Folks who know me well will confirm I am an incorrigible bookworm. When I was young, my best friend had to literally drag me out to play in the evening. When that didn’t work, my mom had to push me out from the other end, threatening dire consequences if I came home within an hour!
A lot of it also had to do with my notoriously bad skills at ‘langdi’ or ‘pakda pakdi’, the games we’d usually play. (I always preferred the more sedate games like ‘hide and seek’ or ‘statue’.) Since everybody knew running was not one of my stronger points, I was usually the first target to be tagged in any game. From then on, everybody would run around me in circles till either someone’s luck ran out, or we got tired of the game. Now how much fun can that be, huh? (Hey, I couldn’t have been as bad as that surely! Memories tend to be exaggerated versions of the truth, methinks.)
But yes, given a choice I would rather have curled up in a corner with a book in my hand. Books were always my first love. I don’t remember how my love affair with books started though. My earliest book-memories are of the primary section library in my school. (In a city like Bombay, we had two separate and huge libraries for primary and secondary sections in our school. Now how lucky is that, huh?)
A weekly trip to the library was a must during the library class. The class started with a short story telling session and then we had lots of free time to browse through the books to our hearts content! I think the story telling sessions were a great way to introduce our young minds to the wonderful treasures waiting to be discovered by us in the library. If I close my eyes, I can still see our librarian, Mrs. Nagarkar, with her soft voice and expressive eyes, enthralling a group of tiny tots with the adventures of Don Quixote. I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I was hooked for life.
We were encouraged to borrow at least one book every week. Although all the books in the library had been carefully chosen to suit our age group, Mrs. Nagarkar would still want to see the book each one of us had chosen, more out of a wish to understand and hone our interests than any desire to police us, I’m sure. When we went back the next week to return the book, she would be sure to ask us whether we liked it. And she was quick to catch on if somebody was foolhardy enough to return a book unread!
The next week would see a closer questioning of the suspect with some leading questions related to intricate plot details, and subsequently a sound tongue-lashing once the errant boy or girl confessed. Needless to say, I was never a part of this unfortunate group. If I erred, it was always on the side of excess. Many a times, I remember her gently reprimanding me when I returned mid-week to borrow a new book. ‘Exams are near, I shouldn’t be giving you a second book this week’, she would say, but with a twinkle in her eyes, as if to say we are partners in crime really, we understand each other.
After my school, the next biggest influence on my love for reading was our neighbor, ‘Doctor Kaka’. ‘Doctor Kaka’, to my eternal good fortune, was not only a voracious reader, but also a voracious collector of books. The room on their terrace was entirely devoted to books. I am sure there must have been more than a thousand books in that room. I would spend hours in the tiny room, going through each book and carefully making my selection. Shouldn’t take too few, else I would have to come back too soon, shouldn’t take too many for that would certainly elicit a scolding from my mother. A difficult proposition, surely!
Unfortunately, ‘Doctor Kaka’ was as keen as Mrs. Nagarkar to see the books I was borrowing and to discuss each one that I was returning. What a thankless wretch, I hear some of you saying! I know, it does sound a tad ungrateful. But my dilemma was simple, really. For one, I was very shy at that age (and in many ways still am) and slightly in awe of ‘Doctor Kaka’. Hence the hesitatation to offer my opinion in front of him – what if I made a fool of myself!
Another reason that became increasingly bothersome during my teenage years was – how could I choose a romantic or (gasp!) sensual book and discuss it with him! Fool that I was, I never realized he must have been comfortable reading and discussing these books if they were a part of his collection. Poor ‘Doctor Kaka’ must have thought I didn’t seem very much interested in our little discussions and soon gave up on me. I regret that now. It would have been fun to discuss my beloved books with someone who was just as interested in them as I was. (Sigh!)
