I was one of those restless children. I could never bring myself to sit still. I loved the great outdoors, I lived to get muddy, and I collected scabs with the enthusiasm of a wine collector looking to fill his cellar with rare vintages. So it goes without saying that reading was never at the top of my list of priorities; in fact, it had a place way down at the bottom, somewhere between taking baths and eating upma.
I still don’t eat upma, and I enjoy bathing only thanks to the delicious flavours of shower gels that The body Shop has enticed me with. But reading has shot to the top of my priority list and for that I have only one man to thank. The best man in my life.
Till seven years of age, I disliked reading anything that didn’t get me marks on examinations. In fact, I doubt the thought of reading ever even crossed my mind, outside of classwork, homework, or exam preparations. I preferred running around causing as much mischief as I could, and I simply did not understand people who enjoyed spending their time with their noses buried in books.
So, when I was seven years old, my father decided it was time to get me acquainted with the brilliant authors who would turn out to play crucial roles in the formative years of my life.
My father doesn’t read much. He has expressed regret that he didn’t read more when he was younger and wondered out loud multiple times if he might have had his own mini-library if only someone had pushed him to try new things. He made sure my brother and I had no lack of moral support and made us try everything he could think of, from classical dance and the tabla, to swimming and the guitar. Fortunately, he also gave us the freedom to keep a wide berth from the activities we didn’t feel comfortable with. Needless to say, our classical music careers ended before it reached a proper audience.
Once in a while, he’d get excited about the prospect of reading and make me pick out a book which would hold his interest. He’d carry it around wherever he went, and even read a few chapters before inevitably losing it somewhere. He never admits to losing the books; he claims that they’re simply ‘misplaced’. He ‘misplaced’ Swami and Friends last, but I find solace in the fact that Swami and his friends are more fortunate than I and at least got to fly to Dubai free of cost.
So, armed with patience, he embarked on what was undeniably one of his hardest quests in life. His little spitfire was to start reading.
I was to sit down quietly with any book of my choice and free to do as I liked, as long as I didn’t forsake my post for the next one hour. He didn’t push me at all; maybe my grandmother had warned him that I was not known to do anything I didn’t really want to do.
There was no compulsion of any kind – to read or not to read, that was my choice.
The only rules were that I sit with the book open to any page of my choice, I stay put, and I use a hard-backed chair instead of our plush black leather couch.
I chose my English textbook whose pages were full of short stories and interesting pictures in tones of sepia.
You would think I could have borne those sixty minutes with fortitude to make my father happy, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt like punishment. I felt that I was squandering away my sunlit hours; hours I felt sure were better spent at the park or down by the corniche.
So I did what children do when faced with distasteful tasks; I resisted with all my might.
I sulked when I had to sit down at the designated time, but nobody paid any attention to me and went about their daily business. I tried to engage passers-by in conversation, but my mother and brother were given strict instructions to ignore me till the hour was up. Desperate, I even tried feigning hunger and begging for food, sure that my mother would melt, but that just resulted in my being fed promptly everyday before my hour-long torture began.
Then I did what children do when their tantrums go unheeded; I gave up and accepted my fate.
I started flicking through the pages of my textbook, determined to flip pages for the rest of my life if I had to. I had no intention of reading a single word and my dad showed no interest in compelling me to do so. He was perfectly content as long as I sat quietly and there was an open book in front of me.
I stared at the pages as hours turned into days and never took a word in. My father never interfered. There seemed to be some sort of battle of wills between us and I felt like I was winning. I flipped away, hoping the day he would cave was near. I couldn’t wait till he decided that I was a lost cause.
After a few days of this, I ran out of new pictures to examine and my bored brain accidentally read one of the stories that had particularly puzzling pictures. How the Elephant got Its Trunk.
I zoomed in on the pictures. There was a baby elephant that looked more like a wild boar than an elephant with it’s short upturned snout. My eyes and I worked hard together to ignore the words that followed and moved cautiously till we found the next picture.
The elephant seemed engrossed in conversation with a crocodile, who looked half poised to climb on to land. To my horror, the next picture looked like the crocodile was trying to bite off the elephant’s face. The final picture showed me that the elephant had not, in fact, been devoured whole by the crocodile and he finally looked like a real elephant; rounded body, proportional legs, a demure tail and a long, thick trunk. Conventional elephant beauty in all its glory!
By then, I was captivated.
How did the crocodile convince the elephant to move that close to him? Surely, he knew it was dangerous! I needed to understand the powers of persuasion that the crocodile employed. Maybe I could use it to convince my father that what I deserved in life was a little more screen time and a little less sheet time. I simply had to find out the crocodile’s words! And so I took a deep breath, and plunged in headfirst.
That was the first time I forayed into a world of magic. I took my first faltering steps and started reading the short story. When my designated time was up, I was barely halfway through. The next day, I surprised my parents by sitting past my sixty-minute mark to finish the whole story.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I not only found out how the elephant got his trunk several times, but I also read the textbook cover-to-cover and realized that I enjoyed every bit of it.
On our next trip to the 7 Days (supermarket) near us, I got my very first book, The Three Billy Goats Gruff. and never looked back.
My father didn’t give up on me. He won the silent battle we fought, and I am indebted to him for life. I’m grateful that he persevered so courageously in the face of my pigheadedness, because it gave me the power to shape my life as it is today. He not only gave me the best things in this world, but also created a whole new world of happiness for me; an alternate fantasy that I could escape into when reality got too gloomy or too dull.
I owe it all to him, my best man, from the paychecks that foot my bills to the companionship of fairy tale creatures on lonely rainy days.