For a long time, the word held a special place in my heart. At times, it signified a sinful indulgence, at other times, flights of fancy. And Facebook being Facebook, the recent 10 Book Challenge was sprung at me regularly.
For someone who talks a lot and writes quite a bit, the limited space on Facebook felt claustrophobic. How does one fit in all of what one feels in such a small space? How does one talk about the fantastic covers of the books? Or the smell of the pages that transported you into your own world? Or the smug feeling of satisfaction deep in your heart – when you sit through a Math class knowing you’re going to go back to your room.
Also, most lists seemed like an affirmation of sorts – Enid Blyton, Sherlock Holmes, Paulo Coelho.
Which makes me think, did we all read the same books as children? The entire nation, circulating a few books across each other?
So, here’s my list of 10 books.
Not all of them are great books, but through a combination of chance and scarcity, ended up shaping me in whatever way they did.
1. Chacha Chaudhary
The first book I ever got was a comic of the Beagle Boys.
It’s one of the earliest memories of my life. I must have been about four, and the comic came from a Book Fair that was held near my house. I remember sitting on the bed, staring transfixed at the pages. The colours, the lines, the words – they were all too much for me to make sense.
Till a relative explained the key – follow the speech bubble. Whoever the speech bubble points to, is saying the line. My world opened up after that.
I read the comic over and over. I read it while sitting, and lying down, and having lunch, and watching television. In a few months (or a year, perhaps), I was introduced to Chacha Chaudhary.
I had joined my boarding school at Class 1, and it was the winter holidays. My father and sister had come to take me home for the month long vacation, and brought along with them a Chacha Chaudhary comic.
This time, I was prepared. I was given a quick intro about the characters – of Chacha whose brain worked faster than a computer, and Sabu, who was from Jupiter. Since Jupiter was the largest planet, he was much larger than us earthlings.
I read Chacha Chaudhary comics like a fanatic. I read them on the way home, and while coming back to school. I read them in English, and in Hindi, spending half an hour at the shop, going through the covers (all of them in brilliant, blazing colours), sneaking in a few pages of every one of them before I was rapped on the head and told that the train would leave.
Chacha Chaudhary comics remained a feature of my journeys to home for the next five years. They were also the beginning of my days as a storyteller. Since I was among the few students who read comics, I would begin making up stories of my own to my classmates. As long as the stories contained Chacha and Sabu, my friends believed everything I said.
Once Tingu Master goes to Chacha and says ‘Chacha, I want to win the skating competition, but I can’t skate fast. What do I do?” Chacha says ‘Hmmm, let me think….Ok! I will keep your skates ready for you, come and collect them on the day of the competition.’
On the day of the challenge, Chacha gives Tingu Master the skates and tells him ‘There is a button on the skate. Once the competition starts, press this button. You’ll definitely win.’ Tingu Master starts the race, and then bends down to press the button. From inside the skates, hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches start coming out. All the other skaters scream and fall down, and Tingu Master wins the race.’
Now, the story above was like any other Chacha Chaudhary story. There was very little logic involved. The stories were generally irreverent towards science and common sense, and yet, I devoured them. The addict had gotten his first fix.
2. Fairy Tales
Around my third standard, I felt grown up. I had had my first erection, and the shared knowledge with few of my friends proved that there was a world beyond the one I knew. A world where boys and girls meet and fall in love, hold hands, and get married to each other.
It was around this time, that another transaction from the National Book Fair brought another book home. A collection of fairy tales, the book contained the Who’s Who of the world – from Cinderella to Rapuzel to The Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid.
The book had illustrations on one page, with text next to it. I spent much of my vacations going through its contents, and imagining the same stories with my crushes. If there was a girl with long, luscious hair, I would close my eyes in the afternoon, pretend to be asleep, and imagine her to be Rapunzel. While everyone teased her during class, I would run up to her and tell her I knew of her secret. She would then climb up to the girls dormitory and let down her hair to the second floor, through which I would climb up.
We would then sit and talk about life, love, and food.
The wondrous escapade was cruelly cut short when my mother locked the book up. ‘It contains all love stories’, was her reasoning. I never had it in me to read a fairy tale ever again. The memories of unfulfilled love made it just too painful.
3. Hardy Boys
By the time I was ten, books had become a villain.
They were the epitome of all evil, and somehow could bring destruction to the house – among other things like playing chess, not washing your feet after using the toilet, and sleeping beyond sunrise.
The Hardy Boys were a little more serious than The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, whom I couldn’t take very seriously. How can you be a crime-solving group when one of your members is a dog? A dog? Seriously?
