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Symbiosis and how it worked for me

Jeff had muscles that would have made Popeye envious. So, somehow, without ever articulating it, we worked out a tacit form of survival

Gulf News

When I was a child ... I did childish things. But not for long. My grandfather, who brought me up, saw to that. Reading was compulsory. Not any old printed matter, however. No comics, for instance, although their kind surrounded me. There was Phantom, Archie, Donald Duck and a whole mob of others. Comics, however, found themselves on the ‘Forbidden’ list.

Enid Blyton, W.E Johns, Walter Scott, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling were under the ‘Accepted’ category. Reading ‘using a lounging posture’ wasn’t permitted either, for this, it was thought invited ‘mind wandering’ and ‘wool gathering’ which, I learned later was one and the same thing. One sat upright and turned each page, very gently, from the top right-hand corner. No spit on the fingers to swipe the page over. No folding the page either, when one was done reading. Giving it ‘dog ears’, as he called it. One carried a bookmark at all times. And, additionally, a small notebook and pencil. And beside the notebook, on the shelf, of course sat the much bigger, heftier dictionary.

The pencil was for the purpose of writing down any new word encountered. Then, one paused in the reading, extracted the dictionary from its place beside the thesaurus and other tomes on etymology, and searched diligently, using one’s sense of alphabetical order, to find the word and its accompanying meaning. Whereupon one picked up the pencil and made a note of both word and meaning.

In the evening, I was encouraged to revisit the note book, read through the newly-listed words and their meanings and try to use them in sentences. In this way, I came to know rather early what words like emaciated, emancipated, enunciated and encapsulated meant. All of them featured in my ‘note book’. Pow, kapok, bam and vroom did not appear even once. Those words were precisely the reason my grandfather had placed a blanket ban on the reading of comic books. “Words like that will ruin your speech and not enhance your vocabulary one jot,” was his dictum and, since my upbringing was in his hands, there was little I could do.

All my friends read comics and I liked the way they used ‘sound effects’ words such as ‘pow’ and ‘kaboom’ in their speech when detailing or narrating an incident. And if anyone can cast their mind back to the days of tender youth, one will recall without difficulty that a good portion of those years featured childish battles, some of them real, some imagined, where words like ‘pow’ and ‘bam’ were utterly appropriate.

I’m not sure my mates of that time were enamoured of my snotty descriptions of the battle of the playground, using words such as ‘vicious’, ‘ferocious’ ‘ruthless’ and ‘atrocious’ (to describe such behaviour).

Needless to say, I was not armed at all to endure the rigours of the school battlefield. This would, of course, imply that I might have been a prime candidate for bullying. But strangely things did not pan out that way. I had a mate, Jeffrey, whose dad and mine worked the railway and were close friends. So it wasn’t unnatural that Jeff and I should become buddies as well. Children sometimes are wont to ‘try and walk in the footsteps of their fathers’ and as we all know imitation is a sincere form of flattery.

Jeff had muscles that would have made Popeye envious (at least for a young fifth-grade schoolboy). So, somehow, without ever articulating it, we worked out a tacit form of survival and in this way made our ways successfully through lower high school. I would narrate to him every story I had read, and he, in turn, if it ever became necessary, defended me if another classmate for some reason suddenly got ‘bullying on his mind’. I didn’t know the word for this mutuality back then. It was in botany class some years later that I came across ‘symbiosis’ and learned that it didn’t apply to plants exclusively.

Kevin Martin is a journalist basedin Sydney, Australia.