Books that travelled with me

I was reading first, then not reading, then reading, then not reading, until I started reading again!

Thanks to Sabna Krishnan who challenged me to talk about the books that have made a lasting impact in my life. I sat down to write about it and then I realised that I can’t just stop!

So, without much ado, here’s my list of 16 books, and why…

Rainbow-flower by Valentin Katayev

This book has the smell and feel of my childhood attached to it. I was a little bookworm who would happily curl up in a little corner with my book, and interestingly, my parents had a good collection of Russian books that were translated to English and Malayalam. These are what I grew up on, as I started reading; and that was probably how I connected with a country that is 5000 km away from India, the country I was born and brought up in. Perched in my room, I would curiously run my eyes over the book which had pictures of little Russian children who were rugged up like little teddy bears, playing in the white, fluffy looking snow, wondering if this is the fairly land that people talk about!   

Rainbow-flower is about a girl who gets lost while picking up groceries, and gets gifted a magic flower with 7 petals in the colours of the rainbow. She uses the 6 petals to do very childish, seemingly silly things and then she uses the last petal to make a physically challenged boy walk. I could so relate to the book because I guess I would have done some of the very curious and hilarious things if I was given that rainbow flower! And the pictures and colours in the book were so magical, it catapulted me to the rainbow.

Another such kids’ book which I adored was the Malayalam translation of “When Daddy was a little boy” by Alexander Raskin. The book (that talked about the cheeky and at times naughty life that the author’s dad had when he was a little boy) was not ours, it was one of our family friends; and I recollect eagerly looking forward to our visits there, so that I could read and re-read the book! I was so mesmerised when someone recently told me that they felt that the Malayalam translation was much more pleasant than the English version; as I had been a huge fan of the Malayalam translation I read!

Ohari (Shares) by K.L. Mohanavarma

My upper primary school classes were the golden era of my reading. A fascinating library in the school, my parents subscribing to some great periodicals, ample time to read and ponder, an encouraging teacher who used to encourage my interest in reading – all these contributed to me reading a whole lot of books; some of them definitely beyond my age. Ohari was one such book, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was the first original Malayalam fiction that explored the investment portfolio and the shares. The concept of shares being reasonably new in those days, thus there was an academic relevance attached to this well researched book, and I must say that it was quite thrilling looking forward to each episode of the novel which was serialised in a periodical at that point.

Totochan: The little girl at the window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

I can’t recollect how many times I would have read the translated version of this book in Japanese, which is set in Tokyo during world war II! I probably read this book when my hormones started playing up as part of my teenage life, and I loved this quirky idea of a rebel headmaster Sosaku Kobayashi who created a school with old railroad cars as classrooms. The story moves on to say how this naughty girl called Totochan gets enrolled in this school after being expelled from two other schools for doing things which appeared totally reasonable to her. She loves this new school that promotes the freedom of expression. One particularly interesting thing is that, I just browsed through some of the headmaster’s bizarre ideas which I loved them at that point, without realising how revolutionary they were in the landscape of education; and relevant even in this 21st century!

Mother by Maksim Gorky

This work of fiction totally shook me!

Another Russian novel which was first published in English though, in 1906, Mother narrated the story of revolutionary factory workers. This was a novel that shook me out of my idea of the beautiful ‘Russia’ with snow-filled country sides, and valleys of flowers – and introduced me to the real life of people doing hard manual labour surviving poverty and hunger; and needless to say, I was shocked! The plot is about Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova (mother, protagonist) in the middle of hardship and domestic violence overcoming her political ignorance to join the revolution along with her son, Pavel Vlasov. For a book that moved me beyond words, it was no surprise learning later that this was the most influential novel of the century all around the world!

