“The Girl Who Ate Books” by Nilanjana Roy has been my companion on my work commute all this week and I finally finished reading it last night by the simple expedient of refusing to accompany my family on a social outing and choosing to hang out with ‘The Girl’ instead.
This book is a collection of newspaper and magazine columns and interviews culled from a journalistic career spanning decades. The chapters have been carefully sorted and organised into relevant sections but the overriding theme sings out and it is book love. For people of my generation, this sort of love is almost a given. Before the advent of cable TV and video games, our only escape lay in books. I was nodding along almost throughout this book but if there was one section that was all the reason I really needed to read this book, it would be the Baba Yaga one.
Roy mentions how in an interview after the publishing of “The Wildings” she had named “Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Kipling’s Jungle Book, Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs and The Three Fat Men by Yuri Olesha” as her influences. While the interviewer had faithfully reported Adams and Kipling, she’d left out the Russian authors. The thing is after the break up of the Soviet Union and the opening up of the Indian economy, the Russian books vanished quietly and completely from our shelves. If they stayed behind, it was only in the collective memories of a generation of young Indian readers.
My older one is nine and sometime last year I thought about introducing him to The Three Fat Men. I trawled bookstores and the internet but the hardbound version of this book that I had read was nowhere to be found. I raided my parents library, taxed my siblings with searching theirs but that much loved book was gone. I finally got the kindle version but it just didn’t cut it. For one, the beautiful illustrations that we had copied and re-copied and coloured as children were not there. And then, I was made to realise that the original book I had read must have been a translation – I had not thought about this at the time. What gave it away now? The kindle version was translated differently. Tibul the acrobat is served fried eggs by Dr. Gaspar Arnery in the kindle version but in my childhood remembrances it was definitely scrambled eggs. What a strange thing to remember! Especially given that I did not remember how violent this book is!
I plead guilty to the modern parenting vice of sanitizing my children’s reading. For the longest time my children knew only that Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods by the woodcutter because their stepmother said so. The word ‘father’ was never breathed in any of our readings because my husband could not bear the thought of the children having to deal with the fact of a father doing such a thing! When they were old enough to read on their own they did not seem too distressed though. Nor surprisingly, by the death of Mufasa in the Lion King – the fate of all Disney parents actually. Nature insulates us from these realizations to some degree I suppose. I certainly did not remember the revolution that The Three Fat Men starts off with as being so shockingly violent. Neither did the horror of a man caged for years in a zoo or a little girl being thrown to hungry lions move me much. All I remembered was a roller-coaster ride with Tibul the acrobat, Suok in the kitchen, the balloon seller and my very first spy thriller!
But I digress too much! The Girl Who Ate Books as I mentioned before, is a collection of writings based on books. There is a lot about the history of Indian writing in English that I did not know about. This section can be mined for a complete to-read shelf. It put All About H. Hatterr on mine.
Then there is one comprising interviews with a number of Indian writers in English. This one I liked less. I was stuck in a rain induced traffic jam while reading this and got home after 3 hours after a very long ago lunch and these authors seem to have been a very greedy lot. Nearly all the interviews took place over meals and as much space was given over to descriptions of food as to books and it made me equal parts hungry and annoyed.
The sections on book love would speak to anyone who has ever loved books but the one on books lovers must surely be one of the most unique things ever in a ‘book’ book! I will visit ‘The BookShop’ in Jorbagh next time I am in Delhi even though I will never now be able to meet Mr. K.D. Singh.
The places that this book moves through come alive as characters in themselves. Kolkata is the grandmother who hurts her hip but only while jiving. The pavement book sellers and exhibitions are re-inventing and apartments are replacing bungalows but something of the old Kolkata is determined not to give way.
Delhi is a city of so many parts. The Belgian crystals and Italian marbles are there. But so are the barsaatis where sofas are but books in disguise. The right brigade jostles with people who love art. They stop to speak to each other – too briefly but both walk away with a little more understanding. The Emergency is a black and threatening presence that dies a surprisingly sudden death. And a small town transforms overnight into Nirbhaya’s Delhi with the brutal kidnapping and murder of two children. This too is remembered and shared history.
Goa still has pockets where villages collectively mourn their dead. Where a bakery can burn a batch of poi but hand over soft pav to understanding customers instead. Where you make friends on bus rides and gardens grow overnight into jungles. Where civet cats walk out with bloodied mouths and grasshoppers play the violin – which metaphor reminded me of Flip from Maya the Bee. I have clearly not listened to grasshoppers enough to make that connect. What my keen ear for green did pick up though was the reference to a recycle bin. Roy dumps her handwritten manuscript not in the trash but in the recycle bin. I had noted the efforts at waste segregation during my last visit but this first person reinforcement was nice to hear. Even though mining, tourism and development lurk uneasily in the background, Calvim is still idyllic.
I MUST mention the closing notes on freedom of expression. I loved how well Roy deals with multiple points of view while talking about this. And that is important because there is enough intolerance among those who don’t get the importance of freedom of speech without the other side resorting to it too. And they do! It never ceases to astonish me how little dissent is tolerated on liberal and environmental discussion boards. Even a slightly divergent point of view is pounced upon and decimated. It was refreshing therefore to see the genuinely open and non-judgmental, non-angry discussion at the art gallery protest. I am certainly not standing up for the RSS and their ilk but I have seen enough of the discomfort of ordinary people around the views of Karnad and Kalburgi to understand that there is a need for a more nuanced discussion about this.
I have written such a long post where I had only meant to write a quickie review. I guess I loved this book and would recommend it to book lovers everywhere.