A journey from comic books to magazines to novels and nonfiction, the author writes about her experience throughout her book reading journey.
I have three uncles and each of them has played an important role in my discovery of books and comics, without any prior planning or any guardian-like discussion amongst themselves.
When I was around 4-5 years old, my youngest uncle got me Pinki comics and patiently explained to me the concept of speech balloons and thought balloons therein. I remember being a little confused about understanding when a particular story finishes and the other one starts. But once I got the hang of it, I simply loved the experience of reading comics and observing the cartoon figures therein. Soon I was hooked to Pinki and Chacha Chaudhary comics.
In those days, there was this outing culture of going to the Victoria Maidan (Kolkata) in the late evening hours for Pav-Bhaji, Puchka and Masala Thums-Up. Alongside the food vendors would be the neat displays of a couple of book vendors. Not really a foodie by then, I used to look forward to these family outings to purchase my stash of comics, which I used to diligently choose and my accompanying guardian would lovingly purchase.
I experimented with all kinds of available hindi comics and gradually became an avid reader of – Phantom, Lotpot, Champak, Tinkle, Chandamama, Tauji Aur Runjhun, Bahadur, Billoo, Nagraj, Amar Chitra Katha and the aforementioned two comics.
Upon reading my first Phantom aka Vetal comic, for many days I was confused thinking that how can Phantom’s engraved ring leave a distinct mark on his enemy’s punched (by him) face?
Bahadur comics introduced to me the concept of Indian ravines and horse riding dacoits. Back then, only my Grandma had the time and patience to explain me their meaning. One needs to understand that it was an era of no mobile or internet and extremely limited television viewing. Thus, a small kid in those days was not as aware of surroundings and happenings like today’s kids.
I also noticed that the most realistic and visually appealing graphics used to be in the Amar Chitra Katha series of comics which were usually based on assorted folk and religious tales.
On my 8th birthday, amongst other things, my middle uncle gifted me two Archie comics digest.
Reading Archie was discovery of an altogether new culture and sensibility. I got instantly hooked to this pocket book series and it was bye-bye time for the children comics. Gradually, I also started reading Katy Keene series.
Till then, being only exposed to the family centric way of life and outdoor dining in restaurants, I was quite amused by the friends centric way of life and culture in these series and their characters’ visits to pubs, cafes and beaches and their consciousness towards style and fashion.
Around the same time, a cousin of mine introduced me to a hindi pocket book detective series called Rajan-Iqbal. I never bought any of them but with time I read her entire collection. We used to exchange our comics.
By then, I had identified three more spots for purchasing comics and pocket books. They were railway station, airport and pavements of Park Street. So, whenever I accompanied my family to dinners or to seeing off anyone or to vacations, it was mandatory for the accompanying guardian to purchase me my choice of books.
As such visits were kind of monthly and that too with different family members, plus the fact that I never used to buy more than 2-3 comics and/or magazines, the aforesaid arrangement was fine with everyone.
By the time, I was 10-11 years old, I also got to regularly buying a couple of the following film glossies – Stardust, Movie and Cineblitz. I feel that the film journalists in those days used to work real hard on their articles. Resultantly, I learnt a lot of good vocabulary and speech patterns from these magazines, alongside the struggles and achievements of different film personalities.
These magazines taught me two important lessons of life. Firstly, that it’s lonely at the top and secondly, that there are no free lunches.
Resultantly, from my young age, I have concentrated on the real work and stayed away from lobbying and grouping, the two most damaging criteria for success. And by protocol, however the good terms may be, I don’t pull any kind of favors from anyone, thereby nullifying the chances of anyone asking me to do the things that I don’t believe in or appreciate.
In our school, the library visits started in the fourth standard. Back then, the school librarian used to randomly hand over a book to each of us from a selected stack of books, which we were free to exchange amongst ourselves.
Now, how much can a child read in a single library period and then wait for a week to read further with no guarantee of finding the same book again.
I was too dismayed with this arrangement as I loved the library’s assorted collection of story books and wanted to read them everyday. As per my the then limited knowledge, such books were only available in the school library!
