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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Divya and I were talking about books the other day and quite predictably, about favorite authors and favorite books. Unlike similar conversations I have had with others, where we’d talk about the most recent book we had read, I found myself talking about some of earliest books I have read. And because they were the first books I’d read (and because I did not read a lot back then), they have a very special place in my book-list. We rewound my book-list enough to get me thinking on what has been occupying my mind for the past few days – what triggered my love for reading in the first place? Let me confess right away – I am not the most ardent reader I’ve met. In fact, most of my friends from college grew up ingesting just about anything that had letters on them. (Yeah, most of my book-friends are from college. The few school guys who read a lot now, didn’t read so much back then) I wasn’t so much into books for a while, though I read in patches till I was in middle-school and I finally got hooked on, thanks to my brother. But this post is not so much about the books that I’ve read as it is about why I started reading. The big question is easy enough to answer – I love reading because I love stories. As a kid, nothing got me more excited than listening to stories and the fact that I did not mind who the story-teller was, widened the horizon for me. So, in a sense, this post is a tribute to all the story-tellers who showed me the way to a whole new and an ever-expanding world of books.

As far as my abysmal memory takes me, I’d say my mom was the first story-teller and Ramayana was the first story. I now know that she was reading Kamba Ramayanam; back then it was just an old, fat, yellowing book which she read incessantly. I used to sit next to her and nag her to recount the story to me. She’d read a few pages, distill it and tell me stories as she fed me, but always ending with a moral. I guess she realizes now that I spat out most of the morals, along with the veggies. I vividly remember the ‘stories’ of the encounter between Raavana and Jatayu and Vali and Sugreeva and I secretly admired Vibeeshana. And these are the seeds for my love for secondary characters over the main ones – Karna over Arjuna, Bob Andrews over Jupiter Jones, Iago over Othello, Sirius over Harry, Peter over Heidi, Jughead over Archie, Haddock over Tintin and many of the now-forgotten characters in Fear Street.

As soon as I realized that my mom was censoring most of the interesting aspects of the story, I shifted my ears to my brother. We shared a room for a long time and the night times were a nightmare for him because I wouldn’t let him sleep unless he told me “just one story, promiseeee”. And what a story-teller he was! He would add enough masala to make the story interesting and yet, not enough salt to make it realistic. The build-ups, the voice modulation, the suspense, the drama – he told a story in a way only master story-tellers do. Among the many thing I’ve learned from him, is to interpret a situation, the characters and their mindset and how there are no ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’, but only characters. I don’t remember most of what he told me because he must have told me over 3 years’ worth of stories, but I do remember one and what a story it was – Macbeth! He was in college then and I was still in middle school – his understanding and interpretation met its match against my imagination and enthusiasm! Macbeth remains one of my favorite stories till date, though I’ve been meaning to read an unabridged version for ages now.

The timeline between mom’s Ramayan and bro’s Macbeth is extremely blurry. I know there are a lot of people who influenced me through their stories –  my thatha, Sudha Miss, Prema Miss, Vidya Vageesh Miss and a whole lot of others but there are 2 people who stand out as prominently, if not more, as my mom and bro. One of them is a person who is as anonymous posthumously as he was alive. No, I mean no disrespect, it is just how I saw him. He was married to my neighbor, a remarkable lady, who I call Athai, who deserves a separate post altogether. His name was Uncle and that is the only personal information I know about him. He was a tall, thin, extremely nervous man, with wavy gray hair, thick square spectacles below an ash-smeared forehead. He spoke with a quiver and you had to strain your ears to hear him. He was a shy, submissive and a very nervous man, who was extremely soft spoken, whenever he spoke. I am pretty sure there was a black story to their marriage because people were very awkward around him and because he was living in her house and in an orthodox Brahmin household, that’s well, ouch!  I remember his room, if it can be called that – it was extremely small, an add-on the the stairwell, with a sloping ceiling, where the brick-roof of the house sloped. There used to be a table, 2 chairs and I cannot be sure if there were any walls, because all I could see were books. If your imagination conjures up a dungeon where portions are brewed, a wine-cellar with books instead of casks or a shady shack where black magic is performed, you’re not far off from the truth. He never spoke to anyone (or probably the other way around) and the only person who had unquestioned access to his room and books was yours truly. Of course, I didn’t read those books, because most of them were in Tamil and Sanskrit and I was too young to read anyway. He spent all day in his room, coming down only to eat, bathe, pray and sleep. When I was in his room, and I was there hours on end during vacations, he would tell me stories – Dasavatharam, Ramayana, Mahabaratha and a thousand other stories that figure somewhere between these three. I was lost in the world of sages and boons,  kings and war, devas and rakshasas and mantras and monkeys. Then one day he passed away as quietly as he had lived. I don’t know what was the problem with him, though I know there were a lot. I don’t know if he made a positive difference to Athai’s life, but he sure made one on mine.

The other person who impacted my love for stories (and therefore my reading habit) is a very special person. He is the only other person in the world who can make sense of this post’s title before reading this paragraph. Arvind is as old a friend as a 22-year old can have. I don’t know when I met him (though for some reason both of us maintain that we met in the boy’s toilet when we were in the LKG), but he was been my buddy for almost 20 years now. Now, I can easily write an entire book on him, Rohit and Ganesh, my other old friends (and I nearly started one a few years back!) but this post, as you’ve seen, is very niche. Arvind is many things to many people, but to me he’s a master story-teller. We had sad excuses for excursions in school with trips to Vandallur Zoo, Chembarambakam Lake and many such open-‘air’ places under an unforgiving sun. Few things made excursions fun for me – the concept of an excursion (naturally), the bisibela bath and potato curry for lunch, the anthakshari contest and Arvind’s stories. Yes, many people, not even Rohit and Ganesh, don’t know this, but Arvind used to tell me endless stories (actually one story that was endless) during these excursions. I remember coaxing and cajoling him a few days before excursions, politely reminding him about the story he had to come ready with. I’d fight for a seat next to him (and it was quite a fight, considering how popular he was even then) and happily hear the story of the conch! Hence the post’s title! It was by far the most creative and captivating story I’ve heard and how a 7 year old (and subsequently a 8, 9, 10 and 11 year old) could churn out such a tale is still beyond me. I have no idea how the story goes, and I bet neither does he, but it had a lot to do with a certain magic conch and an evil (?) nail. I used to sit and listen in awe as he would effortlessly spin out a story that had all the elements of a Tolkienian fantasy. I am pretty sure he did not sit at home and concoct the story, because there were moments when he’d contradict something he’d said earlier and the ardent listener that I was, would point it out to him. Without as much as a comma-induced pause, he’d develop a sub-plot to cover it up. Creative license. I understood it then as I understand it now, but I saw myself as an apprentice training under a master, and these ‘inputs’ made me beam unashamedly. If I was as perceptive then as I am now, I would have marveled the speed with which he thought about the next scene in the story. If my mom’s narration made me take away morals from stories, bro’s characters thought me interpretation and Uncle’s stories made the story-teller redundant, Arvind undoubtedly is the reason for me appreciating the nuances of story-telling.

And here I am, a story-lover, a semi-ardent reader, a person who puts the book aside and fantasizes about the story, an enthusiastic blogger and hopefully, one day, a writer. To all the story-tellers in the world, keep telling stories. You don’t know the value of your conch.

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