VKN  – Various write-ups in Malayalam

I am ever so thankful to my cousin who introduced me to this genius called VKN in Malayalam literature. I chanced upon this book, “Payyan Kadhakal”, on my cousin’s work desk. Curious, I asked him about it who just said to me – “haven’t you ever heard of this one? Go have a read for yourself and see!” There it began – I have only been increasingly amused by what he did with his language – there was this multi-layered humour, sharp sarcasm, political criticism, and much more stuff that interposed in his writings. It was educating and at the same time entertaining. One of my biggest wishes was for me to go and meet him in person, but he passed away before that happened – something I always regret!

PS I love you by H. Jackson Brown Jr.

My chemistry teacher in year 11 gifted me this book of quotes when I won a trivia. I was not very keen in the beginning to be honest, as I was never a quote person before this book arrived! I reluctantly started reading it, but it slowly became one of the books that would stay with me forever. It was such a beautiful book with pearls of wisdom from the life of a mother who would write to her son and daughter, and include the little wise saying as a Post Scriptum (PS) in the end. The son collected all of these, and made it into an amazing book! And thinking about it now, it doesn’t surprise me that the book was published from Melbourne in Australia, the country of common sense!

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This winner of Man Booker prize incredibly rocked me as it did a lot of readers world-wide. There were several different reasons why people were impressed with this book; same deal here. But one bizarre reason is that, here was one commercially successful book in English that was recognised worldwide but told the story of a land that I knew inside out unlike the settings that I have seen until then, where far-off, exotic places were always featured. This book told the story of a familiar landscape, in very good English; and yes, it was such an ‘in thing’ to read too – a very rare combo in itself. The book told the story of twins Estha and Rahel, and their bonding in grief.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

This book talks about the farmer family that lives in the times of drought and flood in China, and how they rise while the rich fall in the turn of events. This book, and the Davinci Code by Dan Brown spiced my solitary evenings when I started my working life in Bangalore. Every evening, after work and a quick shower, I would slowly walk into the perils of the natural calamities in China. It was a paperback edition that I had picked up from the library, and I still remember that particular book as the one with deckled edged sheets, and the smell of distressed paper.

A thousand Suns – Dominique Lapierre

It was a gift from my husband during the early years of our married life, who purchased this book without realising how much I adored the work of Dominique Lapierre, who tells the stories around what we call history today. This book, one that I love too much, talks about the anecdotes from Lapierre and his co-writer Larry Collins’ journeys to write major books – grains of stardust as I feel those write-ups are!

Oru Sankeerthanam pole by Perumbadavam Sreedharan

This Malayalam book, which is pretty much every Malayalam reader’s favourite, is surprisingly set in Saint Petersburg in USSR (there we go again to Russia!), and talks about the life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian author and his love affair with Anna. A highly successful book, Wikipedia says the book sold more than 100,000 copies in the first 12 years of its publishing. The book was intensely enjoyable for the different emotions it portrays, and the insight it throws into the life and times of Dostoyevsky.

The Zahir by Paulo Coelho

I love Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, just like every other human being in the world. But if asked to pick a book of his, I will go for The Zahir. What made it special is the fact that this is the first book I borrowed form a library in Australia. In one of my first days, I befriended an old lady who lived in the apartment below ours, who shared her lovely secret of a library couple of blocks away. I started walking there almost every day, and finally made up my mind to borrow a book; and the biggest issue I had was that I wasn’t aware of any Australian authors! Thought I would start with a familiar name, and amongst his few books there, ‘The Zahir’ was what caught my eye. The book talked about an author, and how he goes looking for his wife who disappeared with one of her male friends. Interspersed with philosophy as is typical of Paulo Coelho books, it was such an amazing read; where you feel like you are chasing a person who has turned into an emotion!

