07 July 2012

On the books we read and those that read us

My daughter reads Enid Blyton.  She’s picked up words that I have not heard in decades.  She chides her little sister: ‘you horrid girl!’ She sees mystery in all things.  She talks about midnight feasts.  She has become a find-outer.  She has crazy explanations for all unexplained phenomena.  She takes me back to my ‘explanatory’ time, word-picking and boarding school fantasy.  There are better written children’s stories of course; Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ series was my favourite; but Enid Blyton had a way of getting one hooked to reading books.  My daughter is a victim, a willing one, and I am not unhappy about this.
My daughter wants adventure.  She lives in a fantasy world where George, Anne, Dick and Julian go camping with a dog called Timmy.  Sometimes this world is made of the Secret Seven and sometimes of the Five Find-Outers.  She attends a school called Malory Towers and another called St. Clair’s.  She knows and has ‘seen’ Harry Potter, but is not yet a magician.  She also lives, at times, in the pages of Vassilissa the Beautiful. She uses palm fronds as horses, can whinny like a horse and turns any stick more than 2 feet long (but not so long that she can’t lift it) as swords. She slays dragons, giants and other wicked creatures, including evil knights, kings and sorcerers. 

Books are fascinating things. We read them, live in them and mimic our favourite characters.  My ‘first love’ for example, was Suok, in the ‘Three Fat Men’ by Yuri Olesha. Years later I found that she was my brother’s ‘first’ as well.  We outgrow them but they are never too far away.  My daughter brings to life not just characters I’ve loved but that time of innocence as well. 

We move from one set of books to another.  Discard some illusions, gather some new ones. Old heroes are dropped for new ones who will quickly grow old and be replaced with new ones who are relatively ‘new’, ‘fresh’ and worthy of veneration.  Somewhere along the road, we discover that all roads are unique and are at the same time similar, just different versions of one reality or different facet, bearing and informed by the same signature. 

It is the same with books, come to think of it.  I think it was Richard Bach, author of the classic ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ from whom I figured out something that Siddhartha Gauthama has taught 25 centuries before.  It was in his book, ‘Illusions’ where one of the characters claims that the answer to any question lies in whatever book you happen to be reading. The recommendation was to turn to a random page.

Two decades later, reading and trying to figure out the Sathipattana Sutra under the guidance of Ven. Athureliye Rathana, I understood what Bach meant.  If the universe can be seen in a grain of sand, then everything is contained in anything.  If ‘book’ is metaphor, then the world is made of answers to any question you can think of.  There are pages in flowers, in fragrance, in root.  The soil and the sky are leaves of a novel.  The cloud is a line of poetry and so too its edge, its blur with sky, its rendering in song, music score, on canvas and its etching in memory and the etch itself.  Pregnant within are the answers to query, sometimes as word, but at times encrypted in the language of silence and pause and sometimes even in the form of response-query, parable, impossible proposition and so on. 

We need eyes and that’s what we don’t have.  The truth we seek is everywhere.  If you are Buddhist, then the concept of things being one, that there is a unity in all things, a connectivity as it were would indicate that truth is omnipresent.  If you believe in a supernatural, omnipotent power, then too, that ‘power’ should be everywhere at the same time or else it’s ‘contained in all, containing all’ sense is compromised. 

Sometimes the answer stares us in the face, speaks to us, tells us things, laughs at and with us, caresses us and we are confused because we don’t know what the question is. My daughter likes stories. I do too. There’s ‘truth’ in the Five Find-Outers, in their individual characters, the mysteries they are confronted with and which they resolve, the process of resolution, the narration and the reading. 

I have a book before me right now.  A 9 year old girl.  She is reading. She is smiling to herself.  She is being annoyed by her 6 year old sister, who she is convinced is not just ‘horrid’, but is devious and gets her way with her parents by ‘giggling like a silly-billy’.  This book is alive. Is made of and for love.  Is made of and for adventure.  A fantasy and reality blend that has all the answers and all the questions.  I am poor, I don’t know what to say or ask.  I just look at her from a distance. Not from too far away, my eyesight is poor and getting weaker by the way.  Not too close, for she likes her privacy.  She is delicate, this strong-willed girl, who contains an archive and is ready to write the history of her world. In a moment or two. 

She looks at me and smiles.  I smile too.  The year is 2010. The year is 1974.  I am 9.  I know all the answers. 

[first published in the Daily News, July 2010]


Ramzeen Azeez said...

Your little girl will eventually morph into an intelligent, loving, tolerant and a well-balanced woman.She will be the fount from which a thousand similar beings will spring. That's how most readers of Enid Blyton often end up as (I'm going out on a limb here!)
Ref the rest I opine that nature is the software that Allah (God's personal name) uploaded into all the hardware that He created. Many think that the hardware was created by the software!!! However, I do find deep meaning and similarities in the teachings and sayings of The Gautama. Siyalu sathwayo niduk wewa, Nirogi wewa, Suwapath wewa

sajic said...

I dont know whether anyone remembers that the original Enid Blyton books had the black African characters called Golly, Wogger and Nigger. The phrase 'My Golly (or Wogger or Nigger) originated from this. It became politically incorrect and Enid Blyton was 'banned' reading for awhile in the UK!

Shaik Ahamath said...

Sajic, it is the twisted minds in our society that makes these innocent words into derogatory terms. I remember Agatha Christie, my favourite crime writer, had a book entitled Ten Little Niggers and that too was banned. I am sure when these people wrote them in all innocence, they never thought it would raise such controversy. On the subject of reading, I'll never forget my wonderful English teacher Mrs. G.H.P.Leembruggen whose own children were boarded in England and when they finished with their magazines,they's send them to their mum,our teacher, who'd distribute them in our class. I have fond memories of The Eagle and the characters Flash Gordon, Harris Tweed, Billy Bunter etc.

sajic said...

Oh, I agree.We read those comics without any racial feelings whatsoever-at 8,9,10 years? The UK govts had to act because of the rise of African nationalism.

DJ said...

From your article I gather that you seem to be very fond of your 2 daughters, which is very nice. Also, that at times you deal with quite heavy subject, you are a very sensitive person.

fayaz said...

goodstuff malinda. takes my mind back so much.. my dad cultivated my reading habit by sending me off to buy books at KVG'S AND Caves, so that i wouldnt disturb him whilst at office.. over the next few years i had a room full of books, which finally ended up as a gift to my sisters school library.. pity.