Growing up as a single child to parents who never had much time for me (one in a ship doing the Columbus thing between the red, black, blue, dead, alive and whatever seas they call it and came home once a year and the other who was busy with work in her office and at home and continuously exclaimed about never ending traffic blocks in the city and thick ledgers in the office before she stopped working when I was in college meant having more time to myself. This desolate arrangement in my childhood resulted in my acquaintance with books more than with anything else. This was a little before television did the rounds of reaching our houses and even before Kumar chettan (the local cable guy) decided to pull long thick black cable lines in our locality one hot afternoon. So apart from playing and being overfed by loving aunts, the only thing I really found interesting was to read!
The first books I started reading like any other child in Kerala was of course the Balaramas and Poombattas (vernacular children’s books )and Tinkle and I used to make whoever was in sight make it read for me over and over again until I was old enough to read. (My daughter now reminds me of myself when I was her age when she insists now on having food only if I read to her or any shopping spree that has to end in a book store. )A little older and in kindergarten I used to go to the Woman’s club in customs quarters (where I was living then) and ask Malathy aunty- the association secretary who was in charge of the large yellow cupboards’ which was filled with childrens books. She was an always smiling woman in her 40’s who smelled of cuticura powder and wore a large red bindi. She lend me books and I read Cinderella, sleeping beauty, snow white and all the other beautiful fairy tales which were bound by thin plastic covers and had the associations blue seal on the first and last pages. Fairy tales takes to you to the mystical and magical lands of waterfalls and chocolate huts in the woods and shining pink gowns for midnight ball dances and happy rosy cheeked princes and princesses and talking pussy cats in boots who always had a happy ending in life. What more does a little girl of 4 or 5 want more from life?
But the real thing stuck on me my uncle who had come from Delhi gifted me 2 books from of the Enyd Blytons series on my 7th birthday, Amelia jane came first followed by fairy tales, the five find outers and the dog came next. Then came the famous five and secret seven series followed by the thrilling boarding life of Malory towers and St.Claires ,all before I was in my teens. I used to read late into nights after my mom had gone to sleep thinking I was fast asleep when in reality I would be in a dreamland where Darrel or the twins were having a midnight feast or dreaming about the ruined castle in Kirren island. And then my imagination would drift away, to imaginary worlds where I and my few friends would be traveling in the sea in a boat and all the exciting adventures we would have when we accidentally find out an enchanting island by so on. I loved those nights where I had no other worries but just me in my bed with only the light seeping into the room from the street light outside, and a whole new world in my head for company.
Very soon I was introduced to the indiscriminating and copious world of more books where I read books (adaptions and translation for children mainly) of authors like Charles Dickens, Johanna Spyri, Alexander Dummes, Hermen Hesse, Daniel Deffoe, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and the like before I was in high school. The Indian reader in me was also well nourished with the Jhatakas and the Panchatantras, Tennaliraman and Birbal tales. I also loved Ruskin bond and found life in his short stories very appealing. This is only if I dint count the comics apart from the amarchitra kadhas that has been in my life from the time I would remember . I was also a great fan of Asterix and Obelix and the village of guals but my favourite has been and still is the brilliant translation of Belgian comics of the Tintin series. I am still amazed at the comic type of ligne Claire type of drawings used in it, and captain haddock with his blistering barnecles and thundering thypoons has stayed with me a long way. Sadly I never read much of Malayalam when I was a child, which I realise is a great loss in my life.
I grew up with the fascinating of listening to myths and legends from the past from my grandmother and older aunts in my mother’s family when we would visit them at ‘Pulickal Madom’ which was my mother’s ancestral home situated in a little village called ‘Iyerkulom’ in Vaikom district. Every year we would stay there for a week or less for Onam or for the ‘Astami’ festival in Vaikom Mahadeva temple. Every night, after dinner the whole family would sit together in the central courtyard (Nadumuttam) that was paved with black oxide that shined and adorned with 4 long pillars which resembled a thampuru made of oak wood that was painted blue in colour.
It was usually a ‘Tamboolam’ session after dinner when some of them chewed betal leaves with scented lime which was light pink in colour and slivers of betel nut and tobacco would be rolled into the leaf and had. I would lie on the ground with my head on my aunts lap as she would lovingly touch my hair with her soft and pink fingers, my leg on my moms lap and drift to sleep listening to stories of yakshis who wanted to drink blood of poor Brahmins when they returned from watching kadhakali at nights and how always the goddess Kunthi (our family temple diety) saved them from their evil grasp and turned her into stone as a punishment.
My cousin Sriram, who is called Mahadevan at home would listen with a bored expression on his face and his sister Asha would play with the left overs of the betal leaf lying on the ground. Sometimes the moon shined through the iron mesh in the open ceiling of the courtyard or a single star shined. The wind would rustle the dry leaves under the large tamarind tree outside and a few lazy crickets’ would cry near the pond.