I am slowly writing a much-procrastinated memoir. Thank you, readers, for indulging me by reading along.
This is the second half of I’ve Seen the Moon Rock, about the clubs in Jamshedpur, the small Indian town in which I grew up. The clubs were a central part of the social life of the town—and the club libraries, which I write about here, were a central part of my life!
Perhaps, this chapter won’t make it into the final version, or only make it briefly—but, for now, here it is.
Palaces of Peace and Dreaming
A few times a week, the ayah, our live-in help, walked my sister and me to the poky little library in the United Club to borrow books. I had learned to read easily, almost unconsciously, reading full-length books by the time I was six. The books I owned formed the emotional, imaginative center of my life, but these were soon read multiple times, and the libraries grew increasingly precious.
Jamshedpur felt safe, so my parents left us in the club library while they watched “adult” films. We joined other children in the empty billiard rooms, shooting bright balls across the green baize table, or congregating around the low tables with children’s magazines, puzzling: figuring out what was awry in images, spotting the difference, cracking mazes and connecting dots.
Comics covered tables, sweet magic. Richie Rich and his boundless wealth, every fantasy achieved, the American dream never metastasizing to nightmare–though how we love to pity poor little rich boys, sour grapes on our tongues.
Puzzled Dennis the Menace asking the preacher, “What if I love my neighbor and he don’t love me back?” while Mr. Wilson scowls. We pored over those tattered missals: Caspar, the friendly ghost; Wendy, the good witch; Hot Stuff, the naughty devil; Spooky and the Three Boos, all of which made the demonic adorable—and how Screwtape would have approved!
We devoured them all: Archie, Veronica, and Betty; “Bringing up Father;” the Moomins, a strip of which my father daily read in The Statesman; and “Phantom, the Ghost who Walks”. There was Batman, Spiderman, and Clark Kent, who morphed to Superman, all of whom we identified with, for didn’t we too have secret dreams and ambitions—and we hoped powers–unrecognized by the adult world?
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I wanted to read all the classics, with a collector’s longing for completeness, a mixture of pride, drivenness, and the love of goals. I ticked off the books I’d read from the list of classics at the back of each book, and tried to get hold of the rest. My father marveled at how swiftly I could pick out something good from the mass of fluff in the bookcases of our libraries or second-hand bookstores, intuitively gauging what might be good by the cover, publisher, imprint, and blurb.
There were some books, however, that I never finished despite repeated assaults on the first chapters: The Children of the New Forest, Lorna Doone, and books that I thought of as boy’s books: Coral Island, Black Beauty, Mutiny on the Bounty, Tom Brown’s School Days, Jules Verne, or Biggles the aviator.
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Enid Blyton was the J. K. Rowling of our day, the author who wrote books in addictive series, which were begged, borrowed, and never returned. I cried when my father showed me the report of her death in The Statesman. There would be no more Enid Blytons!!
Enid Blyton, incredibly, wrote 600 books, which accompanied us from infancy to adolescence, first courting us with fairy tales such as The Enchanted Wood, The Faraway Tree, and Noddy and Big Ears in little Toy Town, with faintly racist Gollywogs. These segued into Famous Five and Timmy the Dog, and the Secret Seven series, children solving what adults could not, living in a constant whirl of adventure, independence and unpredictability.
The first full-length book I read entirely by myself, aged six, was Last Term at Mallory Towers from Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers boarding school series. I snatched it from my mother when she would not continue reading it to me, and finished reading it myself! Blyton’s other boarding school series were St. Clare’s and, my favourite, The Naughtiest Girl in School, a moniker I acquired in both my schools, and a kind of redemption story, for eventually The Naughtiest Girl Becomes a Monitor, which one year I did.
Though Blyton was apparently not a great mother—like many children’s writers, she remained a child imaginatively and emotionally—she perfectly appealed to a child’s fantasies, fears, passions and longings for independence.
