I hated my name in school because of the ways in which people mutilated the pronunciation. But I felt immensely better when my mother told me that I was named after a book and a literary character. My parents had read an Urdu novel called Andleeb a few months before I was born. My father was quite taken with the name and had insisted that if they had a girl, they would name her Andaleeb.
I can credit my love for books to my family of voracious readers. I was first introduced to books in my grandfather’s old house in Vellore. It wasn’t in a “this is amazing and it will change your life” way, but more of a “just read this and let us read too” way. My mother used to read a lot of Urdu novels. Some were serialised in the ‘digests’ that she would subscribe to. She even admitted that she introduced us to books so that we would stay out of her hair and let her read in peace.
The Vellore house was a treasure trove of books. We found books in every cupboard we opened. My uncle read Westerns and my aunt read Mills n Boons. As a child I would look at them and wonder when I would be able to read them. Probably to prevent me from reading about romance when I was still not even ten years old, my aunt introduced me to comics. It was Richie Rich at first, and then Phantom and Mandrake. I spent many blissful hours flipping through these comics during summer vacations. My brother, cousins and I would vie for space on the huge wooden jhoola that hung from the ceiling, as we nibbled on salty pieces of dark dried mango.
In school, everyone was reading Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie, once we’d moved on from Enid Blyton of course. These were our mainstays along with the supplement, Open Sesame, that came with Deccan Herald every Saturday. My brother and I would fight over who would read it first. We would pore over the stories with the same eagerness my children exhibit when a new show drops on Netflix.
I think what really fuelled my desire for reading was how scarce books seemed to be. There were no bookstores near our Bangalore home except for Gangarams. My father wasn’t the sort who would suddenly go to a bookstore to buy me books if I wanted them. (I don’t know why. I never harangued him enough I suppose!) The only time I could buy books was when we went to see him off at the airport when he was flying out on work. He’d allow me to choose a book from the Higginbothams stall and I would spend many gleeful days reading, savouring it slowly, hoping it wouldn’t end soon.
We didn’t know of libraries nearby until my mother and I discovered a government library very close to our house. The dusty and congested rows of books, most of them hardbound with no indication about the stories inside, didn’t dissuade us from signing up. My mother was pleased because it had Urdu books too. We would visit the library every week, sometimes walk and sometimes in my mother’s trusty old Maruti, to exchange them for more dusty volumes.
I don’t remember all the books by name, but I do remember being surprised and thrilled by the historical romances because I would discover that these were romances only while reading them. They didn’t have any racy covers and were hard bound in black or blue, making them look rather innocuous. I would often look up from these somewhat illicit books, thank whoever decided to make them look harmless, and go back to reading.
In college, if one girl got books from a library, we would take turns to read it. Access to books, especially romances, was limited. We would sneak in these deliciously fat novels, albeit covered in newspaper (since most of these romances had heavy bosomed heroines clutching the arms of a ripped and often shirtless hero on the cover) and read them during class, hoping that the teachers wouldn’t spot them.
Years later, amid the tedium of household duties and being a young mother, I signed up at the Eloor Lending Library. I would religiously take the long trip to the library from my corner of the city because it seemed like my world had opened up dramatically. With recommendations from writer and journalist Rehmat Merchant, who had decided to mentor me, I discovered Indian writing in the year 2000. I devoured Chitra Banerjee’s Arranged Marriage and Sister of my Heart, Sohaila Abdulali’s Madwoman of Jogare, Mohsin Hamid’s Mothsmoke and plenty of other novels. I was fascinated by the wonderful tales that were relatable, yet far removed from my own life.
I also fell in love with crime fiction and read Ruth Rendell, PD James and Martha Grimes. I found that my world continued to expand with each page I read. I particularly loved Martha Grimes’ Hotel Paradise whose protagonist, Emma Graham, stayed with me for the longest time.
That entire period now seems hazy – my membership at Eloor lapsed and I signed up at three more lending libraries, closer to wherever I lived. I read a vast number of books, struck up conversations with librarians and asked them for recommendations while happily taking my weekly stock of books back home. Two of those libraries are gone now – EasyLib in Koramangala and Raj’s Rent-a-Book on Richmond Road. I don’t know about the third because I haven’t visited that area in a decade now.
I’m truly amazed that I actually used to take time out to travel to these lending libraries (without Ola/Uber or even Google Maps) and bring back these books because today, literally no one wants to step out of their homes.
Although I feel nostalgic about the old days, nothing makes me happier than my Kindle and the access to the hundreds of books it affords me. At the same time, that anticipation of settling down on a rainy afternoon, curled on a sofa, clutching a paperback is something that has eluded me for the longest while now.