The first book I ever enjoyed was “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. I was aged 12 and since my family only believed in text books and not in ‘story’ books for the development of their child, I had not read any fiction up till then. It had been a stressful year at school and the summer holidays had finally arrived. We had moved the previous year and I had had to change schools. The syllabus in the new school was tougher than the previous one. I had to learn a whole new language(Hindi) with some tutoring while the rest of the class had learned the basics at least 3 years before. Add to it the crippling feeling of insecurity and lack of close friends. It had taken me the year but I had my competitive spirit and I had studied my ass off to be near the top of the class. This had resulted in a small prize on the school annual day. The prize was this book. It was initially relegated to the unused study table(holidays duh..). In the beginning of the summer holidays, my neighbour borrowed this book. He returned it back to me the very next week, having read it and praised it. He was a little older to me and in my eyes, a lot more sophisticated. Being a chiefly indoor person, I dutifully began to read the book.
It was an abridged version, but I still needed a dictionary and in the first couple of chapters, I barely followed the story. I understood enough to finish the book. The ending blew me away! I admired the author for coming up with such a clever plot! The details of the French revolution were lost upon me, but man, the story was spanking. I narrated the story to my little sister, suspense et all, and both of us were in awe.
Reading came pretty naturally to me after that. The very same year, the class had struggled to plough through “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins. Collins’ work comprises mainly of mystery stories, set in the late 19th century, told in long winded archaic language. Usually there are multiple narrators, narrating parts of the story through letters or diaries they wrote during the occurrence of the mysterious events. This was my next available book and I bravely gave it a stab with my new found literary acumen. I didn’t have to remember who told whom what, I just had to follow the story wherever it took me. And if I missed some details, so what? I could come back to it if it was relevant to the story. To say I enjoyed the book this time round, was an understatement. I was ecstatic. In fact, a couple of years ago, I even bought myself a copy of the full version and read it for good measure. “Count Fosco” is still one of my favourite fictional characters.
In the time when there was no Wikipedia or google available, it was hard to find social backing. Online availability of books and any info about or therein was impossible. Books are conveniently classified in a searchable manner. A quick search of Wilkie Collins last year yielded a famous title “The Moonstone”. I bravely plunged into it. Boy, was it a piece of shit. I went through a thousand pages over a span of 6 months spread over the book and my kindle to finally come to a very lame climax. The only other comparable experience I had was with Anna Karenina maybe. Ugh.
Meanwhile, I discovered that my local newspaper, “The Deccan Herald”, had a weekly children’s supplement, “The Open Sesame”. It was a delicious 8 pages that I began to devour weekly. It had your regular crosswords, find the difference, science trivia. But it also had these amazing short stories that were my introduction to the inimitable “Ruskin Bond”. There was a series on “Tenali Rama”, where a boy time travels to Vijayanagara’s Hampi and has loads of adventures. There were stories by “Kavita Mandana”, a talented illustrator and writer. I was particularly moved by one which involved a boy and an old man bonding over daily games of chess. I collected these supplements and made a large book by stapling all of them. The quality of the supplement reduced as the years passed and my collection was proof of the old days of glory and I re-read the stories many times.
It wasn’t until the following year that I was introduced to Harry Potter. My close friend had heard of it and had procured the first two released books. I was 13, close to Harry’s age and I read 2 of the most wonderful books ever. It started a frenzied tradition of speculating and waiting for the next book over the next 5 years. Tears were spilled on Sirius deaths and when I laid my hands on the latest book, it warranted uninterrupted reading for the entire night!
I was very reluctantly convinced by my husband through the years and a colleague at a party, about all the obvious and non-obvious loop holes in the book. The recent form of J K Rowling “revealing” inconsequential details has also quite removed the original charm. But at the time and age, HP was the bees knees. Everybody was talking about it, the queues for the new book launch, the reviews in the newspapers. It was a rather magical time, when the new book was in your hands. You were amazed by the Quiddditch World Cup or you got involved with the DC or you were happy for Ginny or excited about the Firebolt. Of course, I realise now that HP had its own set of inspirations and predecessors. But for me it was the world during those years.
