One Sunday morning when we were living in Calcutta, my father announced that we would be moving to Bangalore. His office had transferred him there for a project. What was a project, and where was Bangalore, demanded my sister, who was just six, and therefore had questions about everything. My mother murmured something about work and machines, and took out the atlas.
I remained silent. I was in Class 4, I had seen the map of India many times and knew roughly where Bangalore was, but I didn’t want to move anywhere. I didn’t want to move away from my dozens of friends in the building, my school, and my city.
We moved in the middle of the first term. I remained angry and resentful as we packed my new school uniforms: why were we taking them? I wouldn’t be using them anyway because they were THIS school’s uniforms! I didn’t want to go to school in ANY OTHER city! I wouldn’t know anyone there!
My mother reminded me soothingly that I should carry a book for the flight. I replied that I had finished reading all the Enid Blytons that Enid Blyton had ever written. My mother said she would give me something else to read.
Unhappily, I watched as the packers sorted and packed the variegated strands of our lives into a tidy set of boxes.
In the plane, I sat in sullen silence in the window seat. After settling my sister and snapping on her seat belt, my mother took out a magazine for herself – it must have been a Woman’s Era or a Femina – and a book for me. I looked at the title: Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb. It didn’t even seem like a new book. It looked drab and felt old. I was already angry at being forced to leave my friends, and on top of it all this seemed like a terribly boring book. I thought of asking my mother for her magazine instead, but she was already immersed in it. I flipped through the pages of the book crossly and opened it at random.
Within minutes, I was wondering if we would have a plane crash like the shipwreck in a story titled Twelfth Night. Would my sister and I be separated like Sebastian and Viola? “The ship, on board of which they were, split on a rock in a violent storm…”
It was a long flight. While my sister fell asleep, and then my mother, with her magazine folded on her lap, I read on.
In Calcutta, we had lived in a warm, buzzing apartment building; in Bangalore, we found ourselves in a cool, silent house with a garden all around. There were two gates for the compound. I opened one gate and stepped out on the road, blinking in the sunlight. I couldn’t see a single other child.
It felt like another land altogether. I was Viola, “in a strange country, so far from home.”
I explored. I found that the house had a terrace. A washing stone. A tree with yellow flowers which my mother told me was a sampige tree. A burst of papery pink and white flowers which, I learned, were called bougainvillea. A beehive.
I curled up in a corner of the garden, on a cool red oxide platform, and opened the book again. This was Illyria and I would find a way to live here.
That year, my sister got a high fever. Typhoid, said the doctor. My mother sat by her bedside for hours every day, sponging her with ice to bring down the fever. Too busy to follow up with the slow school tailor, she asked the principal to let me wear my Calcutta school pinafores until the new uniforms were ready. And so, dressed in white while all the other girls wore green tunics, in the unforgiving world of middle school, I became Viola every day. Fierce, prickly, and brave Viola. Things were unfamiliar, but I was in disguise. I would survive.
The Lamb retellings contained a glimpse of the riches that lay ahead. I loved the intricacies in the plots. Something about the ways in which people weren’t all good or all bad, but often a confounding mix of both, told me that at the very least, the world would be an interesting place.
Reading literature in high school, college and university, I would be drawn into the unending adventure of Shakespeare: the language, the sharp imagery, the surging emotions, the moments of great beauty, the flashes of savagery, the heartbreak, the wisdom. And oh – the freshness of new interpretations! The dark textures of Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool. The delightful silliness of The Handlebards’ Hamlet. The colourful spectacle of Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya.
Stories matter. Shakespeare’s stories are alive today not because they tell us about the Bard and his times, but because they speak to our innermost selves.
In primary school, my two small sons have been learning about ‘story mountains’ – or what we later describe as plot structure. Children love mountain imagery. If the plays of Shakespeare are peaks in a great mountain range, the Lamb retellings are a sturdy base camp along the way. And so last year, when as a parent, it was time to move cities once again for work, and my two little boys protested spiritedly – because, in a familiar refrain, they didn’t want to leave their friends in THIS city and go to THAT city – it was to the story mountains that I turned again. The stories in which exciting and slightly dangerous things could happen on far off journeys, bringing brave young people into new lands. “Once upon a time,” I began, “there were twins named Sebastian and Viola, and they had a shipwreck in a violent storm…”
“Can I be Sebastian?” asked my nine-year old. “And can I be Viola?” asked his little brother. I knew then that the stories would continue to guide us on this new journey.
This personal essay was first published in The Hindu on 24 April 2016.