It seems strange today, but there was a time when I was young too. There are few like my elder brother and sisters who can vouch for this — that there was a time when there was neither a white-flecked beard to give me gravitas nor crows’ feet at the corners of my eyes. Once, long ago, none of us were ever world weary or lacking in wonder.
Time travelling back to those years, I can safely say life then was different, like that ketchup jingle of yesteryears. When I was a child, all you had to do to see Kolkata was climb to the terrace of a three-storied building and voila! The city was spread at your feet. The majestic Howrah Bridge seemed just a few hundred yards away!
There was no television, no computer and obviously no internet. There were no cartoon channels. There were no video games. There were no live telecasts of cricket matches. So what was there? A bluer sky (the pollution was less and there was less dirt in the air) and a skyline unpierced by multi-storeyed buildings — three floors made a building tall back then — and construction cranes.
And books, books and more books. A visit to a bookshop was a grand occasion and unlike most grand occasions, this was a fairly regular feature for my family. We bought books for all occasions, especially birthdays. It’s a family tradition that I’ve continued: my daughter always gets at least one book for her birthday and more often than not, she’ll gift me a book for mine.
But today, we’re time travelling. So back we go half a century, when South Calcutta, which was my terrain, was dotted with many good bookshops. (I would start haunting College Street only in my college days.) DK Gupta’s Signet Press had a showroom that stocked a large number of English paperbacks. For Bengali books, we visited Dakshinee Book Emporium, near Deshapriya Park. All those places were within comfortable walking distance from Lake Place, where we lived.
Ours was a three-roomed flat. The drawing room, which doubled as my father’s office, had most of the books including legal tomes. My books — yes, I quickly amassed a collection of my own — were mostly in a small almirah in the room that I shared with my sisters. I was lucky to be born in a book-loving family and that love was passed on to me quietly. It takes hindsight now, decades later, to spot the trail of bibliophilia that was laid out for me as a child.
As per the custom of the day, I was not allowed to read or write till I reached the grand age of five, which was when my hathe khari happened.
This didn’t mean I didn’t have books until then; only that they were picture books. That wasn’t all. After she finished her household chores for the day, my mother in her soft, musical voice would recite or hum nursery rhymes or doggerels, known as chhora in Bengali.
Her sources were two much thumbed and dog-eared slim books, Hashi-Rushi and Hashi-Khushi written by one Jogindranath Sarkar. Over 150 years ago, this gentleman, a school teacher by profession, devoted his whole life to educate and entertain tiny tots. I do not know whether he is read or remembered today, but at least the children my generation remain grateful to Sarkar Babu for teaching us the very basics.
I remember that one of those books had illustrations in a vibrant red and other striking colours. I often went through the pages, trying to fathom what all those lines of printed words conveyed. The rhymes in these books were basically meant to teach a child the alphabet. I remember two off the top of my head:
“Ole kheona, dhorbe golao
oshudh khete micchei bola”
(Don’t eat the yam, you’ll get a sore throat
Medicines then won’t do you any good)
“Ekkagari khub chhutechhe
Oi dekho bhai chand uthechhe.”
(The carriage runs with great speed
And look, the moon rises)*
Tradition demanded that my hathe khari, or my formal initiation to reading and writing, take place on the auspicious day Basanto Panchami, popularly known as Saraswati Puja. After an early morning bath, wearing a starched outfit, I sat cross-legged before a smiling and benevolent idol of the goddess of Learning. The puja was simple and brief. Of course, the whole time, my gaze was fixed on the heaps of sandesh, kadma and other sweet delicacies piled before Saraswati.
I remember my elder brother, senior to me by a decade, put me on his lap and asked me to concentrate on a black slate, on which he wrote a strange figure with a piece of chalk. Then he passed on the chalk to me and asked me to repeat the same exercise, explaining that this was the first letter of the alphabet. By copying his drawing, my learning would officially start.
All this took place exactly 60 years ago and it is difficult to say how much I understood the whole business, but with that black slate, piece of chalk and one letter began my love affair with the written word.
