Small print, big blessings

Just past Shakespeare’s 450th birth anniversary, thoughts turn to an iconic literary landmark no longer in its known avatar. On moving to a swish midtown skyscraper, the British Council Library went entirely online. What’s the unkindest cut? Only Mumbai kids are denied the joy of exploring that treasure trove of books they housed at the old Nariman Point address. Across the country, the Council continues as always, even from smaller Chandigarh and Pune. Lucky my kids feasted long enough on the Council’s fine collection.

Our earliest reading choices define us. I recently strolled into the tiny Bandra bookshop of my growing up years, to feel the same surge of excitement from several summers ago when we visited, wild wired with anticipation. In a reassuringly familiar routine, its bespectacled manager would dust paper flecks off his checked shirt and lead us in with the inviting greeting “Wait till you see this!” A cosy hub, the neighbourhood bookshop easily became a second home. Here curious kids could plaster noses to the pages of favourite paperbacks for as long as they liked.

Trust an elder brother to add juicy twists to the tale with tantalising asides. Like letting drop news of the shop’s mother branch in Colaba being rocked by spicy controversy. Held at the start of the ’60s for stocking copies of sensational Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a great introduction for naive hundreds then thrilled to steal a look at the F word wickedly out in print), that bold bookseller was asked to choose between paying a fine of R20 and a week in prison. The logic of forbidden fruit dangling delectably, our older pals dived deep into more of DH Lawrence. After them we graduated too. Little Women to Women in Love, fairytales to Fountainhead.

They were intimate little haunts we were addicted to, proud of, shaped by. Those proprietors took time and trouble to know both their books and their customers. Chain bookshops today hire doltish staffers known to happily heap The ABC Murders on shelves marked “Children”. That grisly Agatha Christie title really has got lumped there. As coolly as a Recipes for Parenting primer wound its way into the “Cookery” section.

Another guru guided me to the pleasures of books on children’s authors (to this day I love reading about writing). I smiled to find out... That childless Dr Seuss told people his philosophy on kids was basic: “You have ‘em and I’ll entertain ‘em.” That the creators of the Berenstain Bears series, Stan and Jan Berenstain, met as young students at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. The pair often headed to the zoo during class hours and sketched pictures of bears as part of their drawing work. And that before sealing his reputation as a brilliant children’s author, Shell Silverstein’s career took off in a rather unusual place: Playboy magazine, with his regular contribution of a comic strip that was anything but kid-friendly!

So, which writers sparked your imagination and where did you first meet them?

Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at:

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