It all started with a phone call with an old friend from India. The conversation then wound its way to books, authors, blogs, books vs kindle. Since both of us are parents to young children, we also talked about books our kids are reading and about the books that we were part of our childhood days in India.
Growing up in India in the early 70s and 80s meant a standard fare of ‘Chandamama’, ‘Tinkle’, ‘Amar Chitra Katha’(s). After story time with grandparents, probably our first introduction to the vast story repository of the Indian subcontinent came through these comics – be it Indian mythology, historical rulers, ‘Jataka Tales’ or the ’Hitopadesa’.
Thinking of these books always brings to my mind those nostalgic train journeys during summer vacations to my grandparents’ home. When bookstores were a rarity, a visit to the Higginbothams at the train stations was the highlight of an already exciting day of the journey by train. The journey would indeed be incomplete without a visit to Higginbotham’s at the train station. It also meant foregoing Frooti, sodas, snacks in favour of books and of course fighting for the top berth, where one could read and savour the books in peace. It felt magical to be lost in the world of Suppandi, Shikari Shambu, Tantri the Mantri, Kalia the crow, the frolics of Tenali Raman and Birbal and other regular features in Tinkle or the Amar Chitra Katha: Ah! the joy of reading a good book!
Most of my books were either from the limited collection at school or hand-me-downs from friends and cousins. I treasured my books and one of my best childhood gifts were the Tinkle & National Geographic magazine subscription for a couple of years- something that still brings a smile and gratitude! Like many kids of my age, back then swapping books with cousins and friends, finding a Tinkle digest were amongst my favourite pastimes.
After these, came the Tintins, the Asterix, and the rites of passage to middle and high school that came through Enid Blyton books – The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and their endless picnics with lemonade. Then came the Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators, which formed the first introduction to thrillers, mysteries, clues and solving cases, followed by the Perry Mason series with sprinklings of R.K. Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Rudyard Kipling, P.G.Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes.
Classics and poetry made their way into our lives through our English textbooks, which introduced the short stories of O Henry, Oscar Wilde and others. The non-detail books introduced abridged versions of Great Expectations, ‘The 3 Men in a Boat’, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and Shakespeare to name a few.
The teenage years brought the first romantic story – ‘Love Story’ by Eric Segal, who quickly became a favourite author with my group of cousins. Then it was time to read Jeffrey Archer. Archer’s ‘Shall We tell the President’, ‘The Prodigal Daughter’ quickly became a hit. They were read, re-read and discussed among cousins and friends, each book competing to be a favourite. As we grew up – along came John Grisham, Robert Cook, Michael Crichton, Jack Higgins, Sidney Sheldon, Mary Clark Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, David Baldacci, Dan Brown.
My main source of recommended reads continued to be my group of friends and cousins with whom I exchanged books. There was also the invaluable word of mouth recommendations, the local library and of course, surfing at the Higginbothams bookstores at the railway station. Gangarams, Crossword, Landmark in Bangalore and Odyssey and Crossword in Chennai became favourite joints. Visiting a bookstore with a friend or by myself, continues to be a favourite pastime, looking at the various genres, reading the text on the book back covers, the reviews and when I find something interesting, it sparks a child’s joy in me.
The Higginbothams at the Chennai airport is always my last resort to buying books before boarding the plane, and reading for many uninterrupted hours. After a 2 to 3 week holiday in India which is almost every time crammed to the fullest with temple visits, pilgrimages, visits to friends and relatives, I am always ready for a few hours of ‘me’ time with a book.
I am thrilled with the budding generation of Indian authors especially on Mythology- – the Shiva Trilogy, the Ramachandra Series by Amish Tripathi, books by Devdutt Patnaik, Sudha Moorthy, Jumpa Lahari short stories and others. It makes the trip to the book stores, a bit more exciting, as I scour for books, these books are on stories I know, yet with a different twist and connotation, which makes it both familiar yet unfamiliar! At the same time, it also takes me back to the Amar Chitra Kathas- the love of my childhood!
Recommendations for Children
A few years ago, when my little one arrived, I found myself asking for recommendations for favourite stories to read to him. I also spent time browsing the bookstore in Basel, Bider & Tanner and Orell Fussli for ideas. The ‘Baby Touch and Feel’ series by DK books which included- animals, colours and shapes, ‘My first number’ board book, my first ABC, first 100 words bright baby, the things that go, Baby Einstein. These were some of the first books that I showed my infant son. Later we read together – ‘The Little Engine that could’, ‘Guess how much I love you’ and Disney books. Many of these were thoughtful gifts from my family and among the first, my little one felt and turned.
Thomas the Tank Engine books remain some of my son’s favourite books. ‘What the Ladybird Heard’, ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, ‘Zoe the Zebra’, Dr.Ted, ‘Wanda and the Aliens’, Gruffalo, ‘Charlie and Lola’ series, ‘Topsy and Tim’ – a series of books with twins, which was made into a TV series for BBC, Mr. Men books, Aesop’s fables, ‘The Berenstein Bears’, ‘Harry and the Dinosaurs’ were some of the much loved picture books that we read for him time and again, along with Peppa Pig. We then moved on to Easy Readers, Usborne books, Oxford Owl which has free ebooks based on the reading level/age of the child, Globi books, Heidi along with Tintin, ‘The Diary of the Wimpy Kid’, ‘The Lunch Lady’ series of comics.
In the non-fiction category in the form of mini encyclopedias, we read ‘Amazing 7 Wonders of the World’, Usborne Flap books on Trains, Atlas and Human Body.
Resources in Zurich
For those living in Zurich, The American Women’s Club’s library in Zurich is an excellent source of both adult and kids’ books in English. The Pestalozzi Bibliothiques – The local libraries, spread across Switzerland also have a good collection of English and German books.
What’s so special about books? A question, I have often asked myself. Ideas, places, inspirations, struggles, courage, beauty, art, music and of course endless stories – the books have provided me with a preview to the world. With a book, I am never alone.
About the author
Sita Sreeraman who hails from Trichur, Kerala, spent a few years switching between London and Zurich. Zurich has now been home for a couple of years. Sita worked as a software professional before becoming a Stay-at-home mom. She loves reading, volunteers as a librarian at the American Women’s Club Library. Sita is also a web content writer. At her blog – Meandering thoughts Sita writes about life and calls it her way of jotting down memories.
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