When we were growing up on a junior officers salary, books, cheap then, were plentiful in quality as well. Magazines from abroad did not have heavy taxes. There were few enough publications coming out of Indian presses, books or magazines in English. My parents, particularly Mummy, were instrumental in our creative instincts (though I don’t know who coloured the portrait of Jane Austen in my mother’s copy of Pride and Prejudice), and our pleasure in reading.
However, Mummy stopped reading after she couldn’t walk anymore as if there was a direct relation of one ability to the other. This was a change in her that made an enormous difference to our lives. She did not want communication of one mind with another through a book which benefits people who are alone some of the time. She wanted non-stop communication with physical human beings. especially those in the near family, our nieighbour Aunty Joan, and the Swamis.
What a reader she had been! And a quiet writer. She was inspired to write by reading. I treasure her handwriting found in old notebooks and diaries and her letters to my children. She had a perfectly well-formed script, writing clearly and neatly. I have sheets of paper on which she wrote about her young life in the new India, some stories for children, recipes and other samples of her wide-ranging mind. Then her hands became unsteady, not remaining quite still with a pen.
Her favourite literature had been Russian, translated of course. And her most loved author was Dostoevsky…the Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot. Both my parents read literature, novels, magazines and newspapers, but did not get intellectual with us because they were not.
Mummy had an eye for inspirited writing and people drawn into fascinating or eccentric characters. I found it confusing to read about people in Russian literature until she explained one characters many names. No one in the family had gone through these authors as she had, nor read Moliere or Racine and other things French…she taught herself the language. She was too shy to try and speak but she filled notebook pages with French grammar. Both parents had the perseverance to teach themselves something, my father would start projects from scratch and learnt to write Hindi and Telugu, my mother stuck with the Roman script…they had learnt Urdu in their schooling years in the 30s and 40s. My daughter studied French for six or seven years in college so she and Mummy would exchange some phrases and thoughts via letters.
I remember when she was younger she spent a lot of time reading. Besides literature, she was the greatest fan of the Detective genre and did not turn up her nose at romantic novels…they were quite OK with her but we, grown up and ‘knowing stuff’ now, actually chided and kidded her about this. She wasn’t bothered…something educative, something entertaining, something escapist, it was all good.
Presently it is tough to get the peruser of Henry Fielding and Mikhail Sholokhov, and Tolstoy and Pepys himself, to sign a cheque, so much as (to withdraw her pension), and she put away her reading glasses many years ago, never picking them up again. Worse, she barely talks. If I sit near her she will look at me from time to time, a look I can’t comprehend and it makes me upset and sad. In those last years in Brahmanpalli, in the about four years she had with my father after her accident and before his death, she had been quite lucid and would speak the most to him, but she was beginning to close communication down.
In 2007, while staying there I was using the computer a lot while following the rise and rise of Barack Obama. I had also been searching sites and printing poetry for her, introducing her to Maya Angelou and Adrienne Rich. She loved their poems…but it was short lived. She grew to dislike us suggesting anything to divert her. Earlier, when I printed poems for her she clutched the pages while walking from room to room. She enjoyed memorizing and quoting bits of verse.
I don’t forget that this frail ghost of herself had by sheer example, and of course the gift of buying books, taught all her daughters the meaning of engaging one’s mind with someone else’s through the written word. As teens if we went off with Denis where there were books available, she would tell us to get her something. And in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, of all places, in a tiny bookstore we found Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. She couldn’t get over what a treat that was, just loving the ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ line. She would enjoy, (if only she would), the work of the British author Lynn Truss, always delighting in word fun and games and learning good language.
Well that was then. This time while about to write I thought lighten up, cheer up, bear up, she’s not unhappy, her life is quiet and sedate, why do I expect her to prove something more? She possibly has a declined memory of the village we loved a lot, or she wants to say nothing, nor do I think it’s our business to prod her about whether she remembers Denis.
She calls me by my sister’s name, but that’s alright since every few months we take it in turns to have her with us. But who can forget that someone whose enquiring mind influenced us to have curious minds too. My sisters and I find our childhood, though far from idyllic, full of adventure and anecdote as relayed by her and Denis. And this becomes a file choked with memories of a mother who was not exactly the model of maternity, but the very model of do your own thing…if you want to. In the Brahmanpalli house there were shelves and boxes full of things to read, wildly swinging between topics (where did Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara’s ‘Guerilla Warfare’ go?).
And now some of those books have joined ours.