Today we bought half of the total Amar Chitra Katha books ever printed for my three and a half year old daughter. To tell you the truth, I wanted to buy it and when my wife found the Rs 5000 mark a little high….I had to start firing from my daughter’s shoulders.
Not a bad bargain, though. For every one hour I spend with the Amar Chitra Katha comics…I need to spend 30 minutes reading them for Rhea. That’s not difficult because my daughter is a dedicated listener. Just in case you didn’t know….she already has 137 story books – more than what I had when I started working.
Rekha and I have a strategy. We plan to make Rhea the most well read person in our family by the time she turns 10. That should be easy, for the current most read person in our whole, extended family has only read 700 odd fiction & non-fiction books….and that’s me. If I were to include my school & college books the count could go up marginally.
Initially, my father wasn’t a book-friendly person…so till I was eight years old I hadn’t read anything other than my school books. The first time we had ever gone to a book stall was when we went to the park we frequented, and somebody had set up a few book stalls. We roamed around for a while, and when I pestered my father he grudgingly bought me Swami Vivekananda’s book titled Raja Yoga only because it was subsidized and could be bought for only Rs 3. Mind you, back then I was only 9 years old…..and I was being bought Swami Vivekananda’s book titled Raja Yoga.
I wouldn’t have managed to read so many books if my father hadn’t changed mid-way. I want to do for Rhea, what my father did for me.
In the mid 80s my father was posted in Sikkim and couldn’t take his family along (or maybe he was fooling my mom….its too late to delve into it now) and thus he got us a rented accommodation in Chennai in 1985 and asked us to stay there till his 2 years tenure at Sikkim got over. He enrolled me and my sisters at CRPF Kendriya Vidhyalaya, Avadi and went back to Sikkim.
My father came back in three months – on a 10-day break – to see if we had settled down. We had indeed settled down well but there was one small issue: The evenings were boring because our father wasn’t there.
My father spent time thinking and then approached me: “Rajan, you like making stories, right?”
“Yes, father.” Sometimes my father would state the obvious.
“Yes I remember your very first story…about a Jeep that had no driver but ran over dog shit….and then drove on the grass to remove the dog shit from the tires.”
*Guys, its true…apparently this was the first story I narrated when I was four years old. My mother still narrates it to our relatives & friends.
“Yes, father….but why think of that now. I am 10 years old now…and have better stories to tell.”
“Wouldn’t you want to know the stories others are trying to tell?”
“Sure pa…but how do I do that?” I was curious now. He had caught my attention.
The same evening we walked to a rental library in Ambattur, Chennai and I got my first library membership card. I know you won’t believe it but my membership card number was 786. Yes, 786! Wish I had it now to scan it and prove it to you guys.
The deal was simple…I could borrow a book for a fortnight, and if I returned it in a fortnight I would be charged Rs 2. If I returned it within the week, I would be charged Rs 1. And we could rent a maximum of 3 books at the same time.
Once we were out of the library, my father held my hand and said: “Rajan, you should read as many books as possible. Ok?”
“And one more thing….you should try and read exactly five books in a month.”
My father didn’t answer my question and we walked back home. I kept wondering why I had to read exactly five books in a month.
I also tried to ask him why he had changed…why was he now willing to spend money on books. But he brushed me aside saying he would explain when I could understand.
After his casual leave was over, my father left for Sikkim.
After a few days when I started for the library, my mother reminded me: “Rajan, remember the five books rule.”
“Sure I would. But why should I read exactly five books every month?”
My mother smiled. But behind the smile there was an expression which I was too young to understand. Even as I wondered if I had asked the wrong question, my mother answered: “That’s because your library budget is Rs 10. Your father can afford to send us Rs 1500, out of which we can afford to earmark Rs 10 for your library.”
I didn’t say anything. Back in those days ten-year-olds were smart enough to understand money. My mother continued: “That’s why, if you read anything less than five books in a month…you are under-utilizing what we think we owe you. And if you read more than five books…we can’t afford it.”
From that day, I devised my strategy to read as many books as possible by giving away the minimum amount of money. Here is what I did:
This way, I was able to complete at least 25+8 books = 33 books….and instead of paying Rs 66 at the end of the month we were paying only Rs 8. I was saving my parents Rs 2 every month.
Mind you, back then CRPF Kendriya Vidhyalaya, Avadi, Chennai allowed only children in classes nine and above to borrow books – others only got to read during the library period.
When we shifted to Kendriya Vidhyala, Ballugunge, Kolkata….two miracles happened for me. First…the school allowed students of eight standard to borrow books and second, I got a study desk of my own which made reading books easy.
By now I was always seen with a book. If at all, an individual has taken a book inside an Indian lavatory, it ought to be me. Let me assure you that reading a book inside an Indian lavatory is like balancing on a rope – hold the tap with one hand, and hold the book with another. You had to turn the pages in 1/3 of a second – just the time it takes to lose your balance when you are not holding the tap.
When in class eight, I moved out from Franklin W Dixon’s Hardy Boys series and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series to Alister Maclean’s books like Force 10 From Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Fear is the Key etc. Not to mention authors like Douglas Reeman (an amazing Naval story teller. He wrote looks like A Prayer for the Ship, Send a Gunboat, The Last Raider etc), CS Forrester (another Naval warfare story teller with books titled Hornblower in the West Indies, Hunting the Bismarck and The Man in the Yellow Raft) and Jack Higgins’ (I liked him for his outlandish plots in books like The Eagle has Landed, The Savage Day etc).
*Maybe I read too much of the Naval story tellers, and that’s why when asked to choose between the Naval, Army or Air Force wing of NCC in College….I chose Naval Wing. Not knowing that being in the Naval Wing of NCC meant washing your uniform every week.
Over the years my preferences in books have kept on changing, and now I only read humor books. My favourite authors of today are Bill Cosby, Sue Townsend, Erma Bombeck, PG Wodehouse, Dave Barry etc. Now-a-days, I spend at least 2-3 days – reading reviews – and deciding if I need to buy a particular book. I also don’t read as much as I would like because my work, wife and daughter keep me busy. But as soon as I finish reading a good book, I thank my father for introducing me to the concept of reading.
It was 2005 – one year after Rekha and I got married – my father was diagnosed with Oesophagal cancer. A dangerous disease if it happens to somebody you love…and a black hole if it happens to somebody you don’t personally know.
Both Rekha and I were working in Chennai and we spent every weekend in Madurai, to help out my mother who was almost single-handedly helping my father fight the dreaded disease.
On one such weekend, after spending the Saturday night at the Apollo Hospital with my ailing father….I started to leave for home. For no reason, I turned towards my father and said: “Father, do you want me to get something from home? I will be back by 12 noon.”
My father thought for a while and said: “Bring me the best book you have read. I feel like reading something today.”
At 12 noon, when I gave him the tattered, old Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga book, he took it and kept staring at the ceiling for a while and then turned away to hide his tears. But he didn’t succeed.
We sat there holding hands and not saying anything. I didn’t try to hide my tears for I wanted him to know that he had bought the best book I had ever read.
One month later, as I sat next to him he breathed his last. The good part is, the seed he had sowed is now a tree…and some day his life just might be a book.
PS: Rhea loves Amar Chitra Katha…the two of us spent an hour today with the story of Karna.