There are some loves which never go away; no matter how old one gets or how far one travels along the roads of life. My personal theory is that like the colour of one’s hair or eyes or skin, one is born with them. They are in the blood. Woven into the life sustaining strands which make us what we are. And definitely, they are not inherited!
Each of us knows what we are passionate about. Perhaps known only to us, perhaps also to our family, perhaps, if one happens to be a celebrity, to the public at large. We may ignore this passion and not acknowledge it; thinking, no, this I cannot afford to indulge. Yet, it remains, dormant, deep in the stillness of our souls.
For me, the love of my life has been words. Or more specifically, languages and the written words. I spoke my first words in Malayalam; a Sanskrit based language with a rounded script- all curves and no angles. One which is apparently difficult to understand and even more difficult to learn, as I have been told many times, over the years, by non-native speakers.
(Image courtesy: Pixabay)
The singular fortune (or misfortune) of being the youngest child with a huge gap in ages with all others, made my childhood a solitary one. It also blessed me with a fertile imagination because I was my own playmate. And there were shelves and shelves of books at my home, discarded and outgrown textbooks, yet the language text books of Kerala’s schools and colleges, taught during the sixties, which I inherited, were a dream.
By the time I progressed to reading in English at Primary school, the higher level books were already waiting. I remember reading books published by Blackie & Son, a publishing house based in Glasgow and London, which was functional from 1890 to 1991. They published educational texts and children’s books, and perhaps they had some sort of an arrangement to cater to India too. There were excerpts from Dickensian classics, which made me hungry (like Oliver Twist) for the full work. There was Robert Louis Stevenson, who drew a dazzlingly vivid picture of the sea, pirate ships and adventures to a landlubber village child. And by no stretch of imagination could I understand the acrobatics involved in “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…”. There was even an excerpt from the Shakespearian tragedy, Coriolanus, passages I went around declaiming in solitary splendour.
By the age of ten, there was nothing left at home to read.
We were neither rich nor very poor, but the uncomfortable in-betweens, with an old family name, of which my father was ludicrously proud of, and not much else. Money was scarce and naturally there was a never ending demand for more pressing needs. We lived off what was cultivated on the land- coconut, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, ginger and turmeric (a veritable spice garden). We also grew native vegetables for our needs, which meant I met cauliflowers and cabbages (these came from other states; not grown in Kerala’s hot and humid climate) quite late in life! So spending money on books, which can neither be eaten nor worn, was out of the question. There must definitely have been libraries around; but since no one else at home was a reader, the acquaintance was never made. There was one book shop in those days, near the venerable St. Berchmans’ College, which did have a children’s corner; I remember a few precious visits, around Christmas and my mid-January birthday – a sort of two-in-one treat, where I discovered Enid Blyton! (It never entered my head that there are supposed to be racist elements in her writing- the coal-black Golliwog was just himself and not a derogatory depiction of a person of colour.) But, as I said, money was short and buying books was a luxury.
I kept making up stories in the head. A rock became a throne, a fortress and a king, respectively. The trees were wise beings to whom I communed, but not in words. While entrusted to the job of watching over the newly-hatched chickens, I would wander to far flung mythical kingdoms and the net result would be a round scolding from mother because the hawk, crow or mongoose (whoever chanced to be there) would have carried off a precious, though bird-brained, chicken again.
Being afflicted with the disease of tongue tied shyness which bodes ill for friendships, I had few friends; and anyway had nothing to say that would interest people. In the depths of solitude and absence of any other reading matter, I started reading the Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary! This tome also had Latin phrases, the Greek Alphabet and Phonetics among other interesting things, apart from the actual dictionary part. I learnt the definitions of ad infinitum, aqua, ipso facto, ibidem, carpe diem, and mala fide among other similar worthies.
(My children hooted with laughter when I once told them this. They are the smart phone generation, who have access to knowledge at their fingertips and so tends to undervalue it; what do they know of the struggles of their elders!)
