Growing up With Books: A Tale of Three Generations

I clearly remember when my younger brother and I stopped fighting. It was the night he found me in the ‘restricted section’ of the library at home. He caught me red-handed, crouching behind the shoe shelf, reading a book of short stories based on the Kama Sutra in the light of a pencil torch.

We were both in our early teens at that time. I was so embarrassed that it didn’t occur to me to ask him what he was doing there at 2 am. This incidence gave him a casual upper hand in our relationship for almost half a year.

We were both bookworms, my brother and I, and often got into fights over who’d be the first to read Kishor, the children’s magazine that arrived in the post every month. Our parents always had to buy an even number of Amar Chitra Kathas for train journeys. For a few years, we were limited to reading Marathi, our mother tongue, but the sky was the limit once English entered our lives.

Our parents didn’t really censor our reading material, but there were books, and we knew exactly where they were, that were implicitly ‘not for kids’. This obviously meant sex, violence and all things wonderful. There was one summer I remember, at the end of which, each of us, unbeknown to the other, had snuck these books out and read them all.

Juicy books apart, we devoured any book. I guess a major reason for this was that there were no distractions those days – no TV, no computers. Nagpur got television only when the Asian Games came to India the second time. All we had before that were tangibles: friends and books. Today’s electronic world has almost completely demolished that bookworm infestation.

A friend of mine used to worry that his baby would grow up to not be a foodie. For me, the worry was having a child who didn’t like stories; didn’t like to read, listen to or tell stories. That was my nightmare. So, when I became pregnant, I decided to tilt the balance in my favour. I took a leaf out of the great Indian epic The Mahabharata.

The story of Abhimanyu goes thus: There was once a big battle, and the enemy captain organised his army in a complex pattern that was very hard to breach. The only two warriors who knew how to break through such an arrangement were elsewhere.

A young prince came forward. “I can take you in,” he said to his men. “I learnt it when I was in my mother’s womb, when my uncle described to her how it can be done. But I can’t bring you out.”

So, he led his men into this maze-like arrangement of the enemy army where they did a lot of damage. The Mahabharata tells us that the prince never returned, since his uncle had neglected to explain to his mother the strategy to exit.

Also read: An Ode to a Translator

So there! I wanted to raise a story-lover, so I told stories to and chatted with my bulging tummy all through my pregnancy.

I was in California when my daughter was born. There were two fantastic public libraries, both at a walking distance from my house. We went there often, she in the stroller, the bottom of which was used to carry our bookbag. Initially she was too little to demand conversation, and I could walk everywhere with an audio-book plugged into my ears, but soon that stopped being an option.

The little girl liked the library, but more than that, she liked to talk. She liked words. Once she could, she talked to us, to her toys and to the squirrels in the trees. Initially, any big person was a ‘giant’ and any pretty house was a ‘palace’, but soon the nuances started to appear in her vocabulary. Sentences like “I am crying…not screaming!”, and “it not night, it’s just dark” commonly emerged from her. She used words like ‘attitudic’ and ‘withstandable’, appropriating the English language for her own purposes.

When we were kids, my father spent a lot of time getting us to say words. Big or small, we had to repeat any new word he introduced to us. We repeated after him ‘Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’, broken into six parts, till we mastered it. He also asked us to give him ‘five names’ of things; they could be birds, countries, flowers, rivers, book characters…whatever picked his fancy. Then, there were synonyms and homonyms, in English and in Marathi. Whenever he had time, we were barraged with these lists. It must have helped somewhere, since I ended up loving the written word. I tried some of this with my daughter.

She is now old enough to have her own favourite books, her own favourite genres. Not all my best-loved stories are her best-loved stories. We have had fun though, reading old stories like Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder), and the new ones like The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had (Kristin Levine) and ‘Penderwicks’ (Jeanne Birdsall). As she developed her own likes and dislikes, she demanded an explanation for my lukewarm response to the Percy Jackson series (Rick Riordan), and was tickled when I enjoyed Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer). I too have suppressed my disappointment at her impatience when attempting to read Jane Austen, and have felt relieved when she recognised the brilliance of Steinbeck.

In many schools today, writing is given serious consideration. Some urban schools have libraries, and good ones at that. Students are expected to put in effort in reading as well as writing. I came across an interesting assignment where the class was asked to write a passage in ‘narrative’ and ‘descriptive’ forms, one not interchangeable with the other. The children are taught the craft behind poetry. They learn different ways in which words can be arranged to fit (or not fit) a formula. They are encouraged to use better, more complex words, to reach for higher quality of writing. It is fun to watch them count syllables and shuffle words around to make the lines of their verse more exciting.

We too, in our times, learnt different classical arrangements of words to form a ‘Vritta’ in Marathi, but never was it expected of us to try writing one ourselves. I find myself envying the new generation of school kids for what they have access to.

But of course, just having access isn’t enough. There has to be someone relentlessly talking to them… preferably right from those early days in the womb.

Narmada Khare is a student and a teacher, a reader and a writer. And she likes all things biology.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty