Reading across Countries, Time, and City Spaces

I don’t remember learning to read. But, I do remember reading; going down a few steps to a mezzanine floor, to three rooms lined with shelves, a large circular table, a few chairs, and books, everywhere, shelves, table, chairs, windowsills and floor.

We were a Goan family in the French concession in Shanghai. As children growing up with multiple languages, Portuguese, French and Chinese, English was unknown. One day, the parents decided that English would be the language spoken at home. My father bought books, new and second-hand, singly and in lots to further this.  I remember these masses of dusty books, English, French, and a few yellowy black bound Portuguese books. As an asthmatic, I was forbidden to go to the library, but I often crept in and breathed deeply of the atmosphere, old paper, leather, coal from the boiler room underneath it, and dust. To me that was the smell of anticipated pleasure. I would find a few books and creep back to the children’s room to read.

The author with her mother and siblings in front of Shanghai House

I was a sickly child often home from school, seldom out unless it was summer. The first three books I ever read by myself were three volumes of a children’s book in French, about the adventures of a doll. When my sister read it to me, she made it exciting and real, and I would look at our dolls and wonder, but I could not create that same sense of wonder and fun when I read them. I thought, and this is the first thought I remember from reading anything, “I am not a baby. This can’t be”

 Illustration: Aditi Nayak

Before I left China at the age of nine, I had read every children’s classic available to me, Arthur Mee’s ‘Children’s Book of Knowledge’ in twenty volumes, Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’, the first ‘Jungle Book’, Alcott’s complete works (well maybe about ten books), and everything I could lay my hands on. I was an academic non- achiever, no good at any game that required running or jumping. So I read.

We came to India in 1951 to a quiet sleepy suburb of Bangalore, which didn’t even have a bus service. A new home, a new school and a new library outside the bungalow, were all strange to us. This had been the room for firewood, a kind of storeroom, red tiled roof, stone floored and infested, we later found out, with termites. The books, hurriedly packed and sent from Shanghai were organized into ‘children’s books”,” grown up books”, “detective fiction” and there were boxes of religious books and music books from my father’s shop. Here I made the happy acquaintance of the rest of Kipling. They were attractive books, thin paper, bound in red leather with gold lettering. There were ten or twelve of them, slim, beautiful to handle and with intriguing black and white drawings. Each had a thin yellow page marker ribbon. Totally oblivious of Kipling’s colonial mindset and his attitude to “natives” I read and re-read these books. I remember the pang of realisation years later that Mowgli, whom I loved, could never have been. That was when we did “feral cases” in Sociology

Another library was the USIL. For a few months, maybe a year, my mother dropped my brother and I off on her way to work, every Saturday. We waited impatiently for ten or fifteen minutes for the shutters to open. Then followed a glorious morning of avid rapid reading. My method was to choose my books, and then try to read as many others as I could before closing time at one. I would also persuade my brother to check out one or two others I wanted. Most often, he was very obliging, but sometimes bribery or blackmail had to be used.  Unusually, I remember only a very few books, ‘The Little House’ series, ‘Pollyanna’, ‘Five Little Peppers’. I remember the delight in the thick covers, the bright colours and lavish illustrations.

In our small new school, classrooms were shared and numbers were low, never more than ten. A library was not a priority. There was ONE glass-fronted cupboard of brown paper-covered books. Mother Annmary, who was in charge, distributed them on rare occasions. You were hardly allowed to choose. You needed to take the book home, cover it in newspaper (to keep the brown paper clean) before reading it. I confess that I kept it clean by removing it and putting it on my clothes shelf. My elder sister, whose room I shared, would help me put on a piece of newspaper the day it had to be returned. Some of the books were so old that the thick paper broke if you turned them carelessly. There were many lives of saints and of impossibly good children. But, there were a couple of Don Camillo books. We read these several times, oblivious of the subtle satire, of the truly inspiring conversations with the crucified Christ. We simply marveled at the priest who could talk to Christ. In the last year of school, the library received six new books. Brand new, hard cover, they were an unimaginable delight.  The longing, the excitement and anticipation can only be understood by a small town, book-starved person. After sixty-one years, I still remember two of them. ‘Appointment with Venus’ (Venus being a cow) and ‘A Pattern of Islands’.

Meanwhile, at home, the stock was growing. All of us received a book or two at Christmas and on birthdays. Richmal Crompton’s ‘Williams’ series was a great favourite.  Enid Blyton appeared on the horizon, given to my youngest sister. I moved to more adult books like ‘The Yearling’, ‘How Green was my Valley’, ‘Rebecca’ and detective fiction. The rule was that you had to ask permission of an adult to read any book except those in the children’s cupboard. I’m sure it was occasionally followed.  We discovered Wodehouse, who delighted us and still does.

