I was introduced to reading when I was 6 or 7 years old. By today’s standards that is late indeed. But books were not as easily available as they are today. Plus they came only in one format – the old-fashioned one, that was printed on paper and came in various sizes.
My first introduction to the world of stories occurred when my mother subscribed to a children’s magazine for my brother and me to read. When I look back on the quality of stories and the unimaginative format they used, the magazine seems like a rather pathetic way to begin the voyage of reading. As a child, though, it was like being granted entry into a secret world that was far removed from the routine one of friends and petty quarrels, homework and the whole process of growing up.
I graduated soon to novels and books became my way of dealing with the world. Every new child I met was classified into various categories, based on how they answered my question, ‘Do you read?’ It was a question that was to decide many things, and I always waited with bated breath to hear what the answer would be. People who looked puzzled at the question were doomed to never feature on my list of close friends. To my delight, I discovered that reading was a bug that had bitten many of the people who lived around me. What was more, I further discovered that each of them was a potential book lender. And thus began the lovely, magical process of exchanging books.
The books came from various people and were carried into the house either by my brother and me. The identity of the original owner of the books was always a closely guarded secret. And we never knew if he was aware of the way his books were being merrily circulated. All we knew was the golden promise each book hid within its covers and our eagerness to read it. Most of these books were on very short loans and had to be returned in a matter to hours. Indeed, the primary condition on which they had been lent was that they would be handed back to the lender at the appointed hour.
It was no use explaining that there were two of us in the house, two eager readers longing to lose themselves in the illogical, difficult to believe rules on which most of these books operated. So, we made the best of things, my brother and I, and became experts at reading very fast. This often meant that we had to read thorough meal times. My mother hated the sight of a book propped up against the nearest object as we busily ate and read. She thought, and rightly so, that we ought to concentrate on eating. She was also suspicious of the tattered books and their yellowing pages and faded print.
But what did my brother or I care about how dirty the book was? Or where the book had been? The story possessed us and turned us deaf and blind to everything around us. One day, as one of us sat reading a book, my mother, tired of telling us again and again to stop reading, simply plucked the book away and threw it from the balcony.
We lived on the eighth floor in those days and had plenty of time to see the book float down. It was a comic, flimsily held together and the strong wind was too much for its fragile condition. It simply fell apart halfway through its fall and we watched in horror as pages came apart and went floating merrily to the ground.
We pelted down the stairs, hearts thudding in fear, not even daring to guess what we would find when we finally reached the ground. We spent a lot of time running around the park, gathering the drifting pages, yellow as autumn leaves but so much more precious.
I wish I could say that my mother cured us of our habit of reading at meal times. But even today I like to read when I eat. My mother complains that it distracts me from the taste and texture of the food I put into my mouth. Perhaps it does. But all I notice is the wonderful feeling I get when I am immersed in a good book. It’s a feeling that belies description. It’s the feeling of having lost contact with the world and its noises. It is the feeling of having cut loose from all the anchors that weigh you down. But most of all, it is the feeling of floating free and easy.
It is the feeling of wings spouting suddenly and the wind whistling past my ears.
At such times, I know exactly what that tattered comic book felt as it floated lazily through the air.
Because I feel the exact same flying feeling each time I read a book.