In my childhood I had been afflicted with a literate babysitter who kept me entertained and killed boredom by reading aloud to me. The choice of reading matter was not restricted to children’s fare, but anything available at home in the vernacular. As a result I was exposed to the classics and epics and translations of major foreign works, which I could not comprehend, but enjoyed the resonance of words. Both my parents being avid readers, there were plenty of books available at home, and we never ran short of reading material. I sometimes repeated lines heard from these books in adult company, which gave rise to speculation that I was either a child prodigy, or had memories of past lives.
Starting kindergarten and my spectacular lack of success there soon laid rest to such speculation. But despite my poor form in school, the one skill I picked up fast was learning to read. And read I did, avidly, without discrimination, often without understanding, and frequently inappropriate material.
The net result was poor grades, poor eyesight, poor posture, poor health and a precocious temperament.
As I grew older my addiction came to the notice of authority figures. I got sent to the principal for reading fiction in class hidden in texts. The same camouflage worked at home though, as long as I could intercept the letters to my parents issued by school and forge signatures on my diary. But they did catch on to some extent as certain books started disappearing from the bookshelves to be kept discreetly in my parents’ bedroom. This actually was a good guide as to what to read. While in junior school, the library restricted our borrowings to one book per week, so I started picking up digests, anthologies and books by the girth rather than subject or author. Our neighborhood lending libraries augmented this with more discerning matter.
Our moving to a new locality and moving to senior school had a moderating effect, as I had access to a swimming pool, playing fields, bigger libraries and better teachers. I started outdoor games with enthusiasm, my grades improved, I started editing a” little magazine”, started writing, and chose what I read according to my developing tastes in literature.
The next stage was college. The incredible collection of the University library was disastrous to the addict. Combined with the freedom of the hostel, the additional lure of world cinema through the cine clubs, I practically dropped out of classes. Other attractions were the second hand book bazaars, introduction to spirits that uplift the spirit, and expanding the limits of the mind not only through the printed word, but through additional herbal and chemical aids. I became an early version of today’s net junkie, who forgets to eat sleep and work. I was the print junkie.
The outcome was predictable; Disastrous results, threats of expulsion for lack of attendance and severe weight loss. I badly needed detoxification.
This came in the form of the benevolent government, who provided employment to young people with no useful skills but with a fund of useless knowledge, and an ability to tick the right boxes in MCQs meant to test your IQ, vocabulary and knowledge of trivia. Thus I was gainfully employed and thrown in an environment where literacy, although not unheard of, was definitely frowned upon.
Therefore, when I came across a colleague who had similar proclivities, we promptly got married. Our children inherited the vice, and our home began to look like one of those second hand bookshops we loved to forage in. Shifting home became a major exercise in logistics moving the pile of printed matter in a forest of cartons.
Years later, at a conference, a colleague explained the clinical side of my addiction. He was miffed at my unsocial behavior of carrying books during the journey and in the resort. Reading such fat tomes, he concluded, makes the mind dull and lethargic.
I have since then tried to keep my shameful secret well hidden from my work colleagues.