My reading got more frenzied the following year when we moved again and I discovered to my utter joy that there was a lending library near our new home! It was right beside our grocery store and consisted of a whole room with 2 ceiling high bookshelves which were filled with books. This was paradise. I scrounged up the Rs 100 refundable deposit. You could borrow 3 books at a time and each book’s rental was priced mostly based on the girth of the book. Within the year, I had gone through his entire collection. I gorged on Enid Blyton, “The Famous Five”, “The Secret Seven”, “Malory Towers”, “St Claire’s” and even the occasional Mystery books which she wrote. Next were the Nancy Drew’s and the Hardy Boy’s. But I got tired of them and they got predictable. It was then that I started sneaking in the Mills & Boons and the Harlequins. Yummy heroes starred in my teenage day dreams during those times.
The romance section in any self respecting bookstore in Bangalore is stocked with loose second hand titles going for less than Rs 50 a pop. I binge on them frequently when it catches my fancy. A few of them sometimes turn out to be pretty good albeit quick reads too.
School was what really shaped my reading habits. Our high school English syllabus for the year included a grammar based paper and a non detail paper. For the non detail paper, we had one book of poetry, one of drama and one novella or book of short stories. I always found the poetry hard. I still do. For drama, we had Shakespeare. “Merchant of Venice” and “Julius Caesar” are the most memorable. It was like feeding into a drug habit. In high school, we finally had unlimited access to the school library. That led to more Shakespeare, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Dickens, Doyle and some such.
Finding Sherlock Holmes was such a relief. Nancy Drew had really lowered my expectations in the mystery department. But one birthday, somebody gifted me with “The Hound of Baskervilles”. It seemed like a place where I belonged. On my chair, reading about Holmes and Watson. It was quite some time before I discovered Agatha Christie. The protagonist of “The Man in the Brown suit” was officially my first ever crush. I read it several times. Several years later now, I have finally completed the whole Miss Marple series and have now started diligently on Poirot’s adventures as homage to this prolific writer. The day I guess the identity of the murderer in her books, is the day I will give up Agatha Christie.
Change of school for my 11th brought with it a new close friend. She read as much as I did and what more she would discuss books with me. We read Ayn Rand together. The hero of the “The Fountain Head” fascinated me for quite a while. But I never progressed to “Atlas Shrugged” and probably never will. Stieg Larsson was a sensation at that time. I religiously read “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” series, though in hindsight I found it unnecessarily violent.
Reading has never been a structured activity for me. I read when I’m reading and not when I’m not. Giving it a structure - a set time – would kill the romance behind it. I’m highly suspicious of reading challenges. I mean you are actually pledging to read 10 books in a year? Do you realise how many books are out in the world? At 10 books a year(I know you are just probably gonna read 2) you cannot even scratch the surface.
I have struggled though with structuring my reading. Instead of binging on Game of Thrones I’d prefer myself reading an autobiography. But every time I step into the bookshop, I’m lost. I accumulate enough that I need a basket to carry the books to the billing counter.
The real awakening came once I started earning. It coincided with the information burst on the net. I had enough money to splurge in my favourite bookshop and was informed enough to know what I wanted to read next. I even embraced the Kindle, which is my goto for reading any of the free classics. But cliche like, I prefer the feel of a book. But the kindle gets used on travels. One of the best books I read on Kindle was Bram Stoker’s masterpiece Dracula. The book set right all my expectations of a vampire and even partially erased the twilight series.
It was in a writer’s club, that I made a friend and she recommended to me “Haruki Murakami”. She gave me one of his short story collections and very confidently told me to read them. She predicted that I would enjoy. And how! I was amazed at this new writing style. Sad stories, mystical ones, whimsical ones. That touch of supernatural and an undercurrent of depression and reality. It led to a phase of Kafka on the shore, Norwegian wood and Tsukuru’s ridiculous story. It always heartens me that there is still more of Murakami out there for when the mood strikes.
The love of books brought with it a love of bookshops. A quaint bookshop in a foreign city would calm and ground me. I quickly discovered and claimed favourite haunts within my city. Blossoms, the Select store, Bookworm or even the ubiquitous Sapna book house are strictly my territory within Bangalore now.
I probably would find it hard to live if I couldn’t read something. So much so that I would write things just so I could read it later. It’s hard to describe to people what books I really like. I don’t discriminate much when it comes to reading. I mildly panic when I discover a must read. Adding it to a dauntingly large to-read list makes me nervous about all the time I dedicate to this activity. But how would I fare in life, if I had not been scandalised by Lolita, reassured by Atticus, if I hadn’t felt sorry for Nakata, if I hadn’t read about Jaisalmer, hadnt admired Jeeves, hadn’t cried for Tom Brown, or hadnt encountered Virginia Woolf. I’m definitely richer for the experience.