I have been reading ever since I can remember – books were the main pleasure of my life. In a childhood spent in the absence of TV, video and computers, books and the occasional movie were the “time pass” for a non-athletic boy severely lacking in physical intelligence and the social graces. Thankfully, I had an educated and liberal family filled with readers. Books were available without restriction. The literary journal Mathrubhoomi, filled with articles, stories and poems by the great writers of Malayalam, arrived weekly on the doorstep. It had a children’s section edited by “Kuttettan” (the poet Kunjunni), aimed at budding readers and writers, which was eagerly consumed by myself the moment I got the magazine in hand. I also used to stare at the beautiful illustrations by the famous artist Nampoothiri, drawn for the serialised novels – now I realise that most of those novels were later award-winners (Khasakkinte Ithihaasam, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, etc.)
But the real treat came during the summer vacations spent in my ancestral home at Thrissur. This is a huge house (still very much existing!) filled with cavernous rooms exuding the musty and mysterious smell of old dwellings. Apart from the vacation pleasures of the Vishu festival, the famous “Thrissur Pooram” and the attendant festivities, it meant to me two months uninterrupted reading, unspoilt by the need to mug up boring text books. I would spend the major part of the day reading – in my bed; in the drawing room after dinner when the family was chatting, oblivious to them all; even up a tree! It was absolute bliss.
There is an “Exhibition” in connection with the Pooram festival: several visits to this event was a must. In those days, the Soviet Union was very much a live entity, and the exhibition invariably had a stall for “Prabhat Book House”, the authorised publishers of Soviet books in India. This stall was virtually a treasure trove for me: one used to get beautiful illustrated books of Russian fairy tales, printed on glossy paper in beautiful colours, for throwaway prices. This was my first introduction to the magical world of fairy stories – I still remember them, along with the taste of popcorn I used to buy from another stall alongside.
Another memory is of the “detective novels” (as we used to call mysteries, in Malayalam) I graduated to from the picture books. There used to be an old unused building in our compound where a lot of this category of old books, leftovers from my grandmother’s, mother’s and aunts’ childhoods, were kept. These were kept in a dark room, and there was the weekly ritual of going to collect books to read (an adult always accompanied me). I still remember the thrill of anticipation as the room was opened and the musty smell of old books hit me – the feeling was almost religious, that of entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. The novels were stacked on the floor. Most of them were very old so that the pages tore at the slightest hint of rough use; there was also the scourge of old buildings – termites – so that many pages were eaten away, and piecing together the story was itself the job for a detective! Still I loved these pulp novels, many of them plagiarised English mysteries (Sherlock Holmes changed to “Swarloka Hamsan” – you get the picture!) and some of them original though with highly improbable plot lines. The authors were extremely popular writers of that era (Kottayam Pushpanath, Neelakantan Paramara etc.), to a populace that was still largely ignorant of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.
The library is also another fond memory. The Public Library of Thrissur is housed in the Town Hall, an old building with vaulted ceilings and huge bay windows. The walls are fitted with shelves, thickly lined with old books bound in paper and leather. The afternoons spent there were heavenly – dreaming with a book open in my lap, looking at the dust motes dancing in the late afternoon sunlight slanting in through the windows. I made my first acquaintance of Enid Blyton there, an acquaintance which was to stay with me right through to my early teens until I discovered Agatha Christie and the Hardy Boys.
(To be continued…)