My Mother used to read to me when I was a child. I remember the softness of her sari as I nestled against her. She smelled like her favorite perfume (whichever that was at the moment) and Indian sandalwood powder. I would sit as close to her as I could. Later, as I grew older, too old in my mind to sit so close, I would wish for those times again. Being close to your mother, both physically and emotionally are safe feelings. I don’t think anyone has ever made me feel safe that way again – it’s now my place to provide that safety for my children.
I don’t remember my favorite book as a child because I liked so many. I have a handful that I remember: “Follow my Leader”, “A Room for Cathy”, “The Miracle Worker”. They all had a similar theme: Someone was an underdog, downtrodden, in need. Later I became fascinated with thrilling “junk” stories, John Saul, Stephen King. And as I entered what I called my “dark period” I began reading Edgar Allen Poe exclusively.
We traveled to India frequently as I was growing up (every other year or so) and I began to collect books from there as well. Usually we would have to pack the suitcases with many of my books in each one to balance the load. It wasn’t surprising for me to bring back at least 20 large texts. Any Indian of my generation would know Amar Chitra Katha (w.amarchitrakatha.com/us/) , the comic like books that told stories of the kings and queens of Indian history, and the Gods and Goddesses alike. Early on I learned much of my Indian history from these tales. As I grew older, I began collecting various versions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavatam, Gandhi autobiographies, and Rabindranath Tagore poetry. I would duck into bookstores in Chennai, and beg for more books to take home with me. My many uncles and aunts would oblige me one book each.
Those stories stayed with me, such that when I was a camp counselor at UCLA Unicamp years later as a junior in college, I would tell the stories of the Mahabharata to my group of eight year old boys. They would ask every night, “another Indian story please!” And in that way I was able to teach them a bit about my culture as well as the outdoors.
As I grew older my favorite book became Little Women. Interesting that a book steeped in Christianity appealed to this Hindu American – but I also loved to read the Bible, which to me was akin to reading one of our Indian religious tales. I don’t know why, but to this day I call Little Women my “comfort food” book. Something about Jo spoke to me. Perhaps it was her scribbling suit, or her pet rat, or just the sister love within the book itself. It’s difficult even now, after reading it hundreds of times, to articulate well what brings me joy from that book. But, a good 35 years after I first read it, after a hard day at work, or a difficult time with my kids, my hands still reach for Little Women.
Now that I read to my toddler again, I find myself gravitating to old favorites, “Miss Suzy”, “Mog the Forgetful Cat” and others. But new books have also entered our sphere, “The Sound of Colors”, “The Blue Stone”, “Christina Katerina and the Box.” My ten-year old son is crazy about books, he reads them again and again, and I love buying them for him. I’m a fiend against clutter, but somehow piles of books don’t bother me at all. They exude warmth, coziness, and peace.
Reading has always been a solace, a place to hide, a place to rest my overactive mind, a place to disappear into another world. Books have always beckoned me. Some more than others, but like my son, I can read anything and disappear – a cereal box, a newspaper, a book, and be entertained. In this world of instant gratification, I still believe that nothing is better than a good book. Books taught me all about a culture that I was raised away from. And they made me love that culture, its color, its flavor, its joy. I still have the amar chitra katha tales – I’ve since passed them on to my son. And my Ramayana sits beside my bed on top of Little Women. In the deep evening when it’s time to rest, I still love to read those old favorites, or a new book, that thrusts me into its world and surrounds me with its silence.