The USI library was a source of music and reference books when I did my undergraduate studies at Maharani’s College Bangalore. They lent LPs through which we were introduced to the world of American musicals, singers and instrumentalists. Those were the days when material from “abroad” was scarce, and had a novel magical quality — a fact hardly comprehensible to youngsters of today. The British Council library opened at about that time too, and I spent many happy hours there, reading newspapers, magazines, and finally, taking home the four books allowed. Here I met Virginia Woolf, Maeve Binchy and Penelope Lively, only three whom I remember. But, I read all fiction, and read voraciously. “Suspension of disbelief” was a phrase I had not ever heard of, but I happily and willingly suspended it and was indiscriminate in my choices.  I don’t remember any reference works that I used, but I do remember the calm, quiet, and serene atmosphere, there, the friendly staff and the extremely pleasant experience.

In contrast to these two libraries, our college library was a lonely place; seldom did I have a fellow reader there. The spaces between the shelves were narrow and dimly lit   and you had to take a book to the window to browse and check if you wanted it. There were several heavy books, early editions of Durkheim, Kroeber and other anthropologists/sociologists. Amazingly, any student could borrow them and they opened vistas of knowledge, away from the narrow “notes” dictated by our lecturers.

Marriage and children followed. Reading continued.  We bought sets for children, long before they were born. ’Bookshelf for Boys and Girls’ in blue and gold, an Encyclopedia, 18 fat volumes, (second hand), twelve matching hard cover children’s classics, and another ten-book ‘Young Children’s Encyclopedia ‘ which was full of photos in colour and had a whole book of poetry and songs. My grandchildren in America read that series now.

As our children grew, we also got, one each month, Russian and English classics, Time Life books, ‘The Emergence of Man’ and ‘Great Ages of Man’. And I bought for myself, the ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’. Time Life series, which arrived, one each month, were full of colour and information. Then came the children’s authors, Ransome, Nesbit, Sutcliffe, Crompton, Streatfield among others. All my four children read and were eager to experiment with new authors and find new works by known favourites. My mother emigrated to the US and the remnants of the Shanghai library were left in my house. My children then discovered Christie and Wodehouse. Durrell, Herriot, Chesterton, Tolkien and Asimov were added to our collective experience. The home library grew.

Now we moved to our own home. There was a lot more space for books, but three children were in College and one in standard Twelve and new books came rarely.  I decided to do a distance education Master’s in English Literature from the Mysore University. In spite of half a lifetime of reading, I knew nothing of great literature. I discovered the Greek plays. I was taught Shakespeare in depth and detail. The British Council now became a treasure house. I learned to analyse, to criticise, to compare, to understand literature beyond my imagination. A whole new world of reading revealed itself and I reveled in it. I travelled to Mysore to work in the University Library and to Chennai to work in the US Library. I read restoration drama and the metaphysical poets. This was no rapid reading, waiting for the plot to unfold and the climax to arrive, but slow considered thoughtful analytical reading, a quest for what the writer wanted to say. The library, a source of entertainment for so many years, now became a guide, opening up vistas, huge continents to explore and marvel at. Between the Mysore University and the British Council, I learned how little I know. I didn’t really know how to read.

So I learned to look at plot, characterisation, subtleties of language, metaphors and I learn there is a huge genre called Commonwealth literature, which is actually many genres in one. I learn about the world of literary criticism. I am still learning.

I cannot leave out the exhaustively stocked libraries of Singapore. The little red dot has thirty-five libraries, located so that reading, in four languages is accessible to the whole population. Except on Saturdays and summer holidays, when the murmur and laughter of children’s programmes make the library come alive, they are quiet cool oases in the equatorial heat.

On prolonged grandmotherly duties in the city of Portland, Oregon, I was introduced to Powell’s, which claims to be the largest independent bookstore in the world.  Many rooms of different colours, with a guide to subjects under each colour, a coffee shop, where you are requested not to take more than four books to browse and friendly staff who leave you alone. Powell’s did not have a second-hand book section, but you could find the used and new book on the same shelf and choose either one. It was my first experience of the American bookshop cum coffee shop! Powell’s is an experience in reading pleasure hard to beat.

But, Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, UK, beats Powell’s.  Set up in the old railway station it has converted the waiting rooms and platforms of the Victorian age station into a huge second-hand bookshop. It takes any books you want to sell, and gives you a coupon against which you buy the new ones you choose. It has old comfortable armchairs and sofas, and the station’s refreshment room has the best cup of tea I have ever tasted. I found here, many of the old children’s books that I remember from Shanghai. They are in a special cupboard of antique books. As in Powell’s no one disturbs you. To remind you of its origin, a toy train runs around on a track overhead! It has become a place of pilgrimage for book lovers.

In the last three decades, I have almost completely stopped reading popular fiction.  “What else is there to read?” asked a friend incredulously. Biographies, autobiographies (which often read like fiction) history, travel writing and current affairs are my books now. I have my own little library of books that interest me. One little bookcase of books on Goa, (memoirs, history and fiction), field work in Indian anthropology, and many travel books. I shop for any English translations of vernacular fiction and biography.

I read, as I have been doing for 69 years. I am much more selective. The joy is the same.

50 years later outside Shanghai House

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