enough.
I knew I’d said the wrong thing even before he could respond, thanks to the involuntary movement in my father’s lower jaw.
“A librarian! That’s not a profession.”
I thought of the middle-aged lady up the road, with the kind smile and flouncy skirts paired with an assortment of beads, most often found nestled in a nook in her one-room library that overlooked a quiet tree-lined street. She had appeared out of the blue and opened The Faraway Garden (I am not sure of the name now, if I’m being honest, but it was something equally evocative), a place of peace and gentleness, books of all kinds lining the walls from floor to ceiling, lying stacked in corners, but never smelling dusty or damp, just perfect. And then, one day, just as suddenly as it had opened, the library closed down, taking a little piece of my heart with it forever.
But I still had Saks Lending Library, which I had to walk 15 minutes to reach, crossing our small vegetable and meat market, passing the temple set deep in a vermillion stained peepal tree, till I entered its tube-light lit premises and headed to the back where metal shelves were stationed around the room, laden with books, and racks lined the walls, packed tight with even more books. The front of the store was reserved for the much in-demand movie cassettes that were the rage at the time, as well as candy and other knick-knacks like magnets, key chains and lighters.
As I’d quietly slink off to the back, my many siblings and cousins arrayed themselves across the store as took their fancy – one following me, but since she was much smaller, heading towards a direction that suited her interests, a few angling for candy, one, asking again and again “When will the new WWF cassette come?” while two others played with marbles, corks and other rubbish on the steps leading to the entrance, asking to be told off by the owner with the big glasses and wide smile that usually slipped a little when we all entered.
My favourites at Saks were a set of square black-and-white comics about teenage girls set in post-war England, talking about their squabbles, jealousies, and even their crushes. It was all terribly innocent, however, unlike the racy books my mother insisted on checking out, with covers of half-naked girls and men with guns. It was years later that I discovered that these James Hadley Chase novels had to be about the “cleanest” books one could find (to my surprise, there was nothing sexy about them at all), but I didn’t know that then, and being around mummy as she clutched onto her books were some of the most distressing times in my young life.
There were not too many options available to us in the 80s and 90s – even now, the children’s book market is flooded with international authors, though mercifully, there is a growing interest in our own literature and voices that speak like “us” – so I was reared on a diet of Enid Blyton, PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie; later, Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy, along with a good helping of Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and magazines like Stardust, Filmfare, Eve’s Weekly (my grandmother’s favourite) and Femina.
I spent entire summers in Hyderabad, probably between the ages of 11 and 13, reading old issues of Hindi film magazines, bought from the neighbourhood kabbadi khana for 50 paise a piece, dreaming of morphing from a skinny, anxious pre-teen to a glamourous self-assured teen –à la Neelam, the cute-as-a-button sixteen-year old actress – all of which of course never materialised as I only grew into an even skinnier and more anxious teenager.
I didn’t get the political currents underlying most of the books I read. Blyton’s golliwog didn’t set off any alarms, while Rand’s atheism was lost on me, a believer even at a young age, and Brer Rabbit was one of my all-time favourites.
It was only years later, when I read a particularly old edition of the Brer Rabbit stories, that I found the subtle but unmistakeable nuances of slavery so overwhelming and wondered how I could have missed it at all. I had read those books out of context, as simple folk tales about a wily rabbit outwitting a dim but dangerous fox, and frankly I’m glad I did, because the stories are heartbreaking when you realise they are about real people, like you and me, who had to use every last wit to simply stay safe, or alive.
Literature allowed me an escape from my often mundane, sometimes fearful, sometimes unanchored life, as my parents struggled to navigate their turbulent marriage and my mother was often in and out of our lives. Books were the friends I turned to for comfort, belonging, and excitement. And they never let me down.
As for being a librarian, I finally graduated with an ill-fitting commerce degree and went on to sell holidays to people, the beginning of a career that would careen from sales to entrepreneurship to Human Resources. But I did graduate to a “big” library. Saks had shut by then. The Eloor Lending Library was one of the last options available to people like me – who could not afford to buy books yet read six of them a week –and it served me well for the next ten years. Today, I buy physical copies of books I think have potential for multiple readings; for the rest I turn to Kindle.
My relationship with books has also evolved into a healthier space. I no longer want to escape my life (at least most of the time) but instead want to learn, challenge and grow (again, most of the time). I read more non-fiction, including cookbooks, most of which are never put into practice, but are incredibly inspirational (one of my other childhood dreams was that I would be a fabulous cook). And when I do want to escape, I have found the perfect way to do so. After reading and rereading every Agatha Christie book on the planet I was despairing of finding such a rabbit hole ever again, but then I found the genre of “cosy mysteries”, which cater to folks like me who love a good clean, thriller with a minimum amount of violence.
But the best outcome of all the reading over a lifetime of 40-odd years is that I am able to give back to a body of work that has existed almost from the time humans first walked the earth, so what if it began with palm prints on stone walls? If even one human being is touched by my writing, is inspired in some way to do good, then my effort has been worthwhile. That is the intention with which I write. Of course, I would love to make a million bucks at the same time, but things being as they are, maybe in another lifetime.
And to think it’s a journey that would not have started if Noddy and Big Ears and the evil goblins had not burst into my life, in a blaze of colour, looking out at me from glossy pages, introducing me to a new world, a new life, a new me.