Reading On


I was introduced to Indian poets and authors while in school. I read Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, contemporary poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Keki N Daruwala, Dom Moraes before I got to read serious Indian novelists. R K Narayan and Anita Desai were exceptions though, I soaked myself in Narayan’s novels ‘The Guide’, ‘Bachelor of Arts’, ‘The Financial Expert’. I started reading Anita Desai a little later; while other Indian novelists like Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Manohar Malgoankar and Kamala Markandeya had to wait till I began college.

New Century Bookhouse located in Mount Road, published books written by Russian authors. They undertook translations of Russian writers in Tamil, writings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin were translated in Tamil for propaganda of Marxist ideology. The books were dirt cheap, booklets with collected essays of Marxist thinkers could be bought for a song. One could buy the Tamil translation of ‘Das Kapital’ for twenty rupees, and small booklets cost ten rupees. Since profit did not drive the publication of books in New Century Bookhouse, books written by great authors like Tolstoy, Pushkin, Maxim Gorky, were affordable. 

I bought hardbound volumes of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, ‘Anna Karenina’ , and Gorky’s ‘Mother’ from New Century Bookhouse and those were the first of my collection of books. I was about fifteen when I read ‘Anna Karenina’. I remember reading the book during a summer break from school. I became engrossed in the plot of the story, the diverse threads of the plot kept me hooked, the characters cohabited with me through the long hours that I read the book every day. 

Anna reminded me of strong women characters from the novels I had read, especially Catherine of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and  Maggie Tulliver of ‘Mill On The Floss’. Like them I found Anna Karenina sensual, restless, agonized by a world that she found inadequate, searching for a dream that vanished like vapour. These three women die in the end – that was not the only fate they share; though they were diverse people living through circumstances very different, they were like sisters because they dared to embrace the forbidden, fatally. 

I had never enjoyed historical fiction, and that was why I could never proceed beyond a few chapters of’ ‘War and Peace’. I could complete reading Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’ though I found it dreary and uninspiring. I found ‘Mother’ dated, working in a specific socio-political context that I could not relate to.

I was near eighteen when I started reading Dostoevsky, I was overwhelmed by intense energy that his novels ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘Idiot’ represented. Though writing in mid 19th century, I found Dostoevsky a modernist in terms of his thinking, themes and style. His novels were a psychological probe into the human soul, his brooding characters were tormented by existential angst and spiritual turmoil – they anticipated Freud, Jung, Kafka, Milan Kundera in my reading oeuvre. 


This post is inspired by Beth’s ‘How We Read’. It took me back to the time when reading seemed to be the only thing I did, especially back to my college days. I decided to do my grad program in English Literature so that I could read more and more books. I was so naïve about the courses offered in a University, more so I was fed up and impatient with Science, Math, History, Geography, the tests and exams that came in my way of reading. 

Reading as an activity began when I was nine /ten, late when compared with reading habits of children of this generation. (There are many reasons for that, and it will require a post by itself.) I started with comics, the Amar Chitra Kathas. These were many comics bound together into several volumes that my mother borrowed from the library of the school that she worked as a teacher. When I was nine or ten there was only Higginbothams in Madras and the only book that my father bought with great attention was the Oxford English Dictionary which was thumbed well by everyone in the family. Landmark with its children’s section for books came a generation later. 

After Amar Chitra Kathas, I moved to Enid Blytons (Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Tower) , Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Perry Masons, Hadley Chase. These books were the only ones circulated in School Library and the Local Lending Library. I was then in Grades 6 and 7, I finished a book in a couple of hours, and I had to wait a week to take another book. Few of my friends, all avid readers, exchanged their books for mine, and I finished about seven books a week and the school library could not keep up with our thirst for more. 

Despite this frenzied reading along with school work, I felt inadequate. It was then, sometime when I was in Grade 8 that my mother introduced me to Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’. I acquired a new meaning to reading. For one, I realized that I could not tumble through this book the way I did with the earlier ones. It seemed like I was reading a different language, the story belonged to a different world. There were large parts that I did not understand; still the world the book represented seduced me in a puzzling manner. When I finished the book, I knew I could not go back to the type of books I had been reading earlier. 

My mother gauged that the transition to serious reading was tumultuous though I didn’t accept it. She recommended that I read Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, she kept harping on the surprise element in the story that would box me. She regretted having introduced me first to Jane Austen, ‘Rebecca’ she felt might have provided a smooth transition. My mother personally was very fond of the book, she had seen the movie as well. I wanted to read other books of Daphne Du Maurier, but the school library did not have any.

I decided to try the other classics in the library. Through the next two years I lived my life out of the bookshelf that my friends seldom visited. I read Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, more of Jane Austen – ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’, ‘Northanger Abbey’, ‘Persuasion’, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, George Eliot’s novels. I had completed the entire major women novelist from the shelf. I kept away from Dickens, Thackeray, Thomas Hardy – they seemed formidable and for another day. 


Did I disappoint you,
make your eyes sting with tears
watching me turn my back on you
not walk the path you had painstakingly laid?

You have died
taking the silence of failure with you.

The wheel spins back to me –
Now I see my loved one
look away
from the trail I point.

The Progeny


Life is a stream
On which we strew
Petal by petal the flower of our heart;
The end lost in dream,
They float past our view,
We only watch their glad, early start.
Freighted with hope,
Crimsoned with joy,
We scatter the leaves of our opening rose;
Their widening scope,
Their distant employ,
We never shall know. And the stream as it flows
Sweeps them away,
Each one is gone
Ever beyond into infinite ways.
We alone stay
While years hurry on,
The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays.

Amy Lowell