Hathe khari done, I concluded that I now had automatic access to all those books at home and the goddess’ magic would enable me to read and understand everything immediately. Alas! While I am old, I’m not old enough to lay claim to the age of miracles. Learning was not magic. It was regular sessions of grind that made up a formal education. A slim book and a slate were handed over to me. The book looked dull, drab and had no colourful illustrations. I was to go through it patiently, page by page, and in due course, once I’d mastered it, I was given the second volume.
Those two books were the formidable Barno Parichoy by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Children of my generation were guided through the language of Bengali by Vidyasagar’s creations Gopal, Rakhal and Bhuban. Gopal was good, Rakhal was bad and Bhuban was notorious for having bitten his aunt’s ear. Primers are rarely considered literary, but Barno Parichoy, like its inimitable creator, is a class apart. It taught me how to read and write Bengali, yes, but it also introduced me to the rudiments of fiction.
Rabindranath Tagore had admitted that he learnt the basics of poetry from Barno Parichay. In his later years, Tagore tried to create a similar primer, with no less than artist Nandalal Bose illustrating it, but in my opinion, Tagore’s Sahaj Path is a less talented cousin of Barno Parichoy.
Barno Parichoy pushed me through the basic hurdles of reading and writing. Finally, letters were no longer a mystery to me. It was time to go beyond the primers and my mother thought the safest route lay through the classics. She had her own little library and even now, I don’t know where she had hidden those books. They weren’t from the shelves in my father’s domain and it didn’t strike any of us four brothers and sisters to ask from where she conjured the books that all of us got from her. Years separate the four of us and I think we all read the same copies. By the time they reached me — I’m the youngest — they were quite tattered. I tried to save one or two for my daughter, but I don’t think they survived my journeys.
So, out of my mother’s hidden literary store, came Jogin Sarkar’s Chhotoder Ramayana (Ramayana for Children), followed by a dog-eared copy of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s Chheleder Mahabharat (Mahabharat for Boys).
Upendrakishore’s racy, conversational style swept aside Joginbabu’s plodding prose. I can still recommend it even for a kid of today because Upendrakishore was, like his son Sukumar Ray and grandson Satyajit Ray, extraordinarily talented. He wrote with such fluency that reading his books felt like listening to him telling you those stories. I knew the rough summary of both the epics, having heard them from the elders in the family, but I avidly read these retellings again and again to fill in the blanks.
Decades later, when I’m technically approaching my second childhood, I only have a couple of issues with Upendrakishore. The first one is, of course, the title. I find no reason why girls should be banned from studying the Mahabharata, so why this ‘boys only’ title? This was not expected from one of the leading liberals of the city whose mother-in-law happened to be the first Bengali lady with an active medical practice.
My other objection is to do with language. Every character speaks in proper Bengali in the book, except the rakshasas, who use a pidgin Bengali, which made it seem like the rakshasas didn’t know the language. I found it funny and comical then, but now the hierarchy that Upendrakishore was establishing using language seems gross and unrefined. Rakshasas should have their dignity!
The first English book I remember is an abridged and illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland. It was with the Walt Disney illustrations, I think. I also remember a book of fairy tales that introduced me to Red Riding Hood (I can still see the pop-out of a hungry wolf) and Goldilocks’s three bears. By the time I was seven or eight, I had read the Bengali translations of classics like The Three Musketeers, The Man In the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo, which had a profound impact on me. My other favourite was R.L. Stevenson. I loved Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Those days, we also had an excellent series of comics called Classics Illustrated, which rewrote the classics as comic books. I read almost all of Jules Verne, some Dostoevsky and slightly odd books like Cyrano De Bergerac in that form. I tried to locate them for my daughter when she started reading, but by then, they’d totally vanished.
Enid Blyton’s Noddy and I encountered each other much later, around my tenth year, and frankly speaking, I did not like him much. Our own literature, in Bengali, was much richer. More on that next time.
*NOTE FROM INEPT TRANSLATOR: The rhythm and phonetics of the Bengali words make these sound way cuter and amusing in their original.