Saturday, March 28, 2009

Once Upon A Time

cover story

On an otherwise uneventful morning of an otherwise unremarkable year in the late ‘80s, a single-digit old me was busy throwing a tantrum over having to go to school. Usually a rather placid child, I only had two major sources of grievance in life: 1) socks, which were a plainly uncomfortable and ridiculously unnecessary part of day-attire in non-winter months, and 2) school, which made me wear socks as part of the day-attire in non-winter months. My parents, not the biggest fans of my periodic protests against these major inconveniences in my largely pleasant existence, understandably preferred the more agreeable version of their only offspring, and to calm me down on that particular morning, my dad offered me an incentive: if I’d stop whining and go to school, he’d get me a special present when he picked me up from school that afternoon.

I did, eventually, go to school that day and, quite predictably, had a thoroughly rotten time. And when dad came to take me home that afternoon, I was in total sulk mode and had completely forgotten about his promise, but turns out he hadn’t. Waiting for me on the front seat of our car was an assortment of big, brightly coloured (and insanely expensive) children’s storybooks. The very sight of the grand bound-paper creations achieved their purpose: the brooding was immediately suspended, replaced first by the simple excitement of getting a present, and later by immense awe – for someone who was still learning to read, the whole concept of words coming together and opening doors to enchanting worlds of endless imagination was an entirely fascinating discovery. And that is how I fell in love with books.

The book-reward program ended up becoming a semi-annual tradition of sorts; at the end of every school term, my parents would take me to the biggest book shop in the city where I was allowed to go crazy for about half an hour, after which I’d blatantly refuse to leave, and would eventually have to be dragged out of the place, half a dozen books clutched firmly in my little hands. Deciding which books to choose out of the thousands on display was the hardest decision this kid ever had to make, although there were some standard favourites – I’m fairly certain my parents helped put Enid Blyton’s grandkids through school.

But a few years later, my obsession with books had started to dwindle. The middle/high school curriculum – clearly put together by someone who hated books and wanted everyone else to hate them too – left me with too much printed material to peruse. Additionally, I was being subjected to supposed English classics, which were so interesting for ten year olds (or at least this particular ten year old) that they always made me think about how doing something (anything) else, like repeatedly slamming my head against the wall, would be a more constructive and enjoyable use of my time.

I don’t remember reading many non-schoolbooks during my early teens, in part due to the immense popularity of the Sweet Valley series at the time which I’d somehow (without reading a single volume) decided I thoroughly disapproved of, but more so because I’d ended up becoming a bit disenchanted with books due to their correlation with school, and how they’d become a representation of both competition and conformity, both of which I thought the world would be a saner place without.

Then one day, probably in the tenth or eleventh grade, I found myself in temporary possession of a PG Wodehouse novel. I’ve never been sure how or why I ended up borrowing that book; not fond of being quiet unless I want to be quiet, the school library wasn’t exactly my favourite place on the planet and keeping a disapproval-induced distance from the room was a standard practice. Yet, as a result of some inexplicable and since-forgotten series of events, I was the confused keeper-for-a-week of a Mike and Psmith omnibus – a series I’d never even heard of by an author that I knew nothing about. It turned out to be the single most delightful thing I’d ever read. Reading that book reminded me of why I’d fallen in love with books in the first place and why they’d meant so much to me as a kid, inspiring the same awe, although in a completely different way, as the stories from the children’s books from when I was still learning to read.

After finishing the three omnibus editions available in the library, I ransacked a hitherto ignored bookshelf in my house that had been home to my parents’ literary collection, largely made up of books my mum had bought when she was young. She’d read each of them, and then relayed the entire story to my grandmother (which I’m sure must’ve been considerably less torturous than all those times I’ve sat my mother down and made her listen to Nirvana). I’d been told I could find a lot of Wodehouse there, but was disappointed to find only one, Code Of The Woosters, because apparently when people borrow something they don’t put themselves through the trouble of returning it. So I decided to nick some Ian Fleming instead. And then borrowed some Archer from the library. And bought some Salinger and Adams and Grisham and Hornby and Fforde and Ludlum and Tolkien. And eventually even made peace with the classics. Yes, I was hooked, and I still am to this very day. The ride that started with children’s stories has since given me a chance to discover things that I couldn’t possibly have imagined, and led me to worlds I would’ve otherwise been oblivious to. And it’s made life – even the parts of it that I’ve spent with my feet trapped in disagreeable foot hosiery – a lot more fun.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 27th March, 2009