On June 19, 2020, India observed the 25th year of National Reading Day. How did I come to know of this? Because of the huge fanfare and media buzz on the day. If you did not hear the buzz, you should either not me a Malayali or not an Indian. National Reading Day is a big deal for, us, the people of Kerala because it is celebrated in honor of Father of India’s Library Movement – Puthuvayil Narayana Panicker. He was the man who initiated library movement in Kerala, and he was responsible for the cultural movement advocating reading. Panicker passed away on June 19, 1995 (the year I was born) and thus his death anniversary became celebrated as National Reading Day. (https://www.timesnownews.com/education/article/national-reading-day-heres-why-india-celebrates-reading-day-on-june-19-all-about-p-n-panicker/608809)
This year, because we had all the time in the world, my mother was particularly enthusiastic about Reading Day. She had read a newspaper article wherein a retired army officer gave an account of how reading a fiction book profoundly affected him- the said book gave him the courage to deal with the painful experience he was living through (he was caring for his young bed-ridden sister). My mother was deeply moved by the review and decided then and there that she will read this book. Incidentally, she had some “essential” errands to run on the same day, and during which she managed to pop into a bookstore. Unfortunately, the bookstore did not have the book she wanted but she decided to make the best of the trip and bought me “The English Teacher” by R K Narayan. Why this book? Reason 1. I loved Malgudy days by R K Narayan and Reason 2 she wanted to support Indian authors and Indian business!
My mother is not easy to dissuade. She came home and demanded that we buy her the sought-after book online. And this we did easily and today the book arrived in all its splendor. As I write this my mother is deeply engrossed in the lives of fictional characters. And I completed The English Teacher a couple of hours ago. Initially, I was tempted to write a review of The English Teacher, a book that I had put-off reading till today, and then breezed through. But this book is best left to the readers to explore.
Both of my parents love reading, my father loves his newspapers and my mother loves fiction and spirituality. And me? I was the late entrant into the reading club.
Like every other child, I lived stories and annoyed my parents and grandmother for stories. My mother was the one who indulged me, she would read out stories for me. This continued even after I started school and learned to read. You see I had some sort of problem with reading back then. I found it exceedingly difficult to string letters into words and coax the meaning out of them. Particularly the ever-impetuous girl could not deal with the initial pain of reading and gaining familiarity with different fonts and type phases. I used to read only the school material back then. But my mother was tired of the reading ritual because I persisted in being read to despite being “capable” of reading myself. So, one day she had a grand idea. She asked my book-lover cousins to get me into reading while I stayed at their home for the holidays. My cousins who were entrusted to get me “into reading” were 9-10 years older than me. They loved me dearly but had no clue about my reading level. Hence, they did what they thought best, they gave me one of the fat volumes of the Harry Potter series (I can’t remember which one.). This had a disastrous consequence, I could not manage the huge book (not even a few paragraphs) and swore off reading and decided TV is my new best friend. My cousins were disappointed that I did not share their enthusiasm for Harry Potter, but my mother was relieved as I had stopped demanding to be read to.
For the next 3-4 years, the only books I laid my hands on were textbooks. Then came the glorious day when we were issued the school library cards! From now on we could borrow one book from the library for one week. I wanted to immediately exercise this new power of borrowing books but when I landed at the library with my friends in tow, I had no idea what to read or where to start. Somebody helpfully suggested I try Nancy Drew series. I was told that young girls would like the adventure of amateur girl detectives. Thus, I borrowed my first ever book from the library a Nancy Drew. Whoever had advised me was right because throughout that school year I devoured adventure stories as if my life depended on it!
Then in one summer vacation of 2007 or 08, just before I was going off to my cousin’s place my mother gave me “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini. This would become the first proper novel that I read. The book has since earned a permanent position in my favorite list. Over the years I have come to love many of the books my mother cherished like The Thorn Birds, Prize, Class, Doctors, Daddy, etc. I don’t think I would have read these books had mother not suggested them because they were all published ages ago, the books that my peer group neither knows about nor is interested in but I have come to love them.
I was late into reading, but I am glad that I started it anyway. My cousins practically read half of the library at the age when I first set foot in one. One of the friends who is a voracious reader started at the age of 7, so you see I have been late into reading but as they say better late than never.
A burnt child dreads the fire. And I refused to read Harry Potter even when my peers started reading it (this was a couple of years after my own experience with the fat book). I would have stayed away for a lifetime had it not been for my brother. (If you find me to a spoilt person -blame my brother!) He bought me the collectors edition of the series, pretty books that came in a pretty case! I was one over by aesthetics! And it was when I saw the books myself that I realized the first book of the series was a child’s read! My cousins were right in their choice of the series, just wrong in giving me the only book they had with them then (probably a book later in the series). I loved Harry Potter, and I missed the chance of growing up with Harry Potter because the characters lived through the typical pains of growing up! (As an adult, now I feel the series could have been much better, say let each of the Houses win at least in one of the books, or maybe focus on other Houses too rather than just obsessing with just one).
Reading has tons of benefits but what was most striking and important for me as an individual (an ex-narcissist) was empathy. It is through fiction that I learned the impact one person can have, the perspective of others, the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of people who are very different from me. I don’t know if I am any wiser for all the books that I have read but I am sure it made me a better human better by helping me grasp emotions and people who are different from me. Reading opened up my mind and gave it wings to soar above mundane worries and narrow concerns of ordinary life.
If you are an avid reader, what does reading mean to you?
If you have never read, try cause it is better late than never. Trust me, because I’ve been there and done that.