Thankfully, our librarian Mrs. Guha sensed my dilemma and asked me to visit the library everyday during the tiffin breaks to satiate my craving of book reading. Back then, we used to have two recesses, for 10 minutes and 20 minutes respectively. For the next four years, I read almost everyday in the library during the recess time.
Mrs. Guha introduced me to Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. I used to cherish reading both of their writings, specially the country setting and vivid food table descriptions by Enid Blyton. Perhaps the foodie within me had started to surface.
Being introduced to fiction books, I also started experimenting with the same and eventually ended up reading umpteenth number of books by – Sydney Sheldon, Alistair MacLean, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, Ken Follett and Shobha De.
I was simply blown by the mammoth statistical data and r&d done in every Alistair MacLean book. It was fun to compare Dan Brown’s books with their movie adaptations and marvel at the sheer capability of the concerned visualizers, artists, technicians and other crew members.
Apart from these books, every year I used to receive a lot of books as prizes from my school. They used to be of extremely good quality and covered myriad subjects. I was clueless how Mrs. Singh and my other teachers were getting them. Personally, I got access to buying such books, only post the opening of mall based Starmarks and Crossword bookstores in Kolkata.
Some of the prize books which are still fresh in my mind are – books on aptitude tests, translation of Shakespeare’s plays into short stories, sunsigns based recipe book, story books by Charles Dickens, Munshi Premchand and other prominent writers, books on folk tales, Letters from a Father to His Daughter by Jawaharlal Nehru etc.
Every year the prize collection used to be like a treasure trove for me and for the following two weeks, I used to eagerly look forward to get back home from the school, so that I could read them.
As and how I got to know about the mega book fair of Kolkata and rows of book shops in College Street, I did manage to visit them with my grandfather. But at the book fair, we ended up buying up loads of edutainment toys and art & craft books for the children in the family and book shops at College Street either did not possess my kind of books or were too crowded for me to enquire anything.
Later on, I also visited the grandest book fair at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. The enormity of it and the professional management in practice just blew my mind. I used that opportunity to scoop out some exclusive shayari books for my father, which were otherwise not available. The search process took me around 1.5 hours, but finally I found the requisites.
Around that time, we also visited one of the brothers of my grandfather in New Delhi wherein I came across an altogether new set of books pertaining to world records. Apparently my cousin grandfather was also an avid reader of books. Upon askance, he explained to me about the concept of Guinness World Records and similar such books. His collection was mostly in hindi. Only a few books were in english. I was clearly awed, but also sad that such books were not within my grasp in Kolkata.
But bless my family, within a month of our returning back to Kolkata, my grandfather received a courier containing a host of publications from Gita Press Gorakhpur and Pustak Mahal. Therein lied the books on Guinness World Records, unusual human beings, strange facts of the world etc. I kept the collection close to my heart for many years. These books made me aware of the occurrences beyond the normalcy and I learnt to accept them simply because they too were created by the same God.
When I was in the eighth standard, during one of the Diwali cleanings, I caught my eldest uncle cleaning a few books. Till then, I had no idea that he read anything except business and sports magazines! Upon enquiry, I was told that they were autobiographies of famous personalities. I was fascinated by being introduced to this genre of books. He gave me the autobiographies of Charlie Chaplin and Sophia Lauren to read. These books widened my perspective like anything and instilled within me the concept of international. I became curious to know about myriad international cultures, history and lifestyle.
Thereafter, once in a while I used to buy Reader’s Digest and give a monthly visit to British Council (Kolkata) library to read the latest edition of Vogue. These visits continued for around a year.
While reading these so-different-from-others books, I never realized that one day, I would interview Bharathi Pradhan, one of the most celebrated journalists of India, on the occasion of Kolkata release of her book Anything But Khamosh, the biography of Sri Shatrughan Sinha and my copy of the same will be autographed by the great actor cum politician in person, all thanks to an impromptu meeting with him and his entourage, in his hotel room. I will always be thankful to Bharathi Ma’am for proposing and arranging this meeting!