Ah, how she captured boarding school life—decency and malice, honesty and deceit, anguish and excitement, politics and sweet friendship. Mallory Towers and St. Clare’s portrayed The Lord of The Flies world of boarding schools, and perhaps scripted the things we did there, life imitating art: midnight feasts, snowball fights, and sending people “to Coventry”–the whole class agreeing not to talk to a girl, a psychic strain which led three girls to attempt suicide, for human beings, after all, are social animals.
The club libraries stocked several boarding school stories, a version of the orphan story so beloved by children, which simultaneously thrills and appalls: Angela Brazil’s secret world of foreign boarding schools, What Katy Did at School, and, set in England, the fat bespectacled Billy Bunter, an ancestor of Harry Potter. If the library had it, I read it: Just William, Nancy Drew and all eight books of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series which I loved.
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Sometimes, all our family read the same books: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series, about his adventures as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales; Gerard Durrell who, like me, was born in Jamshedpur; and volumes of the nuanced, understated, pitch-perfect, quintessentially English humour of P. G. Wodehouse, whom my father called the blind pig, and I loved!
I read every Agatha Christie mystery I could find when I was eleven, asking my father for four bars of Cadbury’s chocolate and four Agatha Christies for my Christmas present. Oh, the pleasures of a purposeless childhood!
Aged 12, I, inexplicably, decided to read all the Mills and Boons romances I could find, keeping a list of each title I had read, with the number on their spine, but fortunately giving up after having read 102 romances!
I then progressed to Ruby M. Ayres, Denise Robbins, Barbara Cartland, and the gay rakes of the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, which I considered rather elegant, particularly those which traced the fortunes of an aristocratic family through four generations–William Faulkner for every woman. And then, by 13, I was pretty much done with romances per se. Phew!!
I then slightly inched up to Taylor Caldwell rags to riches stories, set in 19th century America; and Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy (who were the same person as Philippa Carr, one of eight pseudonyms of Eleanor Hibbert who wrote 200 books, many of which were in our school library). Well, I read every historical novel I could find– Quo Vadis?; Desiree, about Napoleon’s true love; The Last Days of Pompeii; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Arthurian romances like Mary Stewart’s, and Restoration novels, delighted by details like the fops and dandies carrying around little pomanders of oranges studded with cloves to ward off the nauseating odors of the streets.
After a mid-teen phase of thrillers, I gave them up for life–devouring and discarding entire genres!! I gulped down Helen MacInnes, Frederick Forsythe, The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Dogs of War, Arthur Hailey’s Hotel and Airport; Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, (which disturbed me though I didn’t really get it). My father was outraged when he noticed me read the graphic and sexual novels of James Hadley Chase and Harold Robbins. “Your books will take you to hell,” he said, grabbing them, scaring me.
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The Second World War, the Nazis, the concentration camps were live literary and cinematic subjects, and the Club’s management sscreened numerous World War II films, and stacked the libraries with World War II novels. I felt permanently branded by second-hand Holocaust horrors: yellow stars and hidden attics, windowless cattle trucks, the punitive shooting of every tenth person, the overcrowdings, exhaustion, starvation, humiliations and cruelties of the Camps.
I read The Diary of Anne Frank, of course; Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and the novels of Leon Uris: The Angry Hills, set in Greece; his masterpiece, Exodus, an exhaustively researched and wonderful novel about the birth of Israel; QB VII, a scabrous novel about medical experimentation on Jewish prisoners; and Mila 18, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Since there were few Christian books available in that Hindu and Parsee town, out of a strange, subconscious sense of duty, I read all the “Christian” novels in the Club. Along with my parents, I read several novels by A. J. Cronin, and remember getting deeply upset and tearful, my blood boiling at The Keys of the Kingdom, the life of unlucky, sweet Father Francis Chisholm. I read Morris West, Lloyd Douglas, Catherine Marshall’s Christy and Julie; Margaret Craven’s haunting and beautiful, I Heard the Owl Call my Name, and Taylor Caldwell’s fictional biographies of Luke, Dear and Glorious Physician, and of Paul, Great Lion of God.
