Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Monday, 11 June 2012

What would I do Without Books?

A friend of mine wrote a blog about how she was surrounded by books as she grew up. Today she is a successful writer and her short stories are little gems - they shine when they catch the light.
     Made me think: how did I get to become a reading addict?
     In my house, as I was growing up, there was the Mahabharatham and the Ramayanam - two musty tomes, pages sticking together in the rainy season, and smelling of mould. In the Malayalam month of Karkidakam, the month of deluge, my aunt read them morning and evening, loudly in a sing-song voice, to keep the demons away. There was also a smaller book called Narayaneeyam, which I never quite figured out.
     Like many Kerala children I grew up on the stories of those very human gods. Like the story of one promiscuous god, Indran,who slept with Valmiki's wife and was cursed by him in a most appropriate manner. He sprouted myriad penises all over his body and had to go into hiding. Unforgettable.  Velyamma, my aunt, would probe my hair for lice and nits , while I was in bed next to her, and she related the stories she knew. I even learned the facts of life from her, painlessly.
   But children's books? Not a single one came my way. No comics, no picture books, zilch.
   The Indian Express ran a comics page once a week. This was a coloured page and had magicians and supermen in it. I waited for that Sunday paper through the week.
   I was twelve by the time I started reading seriously. The upper forms in the Sacred Heart High School had access to a small, glass paned almirah of story books. These were placed in the corridor, outside each classroom and if it was a good day for Sister Cordelia, she would unlock the almirah and let us loose. They were fairy stories mostly and abbreviated classics: fables about King Arthur, Lourdes and such like. 
     We were not allowed into that corridor without a chaperone as the The Mission High School was just across the road and its corridor was parallel and only five or six  metres away from us.  That school - God knows why- had a nasty reputation in those days. As if the boys - who never noticed us anyway- could molest us across the road.
   I went through my first almirah like a bush fire in summer. Fairy stories from Europe full of vampires and angels. Sister saw me delving one day and pointed to more books on the same shelves. 'Read that and that and that...' I said. She was irritated. Reluctantly, she moved to the next almirah and let me search. By the end of the year I had gone through all the books in that corridor: Anne books, Angela Brazil books and similar. My hunger had become insatiable.
   Today I remember that immersion in books, like a baptism, and what it has meant to me all my life thereafter. And I wonder how is it one child joins the votaries and others in the same house don't? My daughter reads like me, but my sons, who grew up in my household, with books everywhere did not take to reading, Beyond the sports pages of newspapers that is. What will they do when the delights of youth are history and old age hovers?
     My reading changed colour as I grew older. I started on the biographies in my father's small rotating shelf. He dumped Roamaine Rolland and Tolstoy in translations on me; I did not make too much sense of them. But I persisted with Anna Karenina and others like her. When Shaw arrived at sixteen or so, he was a huge relief. I read and re-read those scene settings and enjoyed every word, even though the book was huge and the print tiny. However, I could have done without Tennyson's In memoriam.
   There were the Malayalam books as well: Ashan and Pottekad and Vallathol. What a feast!
   When my father saw my intent he brought in Joad and Russell and the travel writers. I remember the excitement of Inside Africa by John Gunther and Red Star over China by Edgar Snow. I wanted to go to all those places and see all those people. The next day if possible. When I started travelling in later life, it was like, 'I know you. Hello friend. Anything changed here since I talked to you last?'
   Today, at seventy-seven, the books are my fall back. I read good, bad and indifferent. Some I throw away in the Oxfam basket if the writing is excruciatingly bad. Good writing is almost all I ask for in books. The content is secondary. I am looking for that banquet of words and phrases. Some, I keep in my bedroom for re-reading. I think I have read Midnight's Children four times. But if I had nothing to read I would read the ads in newspapers, I am sure. I have done that once, in Blantyre, on a rainy weekend.

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