A Summer in Gascony by Martin Calder

One of the books I bought after I discovered a basement book store in Sydney city on the way to work. Work then had a long commute attached to it – a train and then a bus ride for an hour and a half while being pregnant, and not something I enjoyed! Pretty much the only thing I looked forward to during the journey was the reading part. Which is why the book cover captured my attention when I went to pick a book – with a bright sunflower on it. Even though they say ‘do not judge a book by its cover’, I must say that the plot of this book as enchanting as its cover. It is the experience of a young Englishman spending a summer working in a hilltop village in Gascony, adopting the Gascon way of life of working in the fields and looking after the sheep. I absolutely loved the book for it gave wings to my imagination. I could literally travel beside this working tourist who was experiencing a gorgeous South France, with its vineyards, sunflowers and pastures; while being stuck in the crowded train! Such a unique book it is, for what was told in it and the where it was told!

A pale view of hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Another gem from the basement book-store which is housed in the basement of an overbridge in the Central railway station in Sydney. The book though picked up for his interesting soft title, ended up disturbing me like anything as it told the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman living alone in England and still absorbed in the recent suicide of her daughter. And such a surprise it was to realise that the author of this book won the Nobel prize for literature in 2017, which made me particularly pleased about my good taste (NOT – I had no idea what I was picking up when I bought the book)! 🙂

Aadujeevitham (The Goat Days) by Benyamin

A book I read in the winter nights in 2016, to prepare myself to listen to its author who was visiting Sydney. A highly acclaimed book in Malayalam that tells the story of Najeeb who destiny makes a goatherd. I had put off reading it only because I was scared to ‘encounter’ the emotions that this book would stir up within me!

Once i started reading. even though the temperature outside our window plunged to single digits in the nights, the book hurled me to this hot and dry desert, compelled me to walk alongside Najeeb, who is onerously herding goats. Unfolded between its pages, this raw and intense novel – and how intense – that made the reader hopeful and dreamy-eyed at first, and later uncertain, horrified, disheartened, badly hurt, ravenous, lost; and (thankfully!) bringing back that gleam of hope eventually! Every time I tried to catch some sleep after the read, the thought disturbed me that I should herd goats the next day – the book had me so connected that I started identifying with the setting of the book; something I haven’t experienced before. At times, parts of some books have taken me to places that I have never seen or heard of. But this was different. My brain was recreating the whole scenario; preparing myself to engross in it! 

The Permanent Resident by Roanna Gonsalves

Written by an acquaintance and highly acclaimed writer Roanna Gonsalves based on the lives of Australian Permanent residents. It thoroughly impressed me how meticulous she was in the sketching of her characters; so much so that you feel like you have met them somewhere in the multicultural landscape of Sydney! Even though the book primarily talks about the Goan diaspora in Sydney, it collectively portrays highly familiar emotions – hopes, disappointments and challenges encountered by the people that migrate to Australia – and it is amazing that she can jog our memory to make us feel the disconnection and displacement once again, that every migrant faces, anywhere in the world!

The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

It was a conference that I attended in the end of 2017 that introduced me to this brilliant comedian and artist that Australia adores like crazy – Anh Do. Having arrived in Australia with his refugee parents from Vietnam in a tender age, he etches the life of a new migrant, with stories that are at times tear-jerking and at times hilarious; and closely resonates with most migrants, regardless of the culture they are coming from. The book The Happiest Refugee is about his life in Australia. Part of this where he gets used to the country was my life story for sure, and I am sure would be yours too, if you are a first/ second gen migrant in Australia.

I have done a dedicated review here if you are keen to know more – https://www.indianlink.com.au/lessons-story-anh-happiest-refugee-australia/

The above sixteen books are not the only ones that impacted my life, of course there are several others that I enjoyed reading like Robin Cook’s thrilling scifi books, Ayn Rnad’s The Fountainhead, Harry Potter series, The complete works of Sherlock Holmes ( which I read meticulously, living in hope that I may become as intelligent one day!) and many more; but these sixteen have such vivid memories associated with them, it is impossible to leave any of these aside. And an opportunity to sit down and write about these books made me realise something else too – how I have been involuntarily following the stories from various cultures; and how these books have already taken me to places and made me meet so many people that now travel with me!

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