From the countless books and comics that I used to gobble up as a boy, a handful stands out shining bright in my memory. One of them is ‘Our Children’ – there is a recent post on it. Another was the first complete English novel I read when I was 9 – ‘Ten Little Niggers’ by Agatha Christie. Its name was later changed to ‘And Then There Were None’. It is a chilling murder mystery based on a haunting nursery rhyme. Another is the Malayalam translation of ‘Swami & his Friends’ by R K Narayan, which any Indian anglophile would have read. There were illustrations in it by R K Laxman. Oh, how I identified with Swami! Even after reading the English original, I somehow prefer the Malayalam version. It is kind of strange to read our culture and life described in an alien language. But most of all, the book I loved and still loves the best is ‘Pinneyo Rama?’ (What then, Raman?) by Shirley L Arora, published in 1961.
The novel is about a poor young boy, Raman, who grows up in Kodaikanal, in the Palni hills. The period is late 50s or early 60s. Raman, around 11 or 12, is the son of a wood cutter. His mother sells vegetables. His illiterate father has great dreams about his son. Raman, unlike most of his friends in the village, goes to a school in the valley. Books open up a world of fantasy to Raman.
Raman is obsessed with Hindu mythological stories. Every single paisa he would save to buy illustrated books that had the stories of the Mahabharatha war or Ramayana. As Raman moves into the world of literature, he gradually moves away from the illiterate community in which he lives. As the only boy ‘who studies in the valley school’, Raman finds himself alienated from his old friends who think Raman is stuck-up. Due to his studies, Raman cannot contribute to the family kitty as much other boys. For his family, Raman’s schooling and his future would be the breaking out of the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
One day an American lady comes to stay in one of the bungalows of Yercadu. She is old and handicapped. She paints pictures of flowers. Raman is asked to collect Orchids from the deep forests, for which he is paid handsomely. Raman saves a small percentage of his earnings. His objective is to buy that One Single Book in the village book shop – a big illustrated book on Ramayana. Gradually he saves up enough. The coming day is the big day he will be the proud owner of the book. That night as he was about to sleep beside his young sister and brother, Raman notices the torn and patched blanket draped over them. Raman knows his responsibility as elder brother; yet he is torn between his passion for books and the harsh reality of his poverty.
Next day, Raman goes to the bookstore; but then rush down to another shop and buys a blanket. He returns to the bookseller and looks longingly at the book he had nearly bought. He tells the old bookseller – ‘Grandpa, I will definitely buy that book one day when I save up again. But would that book be there then?’ The old man replies gently – ‘Yes son, it will be. I will definitely keep it for you’.
‘What then, Raman?’ is a coming-of-age kind of book. Weaved through the above brief outline I have given is the beautiful colours of a culture and a pathos that has long ago left our minds. It is as gentle as the cool breeze that sweep through our mountains, reminding us of a way of life that has been taken away by the tides of time.
I cannot remember how many times I have read it. About a decade back I salvaged the English original from a roadside hawker. It is renamed as ‘Tiger on the Mountain’, referring to a legend narrated in the novel. I googled Shirely L Arora and found that she was an American married to an Indian. She is a Professor of Spanish and Portugese. I tried a lot to contact her but to no avail.
My son and most of his peers do not read much. The way we used to as youngsters. It not only improved our language skills but also our power of imagination and instilled human values. It gave us access to cultures across the world and insight into human life. Movies and internet are poor substitutes. Where we used to gaze at the vast horizon, my son’s generation's vision is narrowed by blinders.
Please see http://mytravelsmylife.blogspot.in/2011/01/happiness-is-book.html also