I was born into a family that was immune to the fragrance of letters. When my grandfather once chanced upon my books, he glanced through them and said, “What is this, it looks like pellets of goat dung stacked together!” My ancestors reared cattle, and their world was restricted to the needs of their cows and goats. I had arrived into a tradition in which letters looked like goat pellets. And yet, I represent the first generation that could distinguish the two from each other. How did I, descended from this legacy of illiteracy, become a writer?
As a child, I could usually be found clinging to my mother’s pallu. I did not like being in crowds – of four or five people. I was terrified of human voices. Even after I was enrolled in school, I preferred solitude. I was hesitant to make conversation. I would rarely utter more than a word or two, and those were murmured. I loved my textbooks. The pictures and lessons created a little universe, just for me.
In Class 1, we had a single textbook. In Class 2, there were two. These weren’t enough. I would wait with great anticipation for my mother’s return from the weekly market – her basket was a treasure trove.
Tamarind, jeera, black pepper and other condiments were less interesting to me than the newspaper in which they were wrapped. I would collect these newspapers. I would read these broken bits of news items, opinions and short stories, not leaving out a single fragment of a line irrespective of how much I understood.
The treats my mother brought home were divided equally between my brother and me. Once he was done eating his share, he would give me the newspaper in which it had been packed. I had to give him part of my share of treats in return. Sensing an opportunity, he came up with another proposition – just as the treats were divided between us, so should all the newspaper packaging.
He had figured that he could charge me a larger sum in treats to hand over his share of newspaper. My mother refused to oblige. She was furious that my brother had tried to pull a fast one on me with bits of newspaper whose only use was as fuel for the stove.
“Why are you such a simpleton?” she sighed.
She would search out bits of paper and bring them to me as grand presents. She would use them for the stove only once I had finished with them. My cousins got to know of our deal. There was a paucity of paper in that agricultural land on which all of us lived in little houses scattered about our holdings.
News of my obsession with paper travelled through the school too. The pocket money I occasionally got for sweets was spent on orange mithai. Each mithai would come in its own newspaper packaging, and so I was able to overcome the shortage. I didn’t mind sacrificing my entire quota of treats for the joy these bits of newspaper gave me.
In Class 3, we had five textbooks. I was thrilled.
In those days, the sunset was our signal to finish our dinner and draw our cots to settle down for the night. We were already half asleep when we heard the bells chime eight o’ clock in the neighbouring town. It was also the heavy labour on the farm, which began in the wee hours of the morning, that necessitated this early retirement to bed.
Kerosene was expensive. And hard to procure. Because of the prevailing belief that a lamp should be lit at dusk, we would put a tiny wick into the mini-lantern and let it burn for exactly an hour. We had to be frugal with the oil. I used to take my textbooks close enough to the lamp for its tiny glow to fall on the page, and read aloud.
Dialogue and narration had the same inflections. Maths could be read out like science. It was all language, wasn’t it? I loved the music latent in language. Words moved me. Amma helped me out by substituting the kerosene with castor oil so I could read longer. Castor bean grew on our lands, and so we didn’t have to be stingy with castor oil.
I had a little game – I would switch the words that appeared in my textbooks for others. There was a song that went, “Maambazhamaam maambazham, malgova maambazham.” (Mango, mango, Malgoa mango.) I would change it to “Goyya pazhaamaam goyya pazham” or “Pappaali pazhamaam pappaali pazham”, throwing guavas and papayas into the mix. The semantics were all right, but the aural effects were lost.
There is a variety of banana called poovanpazham, which we used to call “poompazham”. “Poompazhamaam poompazham, pudhupudhu poompazham” worked as a refrain. And so I would skip about the fields, stringing together words, making sense and nonsense as my whims dictated.
These strings of words eventually made it to the empty pages of books. At the end of the academic year, I would tear off the blank pages from my various notebooks and stitch them together to make a receptacle for my scribbles. I sensed that writing was my one acceptable companion, even as a child who craved solitude. Those scribbles were essentially imitations of things I had already read. All literature is imitation, isn’t it? An imitation of life.
Translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan.
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