But Hardy Boys gave me the requisite boyish bravado that only pre-teen years offer. By this time, I had begun reading books on the sly. Hiding it from teachers at school, the ayahs at the hostel, and my folks at home.
Every book had to be read while keeping ears out for intruding adversaries. The Hardy Boys didn’t change the course of the world with their adventures, but they didn’t need to. Since I was at an age when I couldn’t probably handle sex, the timorous flirting of the Boys was enough for me.
Girls, you see, in Hardy Boys, did not form the crux of the story. They flitted in and out of the narrative, to keep the boys going. Much like the role girls played in my life back then. I never spoke to any of them, but went about my life, stealing a few glances every now and then.
4. Sherlock Holmes
I remember the day like it was yesterday.
The gate to the school was opened a little so that my father could walk in. Along with a few magazines (Cricket Talk, Sportstar), he handed me three thick books. Each of them had a similar cover, a silhouette of a lanky man smoking a pipe.
I was tired of the Hardy Boys sort of adventures – nobody really died in their stories. The evil people were arrested, and the town felicitated the Boys for the good work. And along came Nancy Drew and the Boys were now wrangling with her while solving cases -it was all too indigestible. I wanted the real thing – blood curling uncertainty, actual crime-solving skills (not the regular ‘Hey, there are some tracks. Let’s follow them….oh! Look, there’s a dead body – Fuck that!)
And that is when Mr. Holmes walked into my life. I read The Hound of Baskerville on a train, looking out of the window every once in a while to check if there was a creature pouncing out at me.
Since he was famous, nobody could admonish me for reading his books, even if the sly remarks continued unfettered. It is difficult to explain the effect Mr. Holmes had on me.
This was the age when strange things were happening to our bodies and minds. Dark, evil thoughts were brewing, bubbling up into thick, frothy evil that formed pimples on our faces. Mr. Holmes helped me wade through such turbulent times with his skills. I would look at a classmate and try to guess where he was playing in the playground. Look at the mud at the back of his feet, he must be playing near the Boiler on the girls side. Sissy fellow!
In the event of a heinous crime (a stolen book, or someone writing ‘You Love Nandita Sister’ on another’s notebook), I used whatever Mr. Holmes taught me.
5. Sidney Sheldon
He looked at the hair strewn at the bottom of the shower. Pubic Hair. It belonged to a man. He knew that men had curlier hair down there than women did.
When I first read these lines, I knew not how to react. ‘Are people allowed to write stuff like this? Don’t they go to jail?’
For a long time, I assumed Sidney Sheldon was a woman. Only a woman could write in such a way, I thought. I was in Class 8, and well past the Sherlock Holmes stage. I mean, the adventures were thrilling, but Mr. Holmes was a tad clumsy around women. And this led to rare meetings with women, excepting the times when Mr. Holmes sat on his chair and moped about ‘her’. I wanted a little more, a little…ahem…more.
We used to go to the temple in the ashram for prayers and bhajans every day. For three hours, we were expected to cleanse our minds from all evil, and sing and clap and pray to God, hail his benevolence in creating the world, and pray for redemption from sins.While my brethren sang, prayed, or picked their nose and slyly rubbed it on the mats, I filled my mind with evil.
We were allowed to carry school books, and spiritual books to the temple. If you were caught with a novel, your ears would be pinched till you felt like Evander Holyfield. In such trying circumstances, I chose to carry Sidney Sheldon with me. I wrapped the book in newspaper, made sure it fit snug, and then slipped the book inside my shirt. I made sure I walked with my back straight, to avoid looking like I was to give birth to a paperback.
The books were passed on through an underground circle of novel-readers. I remember being pissed off when a senior flipped through a book, tore off a page, and then gave it to me. ‘You should not read those pages. They are very bad’. I never did that to my friends or juniors, though.
I got caught on a number of occasions, of course. The teachers were adults, and they’d met thousands of guys like me. But I had my days too. If I had a friend who was studious, I would beg him to carry the book for me. And once the item was successfully smuggled in, I had to race through it to ensure I didn’t have to smuggle it in the next day too.
Sidney Sheldon was my first exposure to sexuality. Since every book had an attractive female character who often indulged in wild sexual escapades, for a long time, I thought it was the norm.
6. Harry Potter
Class 9. I had been reading about Harry Potter in the Literary section of The Hindu. There were pictures of fat British kids standing in line for days to get their hands on the books, and glowing reviews of every one that came out.
