Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My best friends

I am the only child of my parents - in this sense, I belong to a rare species, at least as far as India is concerned, where most families have 2 or 3 kids. When people hear of this for the first time, they often tell me "O, it must have been quite lonely for you, growing up all alone." Looking back at my childhood days, I don't remember going through a distinct feeling of loneliness at any time. There have been times when I have wished for more company to play with, even times when I wished I had a brother or sister, but they were not very strong or recurring feelings. During most of my childhood and adolosence, I was in a world of my own, mostly with my best friends - BOOKS.

I wanted to dedicate this post to these friends and how I have grown up with them, how they have kept me company in happiness and sorrow, been my cheer at times of distress and still occupy an important place in my life.

I was introduced to the mesmerizing world of letters by my uncle, who was a Masters in English Literature and a Professor in a college. I remember he used to buy me a whole lot of childrens' books with illustrations, most of them with Russian names and characters. In those times,Russian books were popular in India and a lot of English books that were available in the market were actually Russian books translated and published in English, probably as a result of the socialist-Russian links of the Nehruvian era. Most of the characters were Misha or Tanya, the former being a popular name. I also remember some non-Russian books he got me - one was of Swashbuckle, the highway robber, who was very fond of eating blueberries and had a beard and face that were full of the berry's stains. I still remember the book for its beautiful illustrations.

And then, as I moved on to Class III and IV, there were the Enid Blytons - the Secret Seven, the Famous Five, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew. I particularly loved the tomboy "George" (Georgina) in the Famous Five and even tried to emulate her for some period of time. The biggest treasurehouse for that generation was undoubtedly the "Amar Chitra Katha" series by Uncle Pai (Ananth Pai). Looking back, I think we need to salute Uncle Pai's significant contribution to keeping Indian mythology alive in the minds of the youth. Most of the mythology and Indian folklore that I know, is from the Amar Chitra Katha or Tinkle comics. What a rich collection it was! In those days, I remember that I would do almost anything to get hold of a bound collection of Amar Chitra Katha. The Indrajaal comics with superheroes such as Phantom, Mandrake, Bahadur,Flash Gordon and Garth were also favorites. Of these, the Phantom attained cult status with me (as with many contemporaries) and he was my "hero" for all the devilry that he attempted - crossing the "Piranha-filled river suspended on a ropeway",taking on villians single-handedly and living in the skull cave in the jungle amongst the Pygmy Bandar.

By the time I moved on to high school, I had found a group of like-minded friends and discussing books during lunch was the "in-thing" in school. I remember reading the entire collection of "Sherlock Holmes" novels - 2 bound volumes - in a month of vacation. During this time, I bugged my parents and got myself enrolled 2 local libraries. This opened a new world and I started reading Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Ken Follet, Erich Segal and a number of nice British authors. For whatever reason, I also liked Victorian novels and some of the classic English stuff. Jane Austen's Persuasion is a favorite. So were most of Daphne du Maurier's books with "Rebecca" and "The King's General" topping the list. One of our English teachers introduced us to a wonderful writer named Georgette Heyer - she has been often discounted as a "romantic writer". True to some extent, since most of her writing involved romance in the lives of English noblemen. But her language was so refreshing, with wonderful, sarcastic humour chipped in. Reading her books has done a world of good to my vocabulary too. Short stories of O.Henry, Somerset Maugham and a couple of others were also favorites. Sometimes I wish I had written down the names of every single book I read. Because there are some books that I remember vaguely, but do not remember the names. "The Scarlet Pimpernal"by Baroness Orczy, "The Lost Horizon" by James Hilton and "The Citadel" by A.J.Cronin and the all-time-favorite "To Kill a Mocking-bird" by Harper Lee are some of the books I remember reading with a distinct sense of satisfaction.

Although there was a "parent-enforced lean period" in my reading due to board exams and Engineering entrance exam preparation, I still squeezed in a little bit of time to read my favorite stuff, all of which was fiction. I think I chose to ignore the existence of non-fiction till a much later period of my life. The first non-fiction book that I really read cover to cover was "Freedom at Midnight" by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins - and I really enjoyed it, probably because it told in a near-fiction manner, the story of the events that unfold during the birth of India and Pakistan. That led to another book by the same authors "O Jerusalem". I got into non-fiction then, and still read some of it, but I can never find in it the charm and lure of beautifully woven fiction.

Into adulthood, life took me through rough turns and there was a time when I was wounded, bitter and withdrawn, so much so that I did not want anything to have to do with people. I was outside India and stayed alone - Books were all the comfort and company that I had. They would magically transport me, at least for a few hours, to another world, far away from reality. For a while, my life revolved completely around work and books. Any time outside of work, even when I was on the bus, I would read, almost feverishly. The only other thing I did during that period was listen to music. I remember I did not watch a single movie or TV show for almost 8-9 months. With time - and reading, I should add, I came out of the trough and moved towards being my old self. There are lots of authors and books that I relished during this period. Some of the most memorable experiences are of reading "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, "Out of Africa" by Karen Blixen and "The Bridges of Madison County" by Robert James Waller. Richard Bach were also wonderful reads during this time. Some of the books have lasting influence - After reading the "Exodus" by Leon Uris, I have always been partial to the cause of Israel and the Jews - I admire their sheer gumption and focus. I turn a blind eye to their faults, but somehow I can't help empathising with their cause.

After I returned to India and got married, my husband once gifted me a book "Ladies Coupe" by Anita Nair, which got me hooked on to Indian English writing. I tried to read as much as possible of Rabindranath Tagore, translated into English. Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee's "Mistress of Spices" was also particularly enjoyable, althought I haven't even tried seeing the movie for fear that it will spoil the story etched in my mind. The fact that DH loved reading also helped. We have spent many a weekend curled up at home with books, both of us enjoying the tranquility.

The last 2 fiction books that I read, and are worth mentioning, are "Harry Potter and the Half blood prince" (Vol 6 of Harry Potter, of which DH and I are avid fans) and "One hundred years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is a lovely and haunting story, beautifully crafted by the author. I finished the latter and a day later, went into labor and had DD. After DD was born, work and home left me with little time & energy for books. The only peaceful time I had was the time I had before retiring for the day, after DD slept. I love fiction too much to read it in time-bound instalments. So these days I read more of non-fiction, which I don't mind breaking up into 30 minute sessions. I am now reading "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, which talks of how ancient civilizations collapsed and is quite interesting. I look forward to the time when DD is older and I can go back to reading fiction :-)

I also hope and dream that DD grows up to love books - not because I want her to be like me or because of the obvious advantages associated with reading, but more because I would like her to savor the experience and allow it to enrich her life in ever so many ways.