I wish I could remember learning how to read. The old family lore is that my mother used to try and make mealtimes palatable to me by reading aloud and so I picked it up myself. I was an inordinately picky eater as a child, and required many distractions to shovel food into my mouth. This was 1983 or thereabouts, we didn't even have 24 hour programming on our small black and white TV set, that's how old I am. Anyway, so my mother would bribe me into taking bites by showing me a book, but as time went by, the meals got longer, the books grew from just one chapter to two or three books per meal, I'd trot off and bring my selection, and then sit back to be fed and entertained, opening my mouth at intervals like a little queen. I must have absorbed some of this, because by the time I went to school--a Montessori school on Hailey Road, which still exists, I think, called Shiv Niketan--it was very easy for me to slip from being read aloud to to reading aloud to myself. So easy that I don't remember it happening, and I have vivid memories about my childhood. I remember being toilet trained, for example, the feel of the plastic potty under my naked bottom, how I used to drum my fingers against it, I remember thinking as a child that I could go back to being as young as I wanted once I was done growing up just by climbing into one of the big cupboards installed into the walls of our flat. I remember the way the sun looked filtering through the stone lattice work of the building. (Asia House on Curzon Road as it was known then, Kasturba Gandhi Marg to us now.) I remember two water pumps I used to call my horses, Big Horse and Little Horse, and how I used to bring them grass to eat. And yet, for all of this, I cannot remember my first time looking at a page and realising that one letter connected to another letter, and being all "Off I go!" into the story. The first book I took home to my mother, thrilled with the fact that I read it myself was The Enormous Turnip, a Ladybird book about a farmer and his wife who grow a turnip so big--so ENORMOUS--that they can't pull it out of the ground themselves and have to ask all sorts of animals to help. I remember sounding out that en-or-mous and the thrill of satisfaction I got when I got the word right.
Shiv Niketan was the sort of school where you weren't tested every week or moved up traditionally and so on. Instead, me and another classmate (whose name I coincidentally heard over the weekend after about a decade, so if his ears are burning this week, you know why) were quietly shifted from the nursery to a higher grade. I was born in December, so that's where this whole thing starts, being six months younger than my classmates, in some cases, later, a whole eleven months younger. (I made up for this early burst of prodigy by failing class 9 spectacularly and being pushed back into the batch I had originally been a part of, making me older than everyone else for the rest of my academic life, but it didn't matter, because the scene had been set and I always acted younger than everyone else by then.) When we were shifted, I heard the Hindi Aunty having a loud argument with the class teacher about me, telling her, "But she hasn't even reached my class yet!" I think this is always why I was bad at languages too, god knows I tried, and if you grow up in Delhi your Hindi is Delhi Hindi which is
It wasn't long till people started telling me not to read all the time though. All my life this has been a battle, people want me to put down a book and make conversation and I... don't want to. Especially on trains, god, the number of uncles on trains who will make loud remarks about how much I read. I feel their insecurities then, why participate in an activity that implies I am better than them. In many ways, the advent of everyone having a smart phone has been so good for my reading life, I am not the only one looking at a screen or a page all the time. We have all embraced our inner selves! My cousins, I remember, used to nag at me all the time in the summer holidays, "Don't read, Minna, don't read." My grandfather on my mother's side would take great offense to me carrying a book to the dining table, but I still find it hard to eat when I have nothing to look at. This banishment of books from the dining table just meant I ate slower and slower, or littler and littler and then slipped off to find my book again.
How old was I when I read Roald Dahl or Ramona Quimby? I don't remember, so for a friend's child's birthday, I bought The Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox but another friend tells me four is too young for Dahl. I believe though that if you read indiscriminately to your kid, any good story, forget it having big pictures on every page, just keep your kid engrossed, that the love for the story will seep in, that your child will start longing to know more about the books he or she is experiencing through you, that it will set off a need for "just one more chapter" and once you have that need, you know you're a reader for life. In many ways, we were lucky growing up, no internet, no TV, all we had were books, and it's so much easier to form a reading habit when there's nothing else competing with it. But I think if you offered your child the reward of a book instead of screen time or what have you, that if you equate reading with a Good Time, you'll have the reader you want. Of course, your kid should see you reading for pleasure too, so there's that. But nothing like an Family Read Along, whether it's Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl or Harry Potter. I know, I don't have children, but like many people who stay connected to their Inner Child as it were, I feel inside my soul like the six year old I used to be. Along with nineteen and twenty six. (The only age I don't feel connected to is 37, and this year is almost over.)
More memories, flying thicker now: going to the World Book Fair and ordering a set of the most gorgeous children's encyclopedias, and then waiting at home for them to be delivered. The way it taught you things through a story: I remember one about a picnic and a storm, and the safest place to be during a storm. (Your car, apparently.) Living in Trivandrum, my parents' friend coming to visit and bringing me a dense small printed copy of Little Women. "Don't be put off by the print," she said, but it took me a year and some boredom before I pulled it off my shelf. I have that edition still, much loved. Daryagunj Sunday book market, taking a tonga home with our book piles. So many Amar Chitra Kathas, which we bound into fat volumes so I could read them over and over. One red letter day, finding all of the Little House in the Big Woods series, just there on the pavement. Anne of Green Gables on one long train journey, my mother skipped the Mrs Rachel Lynde Is Surprised chapter and led me straight to Anne without waiting for it, a wise abridging, because I read the chapter myself years later and it was never that exciting a way to get into the book.
Books held me in my later years. No matter how bad it got, I always had my books. Briefly, books were trendy in the 90s, we'd read Sweet Valley High, not out of any great joy about the prose, but because they were a) like a soap opera and b) our parents disapproved of them. What could be more alluring to a preteen girl? My old friends are still here, still on my shelves, and though I have re-read all my childhood favorites so many times that I can no longer tell you early memories, just vague feelings about them, layered on top of each other, it's nice to know that when the world is garbage, some things still hold. I wish you (and your kids if you have any) the same joy.