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A library of childhood experiences with books

Not being allowed to read actually encouraged us to do just that

Gulf News

Parents nowadays often complain that their children do not read. That, when the number of publishers who cater to children has increased, the volume of material has grown hugely, mobile libraries and innovative reading rooms and reading programmes are fostered, and everyone seems to be aware that the reading habit is what needs to be nurtured.

With us, it was another story. According to our parents, we needed to get out into the garden and play, not sit inside with our noses buried in books.

Each time they saw us poring over a book, Mother would call us to help with some household chores and Father would take us for a round of his favourite places — the chicken coop, the duck pond, or the rabbit cage — where he would direct as we fed them and got first-hand lessons on bird and animal behaviour. “There will be plenty of time to read,” they said, and in any case, the books in father’s library, where everything was counted, catalogued and labelled, were “not meant” for us and we needed a “couple more years” on us before we could be allowed into that room.

Naturally, just saying those magic words, ‘No’ and ‘Do not enter’ made us determined to get in and sample the wares. Each of us developed our own entry system: one brazenly walked in through the door while the adults were not paying attention because he was tall enough to reach the bolt on top, the other waited until the bolt was carelessly left open or there was no one around to see her standing on her chair to accomplish her mission, and the third relied entirely on being too small to be considered a threat and slid in with one of the others.

There was a steady stream of entrances and exits from the library. We sneaked in and out, read in quiet corners in the garden, under trees, up on branches, in trellised nooks, under our bed linen, and most exciting of all, hidden under the heavy library table near our unsuspecting (or so we believed) father’s legs.

There was a wealth of mythology, the classics, modern (for that time) mysteries, travel books by the score and any number of beautifully illustrated tomes on flora and fauna in that library. In a time when there was no television and in places where there were barely any movie theatres, we did not feel deprived in any way.

We had our own personal Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and all manner of mystery serials unfolding in our heads — and I have no doubt that our imaginations made everything larger, more colourful and more dramatic than it actually was!

Books became our secret ‘vice’, our addiction.

Looking back now, it seems impossible that our parents did not know about these comings and goings from the library and did not notice the gaps in the shelves as we helped ourselves to what we had been told was taboo. If they had seriously intended for us to stay out, surely they would have locked the door!

Could it be that they meant for us to get multiple benefits from the library? For we not only read the books but we also got the thrill of believing we had outwitted our parents. We devised elaborate schemes to enter where we were not meant to tread (and this did not backfire on our parents because none of us took to a life of crime in adulthood) and, almost unbelievably, we often joined forces to do all this!

Perhaps that was the best of all — for we got to build sibling memories that sustained us through decades of living in different corners of the world.

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.