Yes, indeed, I read whatever came to hand, a cetacean opening its cavernous mouth–nonfiction about Indian history: The Judgment, Freedom at Midnight, and Zulfy, my Friend; biographies of Nicholas and Alexandra; of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson; of the Rothschilds, Field Marshall Montgomery, Queen Victoria, Napoleon, whatever was on the biography shelf. Indiscriminate as a whale, I devoured genius and trash, The Enemy Within, about the American Mafia; The Leopard by Lampedusa, Papillon by Henri Charriere—about fourteen years of hard labour in the Devil’s Island Penal Colony, and books of my parent’s generation, Ryder Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She; James Hilton’s Shangri-La and Goodbye Mr. Chips. I read Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale when I was ten and was disgusted to discover it was not really a fairy tale, or about animals.
“You are reading too fast; you won’t remember what you are reading,” my father said, quizzing me at random on Ninety Days at Entebbe, about the brilliant rescue missis by Israeli commandoes of the hostages on the plane hijacked at Entebbe, but I then had an excellent short-term memory and, indeed, memory.
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The libraries were run on the card system. You took the card out of its little jacket; examined who read it before you, wrote your name; handed in the card, took the book.
“Are you sure you should be reading these?” the librarian asked doubtfully, seeing me check out adult books, but they accepted my glib assurances.
I checked out the risque Angelique novels because they appeared to be historical novels, which I then adored. They were written by “Sergeann Golon,” a composite for a husband-wife team, Serge Golub, a Russian aristocrat and geologist who fled the Russian Revolution, and his French wife, Anne Golon.
The novels detailed Angelique’s sexual adventures in ancien regime France; she improbably gets kidnapped by pirates, becomes a slave in the Harem of the Sultan of Morocco, gets sexually brutalized by the Head of the French Police, becomes a countess, meets the Sun King, Louis XIV. Mild erotica: brutal, humiliating, but apparently thrilling sex, (the first sexual descriptions I’d ever read) slightly elevated by the ancien regime, the real historical personae and the elegant clothes.
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My parents let me choose my own books once I was old enough to read by myself, and so I had. I read four or five of the Angelique novels at home, unremarked on.
On my fourteeth birthday, Mrs. Cherian, our tall American neighbor, hollered for my mother at the hole in the hedge at which each woman stood on her own territory and gossiped for twenty or thirty minutes, still standing. “Tell her I’ll call her back,” my mother said, putting the finishing touches on the cake. I relayed the message, my thumb as a bookmark in Angelique.
But Mrs. Cherian could not wait.
She was back in five minutes. “Celine, Celine, Celine,” she hollered.
My mother came running.
“Celine, do you know what Anita is reading?”
“No. What?” Two lawns away, where I sat reading, I heard Mrs Cherian’s voice, in a dramatic hush, “Angelique.”
“What’s Angelique? my mother asked plaintively.
“Angelique is a dirty, filthy book,” Mrs. Cherian squawked.
“Noel,” my mother yelled, the moment my father came home.
Shouting, screaming, tears, “Your books will take you to hell,” and Angelique banned, though I bought one on a railway platform on my way up to boarding school, where the good nuns were thrown off by the gown and bustles and the air of historicity. They, of course, confiscated it, (along with every book brought from home) only to release them during the ten day summer holidays, which I spent at school, finally getting Angelique out of my bloodstream.
5 My maternal grandmother, Molly Coelho, “Small Nana;” My grandfather who lived by the sea and taught me to love poetry; My Uncle Eustace, The Maharaja; My Uncle Mervyn; My Maiden Aunt Joyce; Youpee; Decembers in Gay Bombay.
6 Travels with my Father. Mangalore, my ancestral hometown. Dread Evening Prayers at my Grandmother’s House. My great-uncle Norbert, a pious crook; My grandmother, Josephine, and my grandfather, Dr. Piedade Felician Mathias, OBE. Christmas in Mangalore, and Mandatory Visits to all our nun relatives. My aunts, Ethel, the Empress, Winnie, the Grand Duchess, and Joyce, the Duchess. Mandatory Christmas visits. My saintly Great-Aunt Rosie, and her Rebel Daughter Marie. Arranged Marriages, and the Consequences of Small Town Inbreeding