“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

‘What then, Raman?’

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.

Balachandran, Trivandrum 19.05.2010

Please see http://mytravelsmylife.blogspot.in/2011/01/happiness-is-book.html also


  1. i read this piece with some kind of excitement because, by a strange coincidence, 'Pinneyo Rama' is the first book i remember having read from beginning to end, at the age of eight or nine, just like you! i got the book from a friend and returned it and Raman used to come back to my mind everytime i went to the forests trekking. i would then look up to see whether there were orchids growing in the high branches. then my heart would go pounding sensing a tiger prowling somewhere. my thought would then go the bookstall where Raman stood indecisive clutching the coins in his hand. something choking fills the chest everytime i think of that moment. it happened when i read your piece too.
    i had never known who the writer was. i remembered just that she was an English lady (an American, as you inform now). I had often wanted to find out, but the book never came my way afterwards.
    i want to borrow it from you to read it once again.

  2. Anytime, Venu! :) On the way to the hills one morning, Raman buys a piece of Laddu and a cold Bonda. The description of biting into the mashed potato and ginger is still mouth-watering! I became a devout Bonda aficionado since then!

  3. it was a long time ago, i have forgotten all except the total feel of the book. my recollection is Raman found an orchid much dreamed of my the painter lady while seeing a tiger and quietly climbing a tree to let it pass. my recollection also is he had bought the woollen cloth for his sick grandfather... well, i do want to read it again. the first book is always a big experience.

  4. Most folks of our generation has these simple but etched pieces of experience through books.R.K.Narayan, Enid Blyton, Mali,the animated classics of Lee Falk being a few.
    And how we have transmigrated into those many characters while at walk and in our sleep!
    Children of the present day are of a different genre and is simply discomforting to us to agonise over their anathema for the print

  5. Dear Balachandran,

    I consider Pinnayo Rama the same way you do. I succeeded in contacting Sherley L. Arora an year back and I had written an article in a house magazine about my experience. Would like to share it with you. Can you please contact me?

    D. Nanda Kumar
    Mob. 9447709048

  6. To those who read this post:

    I am wrong; the locale is not Yercadu, but Kodaikanal, in Tamil Nadu. This was confirmed by the author herself in a correspondence with Mr.Nandakumar. I would like to add that Mrs.Arora, though in her eighties, is,happily settled with her son in California, USA.

  7. Hi,
    I was looking for a movie by name "Bettada Hoovu" in Kannada, (meaning, Mountain Flower in English) which I wanted to show to my little kids. I had seen this movie decades back. In the title cards I found that the movie is based on "What then, Raman?" by Shirley Arora. Then I stumbled upon this link. It is really a touching story of a poor little boy and how he looks at life. The movie also has come very well and this movie got Punith the National award for acting as Ramu.

    Nice reading your blog.


  8. Approximately at the age of ten, I read the book ‘Pinnayo Rama’ in Malayalam from the children’s section of our local library. This children’s section consisted two wooden glass almirah’s, one wooden table and bench along the passage to main section. Those almirah’s used to be kept locked and on request library assistant will come and open one of them with a key he kept.
    Now I am 54 years. But still remember the boy’s search for orchids, the white lady living in the hilltop bungalow, the handsome price she offered for some special type of orchid.
    The nostalgic remembrances used to come and go in my mind all through these years. Still even after the advent of internet I never thought of searching about it. Any idea about the author lost with the passing of years. I always thought, because of the subject and style, its author is R K Narayan.
    Today I sat down purposefully by computer side and searched the book typing the Malayalam words ‘Pinnayo Rama’ and there it is! All the required details in your blog. Thank you Mr. Balachandran.

  9. This is a very old post, and my reply is very late. I am thrilled that other people remember this book. It was in our town library in the 1970's, and I read it only once or twice at about age ten, in Australia. Yet I've never forgotten it, although I did forget the details about the orchids. What stuck in my mind was the character of Raman, his poignant desire for something better, and above all the moment when he turned from the book he wanted, to buy a warm, red blanket for his little sister. That book made me realise how lucky I was to be educated and not to have to make such choices. The ending genuinely surprised me, too, as it was such a revelation: 'Education is wonderful, but caring about others is even greater.'

    1. Dear Mr McKinnon,

      So happy to hear from you. This book is treasured by many of my generation (late 1950s - mid 60s). Several had called me up or written to me; I could provided them photocopy of the now out of print book. I was also able to correspond with Ms Arora; she was overjoyed that we still remember her book!

      It gladdens me so much to learn that someone so far away in Australia read it - and still remember it with pleasure. Thank you so much!

    2. please can you send me a copy on email. I read it as a child in hindi and it has stayed in my mind .. my e mail is ashishsimalti@rediffmail.com.

    3. I want to read this book for my son, could you please provide me the photocopy. Many thanks. My mail id is prati.anand@gmail.com

    4. I am surprised Shirley Arora did not respond to you? If you email me at williamsb@wpunj.edu I can provide you a contact for her. Unless you had the right email! I think she was really proud of that book, because I remember when it was made into a film that won an award... Bruce

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  11. My father has been searching for a copy of 'Pinneyo Rama' for a long time now and its his biggest wish that me and my sister also experience the magic of reading this book. But as the book is too old its nowhere to be found here. He still cherish reading the book long back during his school days.
    Can i please have a copy?? It would indeed be a pleasant surprise for him as well as for me and my sis.. My mail id: renjithtms@gmail.com

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ranjit! I will drop a mail to you soon. I hardly ever blog these days! Meanwhile, do read another post on the book: http://mytravelsmylife.blogspot.in/2011/01/happiness-is-book.html

  12. I read this book as a child because I was fascinated by anything Indian. I loved it and never forgot it (I was a child long ago.) I grew up to study and teach British Imperial history, and taught courses on Modern India for many years. This book is a treasure trove of cultural information and nuances, and of universal wisdom. I still love it!

    1. Thank you for your comment! I haven't been blogging for a while and omitted to notice your comment. Happy that you enjoyed the book .

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  14. If anyone has Marathi version of this book..then plz inform me akiraspace56@gmail.com is my email address.. I've been searching for this book from very long time so plz if anyone has it ..then plz drop me an email.


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