|Picture Courtesy- GettyImages|
I am an only child, though not a child anymore. My childhood went in search of friendships outside the home, and waiting for the evening to come by to immerse into those rare moments of camaraderie. Our days, the Pre-Appu childhood, was largely supervised by our parents. I do not much remember visiting my friend’s place in childhood. Much unlike my daughter and her friends who keep meeting up in their homes. My friends were kids of my father’s colleagues and we met when they met. Friendships were formed and finished in the children park.
The interspersed period of loneliness was filled up by books. It was from Comics to pocket-books to Geeta Press to even, Indian Classics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. They filled up my days of solitude with rare happiness. I was called introvert and adults left me alone. It was an arrangement which we both liked. There was no other arrangement in the view. For some reasons, parents those days did not appreciate reading outside the school syllabus. Pocket-books, detective Hindi novels, were almost like banned books, and reading them something dreadful like drug addiction today. I still wonder why but it did give a sense of adventure as I indulged in Ram-Rahim and Vijay-Vikas on the sly. I do believe it did provide me with a love of language, a flair for style as I would look for the Bernard Shaw’s Arms and The Man and Neruda's Tonight I Can Write Saddest Lines in the class twelfth as a literary friend and not a boring, tiring academic foe.
Reading does many things to you, more so, if it finds you early in the life. I do wish at times that if reading weren’t a prohibitive thing in my childhood, likely to impact your school results and your adult obedience, I might have gained much. I might have turned out a much better person with an abundant supply of Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad and Pablo Neruda in early life. Even Roald Dahl and Dr. Suess was something I discovered after becoming a father. Embarrassing but true. I am trying to make up for that gap with my now about to be eight year old daughter. She again is an only child. I can see from her desperation to go meet her classmates and the friend downstairs, that she is plagued with the same blankness, unending emptiness as I was. She needs friends.
She needs to know that there are only two friends she really needs- Books and herself. These are the two friends which will help her make many. The relationships forged by a reading man are deeper and more meaningful. Balzac wrote, “Reading brings us unknown friends.” The great American Academic, Charles William Eliot wrote “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Books teach us life. It gives us tools to examine, evaluate and resurrect, rebuild our own lives. Long time back Socrates wrote that an unexamined life is not worth living. Books give us eyes to examine life. Every time we do that, we come out a better person. Reading keeps us honest when we evaluate our own lives and gives us knowledge to amend ourselves. It takes special sophistication of soul to be brutal with oneself in such introspection. Unless it is brutal and honest, it is pretense. You end up feeling ugly, feeling helpless and blaming the world, in which case, it is not search for truth; it is search for excuses. When you have a maturity of mind, you turn inward; irrespective and isolated of the world you examine yourself. As they say in scientific postulation, X is given, and X is the world about you, in which case what you would do to make yourself better person is the only variable open to you. Books and reading bring that honesty, that ability to better yourself, to you. It opens a wide panorama, where you look at the world from eternity to eternity spread in front of you, and your own life in the broad scheme of things. Books help us understand conflicting perspectives and what drives them. Thus it helps us accommodate and adapt. “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.” Wrote Joyce Carole Oates.
It calms your nerves. It makes one understand one’s place in the larger scheme of things. It doesn’t make your pain vanish. If anything, it makes pain pronounced. But at the same time, it makes one adept at handling pain. When you read, you understand that the world had been inhabited by finer women and men, who had at one point of time been worse than you. It helps one trace the whole trajectory of life and lessens the hits that life lands on us. Books helped Liesel Meminger and even the Jewish fugitive Max survive the childhood through world war in The Book Thief. Reading gives you tools to interpret the world. Abuses are result of failure of words. We cannot understand what we cannot put into words. It overwhelms us. Words adapts us to not be overwhelmed, calms our nerves. With words, courage is well-meaning, anger is well-intentioned, sadness is well-curated and life is well-lived. Well-read people are rarely abusive. They are able to handle well what life throws at them. Maugham wrote “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”
So, I, with these ideas, to equip my kiddo with wherewithal to manage the solitude and to manage the life, have begun my work. I do not know what direction her life will eventually take, what choices she will make in her life, reading, I am sure will prepare her for her life-choices, even if they be non-literary. she is now introduced to Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, and even occasional Poe (She has come to love “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore”). My cruel conspiracies began with surrounding her with books and telling her stories, selective reading. Since it cannot be outsourced, it also gives us little private time together. She would worry with me while reading The Book Thief and laugh with me while reading The Cat In the Hat, and she would look at me awestruck when Matilda of Robert Dahl would speak names like Hemingway and Dickens. I had no clue when we picked Matilda, but in a subtle way, through the lives of Wormwoods it also will help us understand the fault-lines of modern lives, lived in living rooms in front of television. I remember, googling Robert Dahl and showing his face and his house on google to her. She understood him as real person and was charmed that real people can write such lovely stories. Her interest was kindled. I put her into library, having found BC Roy Children’s Library, next to the ITO, much helped by the metro station, bang at the doorstep. I was shocked to hear the fee- four hundred rupees an year. That translates to one year supply of wisdom at the price of a movie ticket (two hours) in a multiplex. It is a pity that such treasures are unknown and ignored by people. And the bigger treasure, for a father, travelling in the Metro, biggest Father-daughter time than any weekend resort trip, as many things the non-stop chatterbox tells you while traveling in public conveyance.
It is hard to imagine what couple of hours of company of books can do to a child. It prepares him or her for the society. When the supply is unlimited and the shame of being a serious reader is gone (yes, I mean it, in today’s world where even well-educated people are seldom well-read and even boast about not having read a complete book in the life time), it opens one to multiple view, different thoughts, often conflicting ones. It is hard for a well-read person to be a bigot, almost impossible. Don’t get me wrong. When one reads as a vocation unto itself, not as a considered effort to create an arsenal to defend an ideology, one reads without discrimination. When one reads far and wide, Dogmas get destroyed, orthodoxy is obliterate, and fanaticism fades away. Virginia Woolf tells us how one ought to read, when she writes, “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.”
I do hope, my daughter, will read a lot more than I could in my own life time. My own reading as I explained, was sketchy in the beginning. Still I did try to compensate as I grew old and my teenage rebelliousness was mostly limited to not following religious dogma and wanting to read, in the face of adult advice that it will hurt my schooling. It still confounds me why my parents would see my reading in contradiction to my reading and sadly, it still remains same for most parents. I would still out my neck and say it is incorrect presumption. They go together. It is like running and exercising supports football. Unstructured reading prepares one for structured curriculum like nothing else. I can now vouch for my theory as I can see that in my daughter’s school, since she started reading. Another mistake not to make is to never underestimate the intellect of a child. It is the most pure, most expansive phase of human mind. Their intellect has the capacity to rise and grow and expand to what is presented to them. They are blessed souls of tomorrow, let us keep them blessed and in process, learn to be stay blessed from them, rather than trying to these little people, happily running around in the world, amid all the miseries we adults create. Let them be great readers, for nothing goes farther in creating a better world than a reading populace. It is a blessing in itself, apart from the life benefits, I have tried listing. Let the libraries be opened to people and truth will unwind and unwraps itself to readers. I would end this with the most hopeful and truthful quote I found on reading, again from Virginia Woolf. She writes, “I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, those need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’