Some of my earliest memories are of going with Mummy to the Higginbothams in Bangalore, greedily exploring the shelves and choosing the book I wanted. Then returning to my grandparent's house to curl up in a corner and lose myself in the exploits of Noddy, Big Ears, Mr. Plod, Tess, and of course, Noddy's red-and-yellow car (Praap ! Praap!).
A year – or maybe two later, I remember waking up early one cold, foggy morning in Ambala to find that Daddy had returned from an outstation trip with 'The O'Sullivan Twins' – my first foray into the St. Clare's series. In due course of time, I moved on to other series by Enid Blyton – MaloryTowers, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, The Five Find Outers etc. (p.s. was 'Brer Rabbit' also an Enid Blyton invention ?) My most constant and cherished friends in my early years were those books; I think I learnt more about good manners, integrity and character from Ms. Theobald, Mrs. Jenks, Mrs. Cornwallis and Ms. Peters than I ever did from any teacher in school.
For reading material more rooted in Indianness, one depended on Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha comics and Target magazine. At that time, there were hardly any children's books by Indian authors. A lot of one's early knowledge of Indian history came from Amar Chitra Katha comics, parts of epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, also tales about the buildingof the Taj Mahal, about Birbal, Vikramaditya, Tipu Sultan, Sher Shah Suri etc. One's idea of feminine beauty was also largely based on Amar Chitra Katha heroines – graceful, curvaceous figure, lovely big eyes, heart shaped face and long, lustrous tresses. Tinkle with Suppandi and Shikari Shambhu was entertainment interspersed with some general knowledge. Target was my all time favourite then as it featured lots of stories about children like me and my friends and I could easily identify with their adventures.
Once all my relatives knew that little Zenobia (yes, I was little once, a long long looong time ago) preferred books to dolls, visits from or to relatives meant more books as presents. There exists a snap of my familywith my uncles in which I can be seen clutching tightly my present – an abridged version of 'War of the Worlds'. Does anyone remember those small pocket versions of classics – I had 'War of the Worlds', 'Time Machine' and ‘Last of the Mohicans’.
My happiest vacations were in my maternal grandparents house where the attic was full of bundles of books, wrapped in newspaper, bound with twine and covered in dust; and my normally stern grandfather had given me carte blanche to unwrap and read anything. It was like participating in a 'lucky dip' each time I picked up and unwrapped a new bundle, one never knew what one would end up with. There were tons of old issues of Readers Digest – Grandpa had been a subscriber from the very beginning. Then there were the stacks of Readers Digest Condensed Versions – big fat tomes solemnly trying to live up to the dignified dark green / brown binding and the majestic gold lettering on the spine. There were old classics – all of Jane Austen's work, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick etc – these were the ones I read, the rest were too weighty for me to even attempt ! To satisfy one's need for zippy thrillers, there were lots of Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason detective novels, does anyone remember who played Kitty to his Karamchand ? ) and Agatha Christie novels.
Days consisted of sipping fragrant hot tea in the morning and reading; chilled rasna lime / rasna mango in the afternoons and reading some more; while a steady stream of snacks and meals found it's way to my stomach. Until it got hot one sat in a rocking chair under a tree or on the swing in the porch, later one moved to a spot close to the fan. Longish spells of reading were broken only by intervals of playing cards with or chatting to grandparents. Evenings were reserved for visits to the sea-side, back home for dinner and TV watching, and then to bed with a book.
And Oh ! the book inspired adventures. Like finding an old abandoned decrepit temple in a forest near our house in Tambaram and exploring it carefully during the day with friends for hidden treasure or unknown ghosts. Or starting our own Secret Seven Club to find out who the bicycle thief on campus was. Having meetings to analyse clues and discuss the progress of our investigation – we would have done a parliamentary committee proud with our lengthy deliberations. Of course all meetings included juice and snacks thoughtfully provided by a club member's mother. Apart from going through enough snacks to feed an army and keeping us occupied throughout the holidays, our club didn't achieve much, though maybe it honed our 'analytical ability and reasoning skills'. ;-)
Books got me into trouble quite often too. Once, when I was about ten years old, some neighbours saw me reading a book while walking by the side of the main road. They decided to tell my father the next time they met him, which unfortunately was at a party. I got a solid firing from my father in front of 25-30 people, to add to my misery he also threatened to cancel my library card. Another time I left an Archies comic that belonged to my grandfather's friend on top of the flush tank in the loo, and due to some thoughtless person using the shower to bathe, it got wet. That was another time I came close to having my borrowing privileges curtailed, I also got a lecture on carelessness vs. responsibility and treating books properly that I will never forget.
Zenobia D. Driver