Around that time, I noticed that the ladies of the family used to read Shri Ramcharitmanas, the Awadhi translation of the Indian epic Ramayana, during Navratras and also during the holy month of Kartik. The idea was to start and finish reading the entire book within the time frame of 9 days or 1 month respectively. Founding the book too voluminous to be completed within 9 days, I opted to read it during a Kartik month. Later, I also read the Bhagwad Geeta, the Hindu scripture that is part of the other Indian epic Mahabharata.
The Bhagwad Geeta along with the book Beyond Birth & Death by Swami Prabhupada, the founder-preceptor of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, had immense impact on my way of thinking and a part of myself turned spiritual and fearless forever. I realized that the biggest mantra of life was not to hurt anyone, be it by eye movement, words or action, as the karma always strikes back, in ways that we can never perceive. Also, that the right path may seem lonely but it is the only one which is accompanied by God and it is the only one that will see you through the end and bring you happiness.
Due to an increase in the work pressure of office and duties of marital life, my book reading decreased considerably in my late twenties. But still I managed to read a new book once a month. It was then, that I was gifted a couple of books by – Amitav Ghosh, Paolo Coelho and Khaled Hosseini. These books were again my entry to three different worlds!
The first one was much closer to home but still alien, the second one was kind of mystical and the third one was about the atrocities suffered by a foreign civilization with beautiful culture. It was refreshing to read three new styles of writing and I ended up buying a few more of the aforementioned writers’ books.
However, my three all time favourite books are from altogether three different writers. They are – The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) by Anne Frank, Gone With The Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell and it’s sequel Scarlett (1991) by Alexandra Ripley and The Fountainhead (1943) by Ayn Rand.
The first one I read during my secondary school days. The whole concept was disturbing and shocking and there was no one to discuss. Back then, none of my friends were into avid reading and the family was clueless about my reading variety. Nevertheless, I clearly remember marveling at the discipline and lifestyle maintained by Anne Frank’s family and associates even while hiding from the Nazis in a confined space for more than two years!
I read both the parts of the second one during the big vacation that we got post our I.C.S.E. board exams. I was simply mesmerized by the prequel and learnt about the lifestyle around mega plantations, the slave system and it’s abolishment, true love, betrayal, lost love etc. Just by reading this book, I felt the pains and excitement that I had never felt before! In comparison, it’s sequel was a damper. It was a good story but not a classic.
The third one I read while working in Mumbai. This book and it’s central character Howard Roark simply blew my mind! I learnt a lot about architecture, both present and the one that would define the future. Just to understand the heck of the matter, I used to read and re-read the paragraphs written on future style of architecture, which spoke of straight lines, no frills etc. Upon returning back to Kolkata in late 2003, I was shocked to find Hyatt Regency created on the same lines – straight lined architecture, geometric precision, excellent quality material, abundant natural light etc.
Soon enough my purchase of magazines also shifted to Hello, Hi! and Good Housekeeping. Sadly, the last two are no more available, while Vogue is now freely available on the stands.
Ever since the advent of Amazon Prime and Netflix, the practice of book reading has been replaced by binge watching of web series. These days, I rarely read a book. My quota of reading is well taken care of by my constant online r&d for food and movie reviews/articles and the english subtitles that I am required to read while watching the international movies and web series.
The last books that I read were Mrs Funnybones (2015) by Twinkle Khanna and The Very Best of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: The Righteous Life : Selected Writings and Lectures (2014).
The content available on the two aforesaid web channels and other similar platforms is too good in terms of content, presentation and variety. By watching their original movies and web series, I have learnt so much about the history and lifestyle of different cultures all over the world. Their fiction stories, sci-fi wonders etc. are all so captivating.
But unlike books, such binge watching is quite tiring and harmful for the eyes.
While writing this article, I am feeling the urge to get back to my stash of unread books. You see the reading habit was replaced but the purchasing habit stayed till I realized that for the first time in my life, I am not missing a new book in hand but am left with 6-7 untouched books! It was then that I stopped purchasing new books.
Now, let’s see which one I will delve into first!
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Prity Poddar is the leading vegetarian Food Blogger of Kolkata. She pens her food posts
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