But I had read Sidney Sheldon. What use would I have of such kiddy trivialities like magic brooms and flying witches? I smirked at anyone reading the books, walking past them towards the bathroom so that I could spend quality time with Lara Cameron.
I had fallen sick, and was required to spend a few days off school, lying on the bed in my room. I spent one day eating the bland food, listening to the prayers and recitations from the school building, bored out of my mind. It was then that I ventured out to ask a junior if he could lend me a Harry Potter book.
It was The Prisoner of Azkaban. I was reading it with hidden contempt, of course. But pages turned, into chapters, and as I read on, I slowly turned into a maniac. I devoured the book in two days, hiding it under my bed when a teacher walked in. I extended my fever by a few more days, going on to read the fourth book. I went back to the first and second, and then again to the third and fourth.
Harry Potter was the first time I felt the magical flights of fantasy that books could take one into. Agreed, I was a tad older than the target audience, but what are such trivialities in a magical world?
7. Letters to Penthouse
Summer holidays. Ladybird bicycle.
I had discovered a set of shops near the railway station that sold sinful books to innocuous teenagers as me. It had happened after I had run through all his books, shaking my head in disappointment as the many colourful, glossy covers failed to entice me.
It was then that the man nodded, and asked me to get into his shop. I crouched in, while he looked around nervously, and slipped his hand into a hidden chamber, and pulled out a set of books – Letters to Penthouse.
These were sinful books of the sinful category. There was no going back from these, and you couldn’t even cloud your conscience with the fact that they were just portions of a larger story. Letters to Penthouse left no scope for imagination or redemption. And I had to read a book on the terrace, ensuring sweat (and anything else) doesn’t spill on to the already seedy pages. I then had to rush back to the shop near the railway station, give him the book, an additional 100 rupees, and another session on the terrace.
I have been wondering if I should write to you for a long time.
My name is Mary. I am 33 years old, with blonde hair, and…
8. Kafka on the Shore
Years passed, and books had become a staple in my life.
They didn’t thrill me in the manner that they did back in teenage. Books at this age were a part of my personality. It is unfortunate that by the time we get into college, we are unofficially segregated into two categories – book readers, and non-book readers.
I fell into the first category, spending many a day convincing friends to start reading. Read this book – Five Point Someone – it will change your life. No, really. I swear.
Books were no more an escape into a magical world, they were an excess. A luxury amidst the dust and grime of the world. I wish I could say I read a lot of books in this gap. But I didn’t. I read whatever was selling like hotcakes – from Dan Brown to Archer to Coelho. But none of them shook me up in the real sense.
Till I came across Kafka on the Shore. For those of you who haven’t read Murakami, it is difficult to put into words what he does. So I shall not venture into it.
It was the time I had gotten my first smartphone – a 3.2 inch piece of shit called HTC Explorer. When it wasn’t getting hung, it allowed me a few luxuries. One of them was Aldiko, with its bare basic graphics.
Kafka on the Shore is about a journey, and that is how I read the book. Travelling from Hyderabad to Kurnool, reading it in bus stands, railways stations, smelly buses, and back-breaking back seats.
As soon as I finished the book, I felt dark clouds of sadness. As we grow up, very few things move us. And you can tell when you have completed one such experience.
9. The Mine by Arnab Ray
By now, I had a blog that was fairly popular. I ha begun nurturing ambitions of writing a book myself. But I couldn’t bring myself to write about love and friendship – the two reigning forces in our literary world today.
I had begun reading Greatbong’s blog, and it was liberating to see another creature of the same species. Greatbong wrote precisely about the things I cared – crickets, films, politics, Gunda, et al.
And so when he announced that his second book was to be in the genre of horror, I was intrigued. This genial Bengali chap, who wrote about fluffy things, could he pull off a horror?
And boy, was I surprised. The Mine is a delightful book because it plays to no galleries. It is horror for horror’s sake, and yet it isn’t the creepy manor in eerie cottage sort of American horror.
The Mine, apart from keeping me glued, gave me some hope for Indian writing. And I don’t mean the posh-ass Amitava Ghosh, Vikram Seth writing. I mean the ‘Oye, that gandu is writing a book, it seems’ sort of writing.
The Mine is a bold book, and one that gave me confidence to think beyond a campus, a girl, and a love triangle.
10. Xanadu Nights by Hriday Ranjan
The one thought that is a ripple of pleasure, and a pang of guilt.
The one struggle I plan to get rid of by the end of this year.
Please buy the book (when it does eventually come out).
Sorry for the KLPD.
I hope you understand.