Just yesterday, I complained for the umpteenth time about having nothing to read. The fact that I own only one pair of jeans, two T-shirts and four Fab India tops does not bother me but not having a new book in my hand does. Not that I read a wide variety of books or anything. Just like my palate, my taste in books is safe, predictable and vanilla: lots of romance and feel-good and self-help. And I obsessively read books I love over and over again, hardly ever tiring of them and discovering something new and delightful about the characters, the language or other nuances, every single time.
The child was away yesterday which is how I finished Memoirs of a Geisha, and lay in a pleasant somnolent state wondering what to read next while also trying to work out how many books I could inhale before she got back home. Drifting between the five cupboards of books that we call our library and trying to motivate myself to try something new from my husband’s cupboard, I saw the sun making a bright yellow patch on the floor with shimmery, sparkly dust particles dancing, and I could suddenly smell the summer holidays of my childhood. Before I knew it, I had scrambled to the cupboard where I’ve carefully put away my childhood books for Rumi and was making a mad dash for the Enid Blytons.
I have a shelf for my classics which includes books we read in school like The Children of the New Forest and three versions of Little Women and another shelf where the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys are clubbed with Sweet Valleys and The Babysitters’ Club. But my Blytons, my precious little pearls, get a whole shelf to themselves, because I was kind of obsessed with her back in the day. Ok that was a lie, I’m a smitten kitten even now.
It all started with The Folk of the Faraway Tree which I won in a school prize when I was eight. It was love at first sight. Dandelions, acorns, ridiculous, gorgeous, scones, caraway seeds; these are just a few of the many words I didn’t understand but I was hooked. Magical lands on top of a beautiful tree with a slide in it! Never before had my imagination been tickled so much. I wanted to be a part of it so bad. My uncle bought me my second Blyton book which was Five go to Billycock farm. It wasn’t the first book in the series and it took me a while to understand that George is actually a girl but I enjoyed it thoroughly even though I got very frightened at some parts where they are alone at night in the rain and see ‘strange happenings’. Stranger words like gorse, heather, ginger-beer, anoraks and galoshes made their way into my life, even before I had learned how to use a dictionary and had to rely on the (un)reliable knowledge of adults around me who had no way of knowing a lot of these words themselves back then. For instance, I was told that a scone was a cone with jam inside it! Even to this day, after actually having tried scones myself, the first image that my mind conjures up when I hear the word scone is an ice-cream cone stuffed with jam.
During the school library period, I would hungrily hunt for her books. Her well-known signature became a balm for my sore eyes. Soon I discovered Malory Towers, St. Clare’s and The Five Find Outers. References from her books slowly pervaded into all parts of my life. I drew all sorts of secret maps and tapped on the walls and tiles in my house in the hope of finding a secret passage. Every tree I looked at brought the exciting question of “Is a treehouse possible / Maybe the tree is hollow inside!” I started going on ‘Nature Walks’ and tried very hard to like frogs and toads. I took to swimming and sports because Darrell Rivers and the O’Sullivan twins were so good at them. I started thinking of horses as beautiful and interesting and wanted a dog that was either a fox terrier or a cocker spaniel, though even a mongrel like Timmy would do. Even now, I cannot look at a swimming pool without thinking of the sparkling, blue waves and white sand of Kirrin island.
I did not have access to computers and I had no way of even knowing how Enid Blyton looked, but a Marathi newspaper once published a small piece on her. Mum showed it to me and I cut it out and stuck it in my Enid Blyton cupboard which boasted of six books. I would be allowed to buy an Enid Blyton whenever I did well at school and on my birthday. This amounted to about four or five books a year because at 80 Rupees, they were still very expensive.
I still remember the thrill of being handed a hundred rupee note and being allowed to walk to Popular bookstore on my own to choose a book. It would be such a dilemma but a delicious one! I would spend hours just gazing at the shelf, not daring to raise my eyes to the ‘Award’ series priced higher at 120 Rupees. I have never been so covetous of anything in my life as I was of a new Enid Blyton book. It became my great ambition to own a hundred books but I sadly never got there and have exactly 97 books on my shelf.
Years later with the onslaught of the media I learned lots of things about Enid Blyton, a lot of them unflattering. I looked up pictures of her and her house and her family. I read about her writing habits. By then I had already been weaned off to other books but every time I stumbled upon her name, it took me back to my ten-year old self, almost trembling with delight every time I found a new book in my hands.
She has been rightly accused of being racist and sexist with a rampant use of words like “dirty gypsies”, “queer looking foreigners” and girl characters who “cook the breakfast and make the beds”. But did having read her extensively as a child make me believe that I ought to do all the work when I went on picnics with my cousins? No it didn’t. The stronger message I got from these books was of being responsible for my own trash when we went out (all the kids picked up the litter!), of loving nature and being kind to animals, of wanting to be reliable and ‘trustworthy’. Her books taught me that ‘only cowards lie’ and that ‘it was more important to have a fine character than to be good at all sorts of stuff’.
And those amazing descriptions of meal times! Oh, to have tea with hot buttery toast dripping with honey and buns warm from the oven and sit for a picnic lunch of sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs to be washed down with orangeade! Years later, I was terribly disappointed to find out that I did not actually enjoy potted meat and anchovy paste as much as I had in the meals of my imagination.
I have spent whole summers pretending to live on a farm or even traveling with a circus. Buttermilk became my cold, creamy, farm milk and sugarcane juice my ginger beer. I would ‘hike’ up and down our lane and force the neighborhood kids into picnics. How hard I tried to create a secret society with them but alas, they did not share my enthusiasm for finding mysteries or adventures. The parents didn’t look upon it all kindly either, especially as I asked everyone to bring various clothes from home to ‘practice disguises’.
I don’t know if Rumi will share this love for Enid Blytons. She is lucky to have so much more material available to her to choose from and enjoy. I recently told her an Amelia Jane story and it made her giggle, although when I got the book out, she looked disenchanted with the old sketches that I still find so charming. I went to the bookstore to get a new Enid Blyton but I did not like the language or pictures in the new one at all, probably because of how passionately attached I am to my older ones.
They still comfort me when I feel the need to become a child again and Mummy’s not available. When I’m sick, when I’m unhappy all I need is an Enid Blyton in my hand to feel content and safe and summery and relaxed. And so, choice of book made, I come back into my rocking chair to become a happy little girl again. The only difference is that instead of one Enid Blyton, I now need five for the entire afternoon because (sigh), those books that seemed so big and grand and heavy once make for pleasant but very quick half-an-hour reads now.