I still vividly remember the texture of that little orange book I once accidentally found while searching grandpa’s small wooden cupboard for those tiny, flower or hexagon shaped aluminium coins with 10 or 20 inscribed on the front. It was a treasure hunt of sorts, my brother being the other contestant. The winner would be able to relish a so called “raspberry tart” en route to school (No , we did not grow up in an English neighbourhood that sold tarts for 10 & 20 paisas; it was just a fancy name we coined at school for the infamous, flattened and dried jujube paste which was the only “bestseller” that we knew of back then. )
Bringing nostalgia back to the book’s texture – it was somewhere in between tissue and bible grade. Quickly browsing through the pages, I realized it was a story book, albeit not the police-caught-robber kind. It was an anthology of short stories from Indian mythology. Not a very interesting read back then, but any story was better than no story. Thanks to my amma and thatha, I had developed an addiction to stories. I started suffering from sleep apnea (ok – not literally) when they ran out of stories over time. The symptoms were so severe that at one point my mother lost it and asked me if I was alright when I frantically unwrapped every carelessly packed parcel of eggs or rice from the grocery store, secretly hoping that the paper (used for wrapping) had a one page story. So, this book was a welcome find and I made peace with not being able to find the coins before the sibling managed to. The hunt continued over the next weekend resulting in an assortment of four other books that lasted another month. Now, having got the source of thatha’s stories, I started to dig around for amma’s source. They were in a hoarding, in the attic. A couple of months passed by with some of the findings – one Aesop fables – stood out. I would read it time and again for the pure pleasure of imagining animals speak. Rest was beyond my ability to comprehend at that time.
Like a wild tiger turned man hunter, I pounced on the school library in the following days. Sadly ours was not very vast and a student was only allowed one book over a certain time period. This left me starving for months. There was no way I could convince dad to buy me a new book. You see, this was the age when middle-class parents never really bought academic books for their kids, save story books; we just studied from that of our seniors’ who happened to be our neighbours and our juniors would study from what we pass over. So another year went by in reading non-detail texts of every senior class within the school and borrowing from outside. The syllabus differed quite a lot, from the humble Tom Sawyer to the adventurous Sindbad to the very charming Scarlet Pimpernel, which partly satisfied my hunger for variety. And then, famine struck, yet again.
Until I found the community library that lent us books for one rupee following the initial membership fee of five rupees. This sum in itself was collected with great difficulty from amma after bragging about several “first marks” I had secured in the class. The relationship with the community library went on for two years before it became a little squeaky and rusty. Besides, I had somehow lost both the books I borrowed earlier that week and had neither the guts nor the money to face the librarian or my parents.
I dared not to talk about story books for the next three years when the board exams came and went. And before I knew, the hunger was back to haunt; it was the long summer vacation before college. With lots of time in hand and absolutely penniless to buy even an old copy of the Hindu – for those two stories in “Young World”, my attention turned from stories to almost anything that was on print.
The tryst with nonfiction started from a magazine titled something in the lines of “global education”. Every edition would contain pictures of the same set of four universities in England showcasing a large expanse of freshly mowed lawn and faces of happy students studying in groups under trees. I would merrily imagine myself as a prospective student and dream about the fine English gentlemen I would get to meet and of course, the courses I would pursue. Exposure to Manish Malhotra’s designs, Vir Sanghvi’s columns and page 3 gossip followed in other print materials that were brought home almost on a daily basis from the grocery store. There were ample year books of various colleges, affiliated with the university my father used to work for, lying about in his cupboard that paved way to my interest in poetry – identifying the source of the copied poem published as the so called poet’s own, politics – trying to understand who in the right mind would publish a substandard article, and wit – on pitying my sad state of life.
As I was getting accustomed to a new way of life at the college hostel, sharing almost everything from cupboards to bathrooms and whatever stayed in between; a strictly academic library dedicated solely to engineering, ensured I did not have access to any sort of fiction or entertainment for the next four years.
A long break of six months, following graduation and before the first job, opened new doors that I never thought existed at my place – a posh(not literally but literature wise) lending library that housed anything and everything in the world of books. For an individual used to reading random stories in the community library, neatly arranged stacks of Sydney Sheldon, Robin Cook and Jeffrey Archer; arrays of NYT bestsellers and Booker winners were nothing short of a wonderland. By this time my parents realized that it was better to pay the two hundred rupees for membership and send me packing throughout the day than to deal with my boredom and eccentricity.
Now, despite being in a position to afford a new book every week, priorities (read husband and child) barely let me finish two in a year. But I wish to pass on the legacy, except she is too young to go hunting for coins. So I am deciding on her first peekaboo book (a privilege I never enjoyed) that would go in between a colourful polybag and a plush toy, when she crawls about grabbing everything that comes in her way. On this book’s cover will be a cute piglet. She would be fascinated, I truly believe; for her mother’s fascination for non-humans in books began with a cockroach and the daughter could do much better, no?
And yes, I have Orwell’s Animal Farm safely tucked in the attic, for her 18th birthday or perhaps 20? We will have to wait to find out how she likes history and satire.
I wonder if our grandfather had intentionally left those coins lying in the cupboard for us to find. May be he really believed that at least one of us would stumble upon the books and take up reading as a hobby, or rather, a way of life and pass on the legacy to the next generation. A statesman of sorts, I say.