BY NABINA DAS
Reading is a complex process. Some books one reads as a child come back in the adulthood with new flavor and meaning altogether. Since childhood could be defined as eight to eighteen, classics and young adult adventures and mysteries (not known as YA back then) happened to influence my reading till a very long time.
They truly taught me to develop an interest in the world, in its diverse oddities, and pique my knack for storytelling and penning verses. In fact, my poetry is influenced by quite a few fiction books I read in three languages – English, Assamese and Bengali. Hindi came a little later.
Pather Panchali – Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay
A rather complex and lengthy name for a child of 10, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the author of this seminal work, enticed me right from the time I ploughed through the book handed over by my father. It was a summer vacation and we were off to Puri, as sea side temple town in Odisha. While on the train, I skipped many pages – which I read years later of course – but I was very quick to sense and feel the pulse of very select portions in Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). Deeply moving and scintillating sections where Durga is branded a thief by the neighbors, where Apu has to do with the meager playthings his father procures for him, where Sarbajaya’s bitterness around her poverty pairs so dramatically with her personal charm, and last but not the least, where Indir Thakrun, the hapless and homeless tottering old aunt, is seen in her ageless quest for life. Humanism as a word was unknown to me then. I understood later what sublime means – in language, in text, and in thoughts.
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
This was a gift from my uncle when I turned 13. Precocious, some might say. In this book too, I skipped several pages of long descriptions, typical of the epic poetic style of Tolstoy. But again, the stark reality of the characters, the tragedy of wars and survival, the foundering exploits of the aristocracy, and the celebration of ordinary experiences in human life, cast a spell on my teenage mind. Also, perhaps for the very first time, I sensed the romantic in a narrative, the attraction of the sexes, and the resulting emotion turmoil. I was not into reading “romance” as a genre. War and Peace, ironically, taught me less about historical chronicling or fictional fact-stating rendered in dark, somber words, but more about the bright, fluttery, seductive side of human nature.
Enid Blyton titles
It’s difficult to point out one single book. Enid Blyton is perhaps every child’s favorite at some point or the other. The dangers lurking in the windswept caves and islands, the secret signs, the bad guys and tricksters who duped the good English people, the world of moms and dads replete with propriety and decorum, and a bunch of defiant youngsters – various characters for the various series of books that EB wrote – daring it all in their own inimitable manner, was the high point of imagination for me at school. England’s geography, society, people and (un)real places opened up as though in front of a novice seafarer. As an adult of course, I smiled at my naiveté. But reading Blyton perfectly matched with a child’s outlook of Georgina as the rebel who was indeed better than the boys, and hence, a hero.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This fat volume belonged to my mother, a gift she’d received from her students when she was a teacher. I believe she read only a few of the stories in this collection, whereas she had read all of Shakespeare, another fat volume from her loving students. Dumping Shakespeare, I was hooked to Arthur Conan Doyle’s storytelling right from the beginning. All of 10 or 12, I had already read abridged versions of some of his best stories serialized in a Bengali publication. It just required the big book in small prints to land on my adolescent hands. Smitten already by Holmes and his quirky ways of problem solving, each story was a journey of discovery for me. Even as a writer later on, the collection remained an inspiration to me in the way a character can be life size, and the way intrigue can be woven into the plot without sounding obscure.
Rhymes of Nirmalprabha Bordoloi – Axomiya Umola Geet
I cannot say I read a lot of Assamese children’s rhymes the way I did Bengali Chhora and alphabet (Bornoporichoy) rhymes. At school, Burhi Aaiir Xadhu (grandma’s tales) vied with my home reading of Thakurmar Jhuli. But it was an instant moment of delight when I discovered Nirmalprabha Bordoloi’s sprightly rhymes. A renowned poet of Assam, Bordoloi has also influenced me hugely in my teens by sending across a comment on a poem I’d sent to be published in an Assamese journal. No wonder her rhymes still shine in my head. Axomiya Umola Geet verses are musical – as ‘geet’ means song – and are of highly-charged linguistic play. Not just a child, even an adult reader, especially, a language aficionado would notice the iterations, onomatopoeia, and at times, smooth and crafty half-rhymes . One cannot but marvel at the poet’s narrative brilliance, her wide range of topics for children, and a seamless incorporation of daily-use English words into these Assamese verses. Sample this:
Beli, beli, beli
Rutir logot khabane
Amor meetha jelly?
Sun, sun, o sun
Would you care on your toast
Some sweet mango jelly to taste?
Grandmas on both sides fanned my imagination with The Mahabharata. The intertwined stories fanning out like waves and mixing with other myths, and the extrapolation of characters and their exploits, are the principal things that appealed to me in this epic. Especially, the homegrown version where Shiva is an endearing maverick; Kartikeya is the good-looking loner; the demons are good people wronged by greedy wily gods, especially, Indra; the highly artistic Apsaras are taken for granted by powerful and crafty men and gods, and strange mythical creatures such as Garuda, the half bird-half human entity, Makara, the half-fish and half-elephant creature, and Vasuki, the enormous snake volunteering to shade Vishnu and then help churn the ocean in one episode. Among all this, Ekalavya has been the most impacting character, set against the rich Kshatriya princes. Not a victim but a hero in my eyes because in my story, Ekalavya will not part with his thumb, but show one to the world in defiance.
Listing just these books is not enough of course. A few others that left deep imprints on my mind are:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe
Stories of Feluda – Satyajit Ray
Poems of Rabindranath Tagore
The English Romantic Poets
Godaan- Munshi Premchand