This strange reading also brought something else sharply into focus – the similarity between the two unrelated languages. Path in English was Patha in Malayalam, Serpent was Sarpam. Being ignorant of the existence of Sanskrit at that time, it took me a long time to make the connection..
Confession- I still read the dictionary for entertainment – having discovered a forgotten gem, which must have been required reading for any self respecting young Englishman, or Scot, venturing to his new assignment with the East India Company; “Hobson-Jobson- the Anglo Indian Dictionary”, first published in 1886! And what a gem it is! It is not a dry dictionary; word meanings are a minor part. The lore associated with words makes Hobson-Jobson an engrossing read. Looking up “ginger”, I see that the root words shown are the Arabic “zanjabil”, Portuguese “gingibre” and Latin “singiber” among others. But paradoxically, ginger was not grown in either Arabia or Portugal, so how come they had a word for it? So wandering further we read “Though ginger is cultivated all over India, from the Himalaya to the extreme south, the best is grown in Malabar, and in the language of that province (Malayalam), green ginger is called “inchi” and “inchi-ver”, from “inchi” root”. The Arab sailors who had monopolised the spice trade with Kerala, (before the Portuguese sea farers, Pedro Alvarez Cabral and Vasco da Gama broke the monopoly, cleverly playing on the rivalry between the powerful Zamorin of Calicut and his reluctant vassal, the King of Cochin), carried the name of the spice with them. Then some other Arab, sitting in his Arabian head office, must have got misled by the form of the name and mistakenly attributed it as “zanjabil” or “zinjabil” – pertaining to the coast of Zinj or Zanzibar, even though ginger is never recorded in history as a product of Eastern continental Africa!
But I digress- sometime in the Seventies, a young man named Johnny entered my life. Before you get all the wrong ideas, let me hasten to clarify that I was ten and Johnny in his mid-twenties. He was a graduate on the look out for a job. At that time, my father’s youngest brother was a senior officer in the Reserve Bank of India, Bombay. Johnny hoped for an introduction to him through my father. Prospective favouritism expectation aside, I remember him as a kind hearted young man, who really talked with a little girl, not talked at her, a common mistake that most grown-ups make.
He became for me a substitute brother, substitute for my gentle big brother, Simon, former owner of the Blackie and Son text books, who was lost to jaundice, at the age of twenty or so. When he died in 1970, I was too young to understand death, and have just two clear memories of him; one is of being held up in his hands, high in the air, and looking down from that great height, delighting in the unfamiliar view. The second is that of a hospital room, which had a high white metal cot. He was sitting up in bed; I was examining the strange room and even stranger contraptions, wondering why he was quiet and not making the usual affectionate fuss of me, and finally trying to clamber up the bed to be held by him. Someone saying, “take the child away”, and someone else’s hands prying my limpet fingers from the railings of the metal cot. I do not remember the funeral.
One day, Johnny, who recognised his little friend’s insatiable hunger for reading, came bearing priceless treasures! They were old issues of Reader’s Digest, which had started publication in India in 1954. (I have no idea how he sourced them, because the elite, who read in English for entertainment, were few and far between in those days, in my part of the world). They opened a whole new window to the world to me and I was lost! Most of the content was from the American and British RD editions and I read about Shetland ponies, the Wright brothers and the medically informative series, “I am John’s heart/eyes/nose/…”, stared open mouthed at the paintings in an article on Picasso and got an introduction to a wonderful world, unimagined before!
It is unlikely that my old friend remembers any of this today; he did get a job in the RBI and soon left Kerala. Over the years, as it generally happens when time and distance intervene between people, he lost touch with my father. Then I too grew up and left the village behind, yet remember him today with deep gratitude. As the young man who watered the roots of a child’s quest.
This love- it sustains me over the years. The vistas which an author opens up and in which the readers wander to their heart’s content, have never lost their charm. They are my refuge and escape. It is sometimes an idiosyncratic love too- Of dusty bookshops with ageing books, yellowed pages with whimsical illustrations, of reading the publishing history ahead of the actual book… but in the end, an enduring love.
And you, dear reader? What has been a constant for you?