So what kind of books do I read? Nothing earth-shattering, to be frank. I hope my lengthy discourse hasn’t given anyone a lofty impression of my reading habits. In that sense I am just about an average Indian female bookworm, I guess. I started out primarily with Enid Blytons – The Enchanted Woods, The Wishing Chair, Noddy, Famous Five and the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series. And I’m sure there must have been many more that I can’t think of right now. Enid Blyton’s world was a magical world, full of love, innocence, mischief and adventure. And lots of yummy-sounding food too! I could write a separate post on just her books and probably will sometime soon. (Note to self here.)
Since I started reading earlier than many of my friends, I exhausted the children’s stuff sooner than most. For a while I did experiment with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews, but to be honest, they never enthralled me like a Famous Five adventure would. There was an American adventure-mystery series called the Bobbsey twins that interested me, and the superb Three Investigators series that I adored. But these books were hard to come by in local Indian bookstores or libraries. The few that I found were usually after hours of scrummaging through the collection of various Bombay raddiwalas. So that regret still remains. I would love to read the entire Three Investigators series if someone were kind enough to gift them to me someday. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink! Do you know my address, kind people?)
Then there were the classics whose abridged versions I read as a child, and the teenage me was subsequently delighted to discover there was such a thing as unabridged versions of these marvels. I read Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice being one of my all-time favorites), Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Louisa May Alcott and a little known book called ‘The Scarlet Pimpernal’ by Baroness Orczy. And how can I forget the wonderful heartwarming Anne of Green Gables series? I’d laugh my head off at Anne’s antics and sob at the tender passages about Marilla or Mathew. I probably would do the same even today.
When I was somewhere in middle school I happened to read a ‘grownup’ book that my father was reading. I don’t recall the title but it was one of Jeffrey Archer’s books. A whole new world of books opened up to me that day. I had graduated from children’s books to grownup ones. Anybody who has ever read English books would surely have heard of Jeffrey Archer’s books, so I won’t enumerate them here. Suffice to say that I read and loved them all. Sadly, his recent offerings seem to be getting a tad repetitive, and False Impression was downright boring. Is Archer losing his touch or have I moved on? Other than Archer, I enjoyed reading thrillers by Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Michael Crichton and others who are considered masters of the thriller fiction genre. ‘Da Vinci Code‘ was good, but Dan Brown‘s other books, again, repetitive.
Like most teenage girls the world over, I also secretly devoured countless ‘Mills and Boons’ and their imitations. The stories were predictable, true, but whoever read Mills and Boons for its story! What counted was the number of ‘thrills’ one experienced when the hero swept the heroine off her feet. Then there was a phase where the forbidden nature of Jackie Collins novels attracted me, but I thankfully grew tired of them soon enough.
Many novels offer a wonderful insight into the social mores of their time and setting. ‘The Kite Runner‘, for example, offered a searing glimpse into life in war-torn Afghanistan. Among them, special mention must go to the wonderful sagas, ‘Gone with the Wind‘, ‘The Godfather‘ and ‘The Thorn Birds‘. I like the emotional depth of Erich Segal novels too. I loved ‘The Class‘, ‘Doctors‘, ‘Man, Woman and Child‘ and the classic ‘Love Story‘ never fails to bring tears to my eyes despite umpteen re-reads over the years. I accidently discovered another such gem, ‘The World of Suzie Wong‘, while casually browsing through a raddiwala’s collection one hot summer day. It is amazing what treasures can be found in such rickety shops!
I don’t read much of pure humor (I don’t think much of Wodehouse, for example – yes, gasp!) but find ‘Yes Minister‘, ‘Yes Prime Minister‘ and their desi versions hilarious. Inscrutable Americans was good too. Upamanyu Chatterjee‘s writing is enjoyable in parts but on the whole, a bit too raw for my taste. Chetan Bhagat is just about okay to pass time on a lazy afternoon. Ditto Shobha De, although one of her less famous novels, ‘Second Thoughts‘, did have some spark to it. Ms. De has me puzzled though, there were parts of her non-fiction books, ‘Selective Memory‘, ‘Speedpost‘ and ‘Spouse‘, that seemed to be straight out of my own life, while the rest was just plain sanctimonious rambling. Is she a good writer or not?
