Naomi Hemmadi’s parents must feel blessed. Their daughter simply loves to read. Even though she saw the film Percy Jackson before she read the book, she preferred the book to the film. Naomi spends time with her father browsing at bookshops and instead of her promised ‘just two books’ returns with an armload. “Last Sunday, I bought four books – a Nancy Drew (I love them), a Percy Jackson, Princess Diaries and The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon.” Soon to be 13, Naomi has also read Prita Brahmachari and Ruskin Bond and has liked them.
Now in junior college, Damini Kane, a voracious reader, remembers she read her first book at eight — Best Friends by Jacqueline Wilson, which was a gift. Not many of her friends read, “I can count those who read on the fingers of one hand.” Her classmates in school couldn’t understand Damini’s appetite for reading; it didn’t bother her that they considered it nerdy. But she didn’t compromise, and her parents encouraged her to read. Today, the young woman writes poetry and short stories.
Jheel and her sister Shelja aren’t so fortunate. Both are avid readers, but their father considers books a waste of money and time, so any book other than their schoolbooks seen in the house results in problems. Their ally is their mother, who encourages both her daughters to go to the neighbouring bookstore, where during their school holidays and weekends they spend hours poring over books.
“The habit of reading should be inculcated by parents,” concurs Rati Wadia, retired Principal of Queen Mary’s School, who also headed the school’s English Department. She set up class libraries which introduced her students early on to reading and handling books. For the very young she chose hard cardboard books, cloth books, etc. which were user friendly as well. She progressively introduced her students to the world of classics through illustrated, and later abridged, versions. Stocking the class libraries with six to seven copies of a few select classics, not on their syllabus, she ensured that students in her school were well read.
Indifference to books and reading was a matter of concern in the 1990s. The video and video games took over leisure time, especially amongst youngsters. I remarked to the late poet Nissim Ezekiel that the next generation will grow up ‘illiterate’ about classics. Ezekiel simply refuted it, stating that during a visit to Hong Kong and Singapore, he saw VHS copies of Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Dickens and other classics performed by theatre groups and produced by the BBC on the racks at music and book stores. His argument was that while in the 1950s to 1980s, children read comic books and illustrated books as their first exposure to literary classics, the new generation did so with audio and video books.
From just bookshops, readers found themselves lured to leisure stores where books, music, toys, stationery and cards jostled for attention; an add-on being coffee shops, which have attracted children with story telling sessions, book readings and events around popular characters like a Dr Seuss or a Chhota Bheem. Neha Khanna, Crossword store’s marketing person says, “Children are an integral part of our customer base. Every Sunday, we have a children’s hour, which helps inculcate reading habits. Children are our number one category for sales and each year they keep growing. We do these events across our top 10 stores.”