I am an only child.
The only constants in my life have been family and books. I remember my father buying me books even when I couldn’t read. First they were picture books, then alphabet and word books, then stories he would read out to me and then books I learnt to read as I started my education. Incidentally, my father was a hardcore engineer who read only technical books and my mother is the bookworm who has grown up with her nose firmly between the pages of books all her life. While she gave me the love for reading genetically, my father was the one who brought me the books.
I remember one particular incident when I was 7 or 8 and had recently learnt about Archies Comics. We were at Delhi airport, flying to Jaipur and as always, I was hovering around the book stall, too short to actually see the books on display properly. I don’t know what happened and how, but I remember standing on something and finally being able to see the books on display. I picked an Archies Comics and looking at my father who was standing besides, to pay for my book. He frowned and said this is too expensive. He picked a Noddy book and told me, this seems good, take this. I have been a good child, if I may say so myself and never would I want to burden my father with any added expense. So, begrudgingly, I took the Noddy and went to sit by my mother. I complained to her about how I wasn’t allowed to buy an Archies Comics. Years later, I was flipping through the pages of the same Noddy book when I saw its price. 20 rupees. The Archies Comics cost the same. Then why didn’t my father buy me the comics? My parents had this rule that comics don’t have proper sentence construction, so I shouldn’t read them when I was still forming my knowledge of languages. And I never cheated on this.
A favourite book for me is something I keep going back to, something which remains etched in my mind and the story of which I keep remembering, at the most random times. All such books are from my growing years, to be honest. Well, most are. Read in the formative stages of my life, they are books I keep going back to whenever I miss the old me or I just need comfort. All or none might not resonate with readers of this post at all, some might. Regardless, these are five of my all-time, most favourite books in no particular order.
I spent my school vacations in Calcutta where most of our family was, unless we were seeing other parts of the country. Being the youngest in my father’s side of the family while I had a lot of love, I used to be also very bored. One summer before school began for my seventh standard, I was bored. My cousin older to me and nearest to me in age, was in the ninth so obviously, busy with her academics. I literally had nothing much to do and would mope around all day until I found a copy of Little Women in a sack of old books which the said cousin had in her school curriculum, the year before.
I picked it up and started reading. I finished the book by dinner that day. I read it again the next day and took a break. Ever since, I have read the book once, almost every single year. I adore Jo. I love her, she is me and I am her. Not just the fact that she is a writer too, there are so many things about her which made me feel her story is similar to mine, even at that tender age of 12 and a half! I wish I had Beth’s tenderness. I despise Amy and I don’t think much of Jane. But I love Jo, and all through the story I used to be worried she’ll settle for Larry and I am so glad she didn’t. This book has a special place in my heart. The two books after this didn’t make much of a mark with me.
I am fascinated by life in Russia. Not the life I learnt about as a grown up, but the life I read about when I was growing up. The kings, princes, dragons and the boy called Ivan. There always was a Ivan. Chief Vasily is a Russian book for children, written by Tatyana Efimchenko-evlakhova and the English translated was released in limited numbers, published by Moscow’s Raduga Publishers in 1986. I’d gotten it in my hands in 1988. This is a story of Peter, a boy from Moscow who goes to spend his summer vacation in a village and meets Vasily. The story is about friendship, family, loyalty, support and every single thing that could shape a growing human’s character. Till today, Vasily is the biggest example of friendship according to me and so influenced have I been by Peter and his friendship, that that is how seriously I take all friendships I get into. A lovely read, every child must read it, More than thirty years later, the story is still relevant and kids today would enjoy reading it.
Message From Nam
Back in college, I’d gone through a phase of Danielle Steel and loved reading her books. This was a few months after my father’s death and I was in a particularly weepy mood for reasons unknown. A friend had given this book but had warned that it will upset me. Pfft. I’d read enough to know books are works of fiction and one doesn’t get upset reading about fictional characters! Or, had I!
Nothing had prepared me for what Message From Nam had. The war at Vietnam, relationships breaking, loved ones dying, deceit, treachery, oh lord! I had weeped and weeped, but finished that thick book. It had left me empty but shown me another side to life. For someone who was yet to fall in love for the first time, I had started seeing the world and life in a new light.
I was introduced to stories in Bengali and by Bengali authors quite young in life. Though I grew up outside Bengal, my maternal grandparents took the pain of teaching me to read and write Bengali and was could read stories by the time I was 10. Since summers were spent at erstwhile Calcutta, it was spent reading my mother’s childhood books and watching children’s shows and movies which Doordarshan used to telecast. My mother would often sit with me to explain the background of the movies. This was when I was introduced to Satyajit Ray through his movies. Back in those days, listing of shows on the television used to be published on the newspaper a day ago and I used to check the movie that would be shown the following day.
When it said Sonar Kella will be shown the next day, my grandfather pulled out my mother’s copy of the book. I read it that evening and saw the movie the next afternoon. What a brilliant man, Ray was! To not only write the story but create actual sketches of the character, plan the sequences through pictures and later even create movies out of them, one must see them to believe the brilliance. While I dearly love all Feluda stories, Sonar Kella always remained my favourite. So much that when I visited Jaisalmer in late 2016, my first stop was Sonar Kella, the golden Fortress.
Anne Frank’s Diary
I remember the day I’d bought this book. Actually I hadn’t. The copy of this book which I own was bought years later just as a keep sake.
It was Feb 3, 1997. The same cousin from whom I’d borrow Little Women, and I, had gone to Kolkata’s famous Boimela with our uncle. I am a bookworm and the family probably wanted to do something nice for me so uncle who loved me dearly, took me there and cousin who never read, came along. My father was fighting cancer since the last six months and life was all sorts of shades of grey. At the fair, uncle insisted I buy something. I bought Danielle Steel’s Bittersweet. Everything from that night is firmly etched in my memory. Cousin bought ‘Anne Frank’s Diary’.
My father died that night. I read ‘Anne Frank’s Diary’ over the next two days. The horror of life I was faced with seemed humongous and Anne’s life was my escape. This was my first non-fiction and I stopped reading it only to eat or sleep. I remember crying a lot in between, and I still don’t know if I was crying for my father or for Anne. Or, for myself.
Nevertheless, this book saved me at one of my life’s most vulnerable moments. Anne’s life and the tragedy that followed, her writing prowess and the diary don’t need my recommendation. I dont know how I’d have reacted to the book at any other time, but that 16 year old who’d just lost her father, found solace in Anne’s diary. I’ve never read the book ever since. I shiver every time I see it in my cousin’s book case. Few years ago I had bought a copy of it thinking I will read again, but I haven’t.
The prompt for this post was given by Buzz Magazine.