Then, in my first year of engineering, one of my crazy friends bored us to bits with her ravings about a weird new book that had wizards, wands, magic enchantments and other such childish notions. We scoffed at her but she was constantly urging us to read the stupid book. Finally, tired of her nagging, I borrowed the book from her and tried reading it under her watchful gaze. Need I say more? Any sensible person would agree, to read Harry Potter is to love Harry Potter, isn’t it?
Surprisingly, I started reading Indian authors writing in English pretty late in my reading career. But as usual, there was no stopping me once I started. For a while a few years back, I read Indian authors almost exclusively. Not that all Indian authors write well, just that I can relate to their subject matter better. A lot of people argue that Indian author books are dreary and cater to the western audience’s stereotype of Indian exotica. The criticism has some basis. But there are some real gems in this genre too. One publishing house, I can’t recall its name, has brought out the translations of regional literary giants such as Tagore, Saratda, Mulk Raj Anand, Mahasweta Devi, Manto, Ismat Chughtai and many other lesser known but equally brilliant authors. It is a formidable and must-read compilation.
Among contemporary Indian authors writing in English, ‘A Suitable Boy‘ is an absolute favorite. So are Manju Kapur‘s novels, especially her first one, ‘Difficult Daughters‘. I recently read and liked ‘The Namesake‘ but thought the ealier short story collection, ‘Interpreter of Maladies‘, was slightly better. (Nitpicking, ain’t I?) Partition novels usually strike a chord in me, which is strange considering my family has no personal experience of it whatsover. Apart from the obvious favorites like Tamas, a lesser known novel called ‘Azadi‘ is one of my favorites. While on the subject of contemporary Indian fiction, how can one not talk of the original master, R. K. Narayan? My only complaint – why isn’t Malgudi a real place? I so want to go there sometime! And for the record, although I know I am going to get crucified for this, Arundhati Roy‘s writing leaves me completely cold.
My mother constantly berates me for not reading anything in my mother tongue, Marathi. She is probably right too. I must be missing out on a real treasure trove. I once read the translated version of a hilarious book of short stories by Gangadhar Gadgil and proudly showed it to my mother. She had a good laugh going through its contents, promptly informing me of all the humor that got lost in the translation! My rather poor excuse has always been that I can’t read Marathi fast enough, so by the time I have completed a paragraph, I have already forgotten what the earlier one was all about! The pleasure of reading is rather lost when you concentrate on reading each sentence, don’t you think? I know, I know, poor excuse. This is definitely on my to-do list for the future.
Do I read fiction excusively? With a few exceptions, yes. I have read a few good non-fiction books. ‘Maximum City‘, ‘India Unbound‘, ‘The World is Flat‘, ‘Freedom at Midnight‘ and the biographies of Lee Iacocca, Sam Walton and Akio Morita are some that I can think of right now. But on the whole, I do prefer fiction over non-fiction. Mostly because a lot of the latter simply bores me.
There’s no use pretending to be an intellectual in these matters, I think. As I said before, I am just a plain old-fashioned book lover! I read books that I love reading, that amuse me, touch me, make me laugh and cry. Best of all are the books that make you wish you were a part of its world, where you yearn to meet its characters and want to cry out when the story comes to an end. Or desperately want things to end differently at the very least. ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘A Suitable Boy’ did all that to me and much more.
Phew, thats done then! It turned out to be a pretty long post. But I can’t believe how much fun I have had compiling this list. If anybody is reading this, hope you had fun too! If you are reading this, you are probably a book lover too. So if your list differs a bit from mine, or you think I have absolutely no taste in books, or (wishful thinking) you happen to like the exact same books as me, do write in please. And let me know if you think there are some really good books that I might have missed. I’d love to hear about it from you! Lets have some fun, kitabon mein!