By Sowmya Rajendran

Like every child of my generation who grew up reading English books, all I wanted to do was eat potatoes roasted in their jackets and wash it down with ginger beer. I was also partial to ham sandwiches and lemonade. Never mind that I usually ate dosa-chamandhi for breakfast and washed it down with a glass of piping hot tea like any well brought-up Malayalee child. In my head, I was on my own island, blonde hair blowing in the wind as I petted my over-large dog after eating a delicious meal from the picnic basket one of my aunts had packed. The purpose behind the existence of aunts, I solemnly believed then, was for them to pack picnic baskets for me and not enquire about the length of my hair or the pimples on my face as they were wont to do in real life. I was convinced that I led such a boring life only because I lived in India where there were simply no adventures to be had. And of course, there was the sad fact that I didn’t have a dog.

So for the longest time, I was happy to reside in Champakvan, laugh at the adventures of Shikari Shambu, cheer for Sister and Brother Undir, and wonder why in the world King Vikram just couldn’t keep his mouth shut

Till Class IV, I mainly lived on a staple diet of children’s magazines – Champak, Tinkle, Chandamama, Gokulam. There was also Wisdom which I didn’t like much because the name sounded so enormously boring and every page had wise quotes made by wise people. So for the longest time, I was happy to reside in Champakvan, laugh at the adventures of Shikari Shambu, cheer for Sister and Brother Undir, and wonder why in the world King Vikram just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. All rabbits were Cheeku and Meeku to me. Convincing my father to buy Tinkle Digest, which was then priced at Rs 25, from the Higginbothams store at the railway station before we got on the train for our annual visit to Kerala was the high point of the journey.

There were also those beautifully illustrated Russian folktales lying around at home. The paper quality was so wonderful, I remember. The illustrations were strange, sometimes frightening, but so arresting. Stories about dragons, stories with magic, stories that spoke of foreign worlds and unseen creatures. The Arabian Nights was one other book I remember reading with great interest. The one we had at home was spectacular. I still remember the chill I felt in my bones when I read about the king who had too many boils on his face. The illustration of his diseased visage, pus oozing from boil upon boil, haunted me for many years after I’d stopped reading the book because I’d once seen a beggar in real life who had the exact infestation on his face.

And when I grew up, I wanted to be an author just like Enid Blyton. That was the answer I gave anyone who asked me that annoying grown-up question

Then in Class IV, I happened to read one of the books in The Adventurous Four series by Enid Blyton when I was down with fever. That’s it. I was in love. I couldn’t believe that such an exciting book had ever been written. It was a satisfyingly fat book and I devoured it page by page. After that, the sole ambition of my life became to read every single book that Enid Blyton had ever written. I read at meal-time, I read under the blanket with a torch after my mother had switched off the lights, I read on the potty, I read in the car on my way to school. I read because I couldn’t stop reading. And when I grew up, I wanted to be an author just like Enid Blyton. That was the answer I gave anyone who asked me that annoying grown-up question.

The Famous Five series was obviously my favourite. I didn’t like Secret Seven but I didn’t tell anyone that because I didn’t want Enid Blyton to feel bad if word got around. I adored The Book of Brownies and years later, when I started blogging, I imagined myself to be a brownie describing the human predicament through brownie-eyes. By then, I had turned into an existentialist person as any college-going Arts student with self-respect ought to have. The brownie identity was my own quest for bottles of goodness that people said the world had but I wasn’t sure existed.

I tried to graduate to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. But I was bored by both. There were too many boyfriend-girlfriend problems and too little adventure

After I’d read almost every Enid Blyton title published, I tried to graduate to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. But I was bored by both. There were too many boyfriend-girlfriend problems and too little adventure. Thankfully, I discovered The Three Investigators by Alfred Hitchcock. I read all of those books, now convinced that the reason my life was so boring was that I didn’t have a place of my own that I could call my HQ.

In between, I read RK Narayan’s books. I loved (and still love) Swami and Friends. It was probably the only story I read in those days that felt like it could happen to me. It’s got that quality of all great books – it appeals to you more and more as you grow older. I also read the Premchand stories but I confess that it was only because my mother made me read them. Then there were the Amar Chitra Katha books. I remember wondering how in the world Rani Padmini could enter a fire so happily and calmly and why all those women with her were also doing it with a smile on their faces. Sure, they wanted to save their honour (I wasn’t old enough then to put the word within quotes) but couldn’t they have chosen something less painful? You see, I’d watched the Tamil film Gentelman in which Manorama commits suicide by burning herself and as a child, I was convinced that it was absolutely the worst way to kill yourself. I didn’t like this book at all. But I liked the Chanakya one, especially the bit when he sees ants on the cracks of the floor and figures out where the enemies are hiding. Wah!

 

I still read children’s magazines though how I read them changed. I was a Literature student by then and no story was just a story any more. I saw sexism, racism, parochialism, and every other –ism. This wasn’t a bad thing. It’s how I landed a job at Chandamama magazine.

From there, I graduated to reading Agatha Christie and books for adults. Especially PG Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham, and Saki. I discovered Asterix, Calvin & Hobbes, and Peanuts.  I was in high school when Harry Potter first came out. And I was working by the time the last book came out. I read them all though I was no longer a child. I still read children’s magazines though how I read them changed. I was a Literature student by then and no story was just a story any more. I saw sexism, racism, parochialism, and every other –ism. This wasn’t a bad thing. It’s how I landed a job at Chandamama magazine.

Much of my reading reflects on my writing. These are the books that made me. And oh, I’m launching a new adventure series in August. It’s called The Rulebreakers’ Club and Book 1, The Dog Who Wanted More, is about a bunch of five children who decide to kidnap a dog because they know it’s the only way they can ever have adventures. In India.

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