The other day, my sister who lives in London and I were on the phone, when suddenly, out of the blue, she said, “You know, you got me Winnie-the-Pooh from Shimla.”
The gears shifted and a memory fell in place. I must have been about 14 or 15. It was a school trip, most of it pretty much of a blur. But I do recall walking up and down the mall in Shimla. There was a clock tower… or was it somewhere else? I certainly don’t remember ducking into a bookshop, let alone buying a book. Where did the money come from? Who had any money those days? Certainly not a teenager on an excursion.
“I remember,” Junjun said. “You went to Shimla and you brought Winnie-the-Pooh for me from there!” She must have been about 8 or 9. We chuckled: clearly, it was a case of the elder ‘educating’ the younger!
You know how you never find the one thing you’re looking for? That one piece of paper, that one blouse, that one tie, and all those pens beside the telephone… well, I haven’t been able to find that particular copy of the book, but what turned up was another copy, a present from my friend Aditi, published (in its 27th edition) by Dell in 1982 and presented to me in 1983. Junjun’s copy is much older.
It’s all right to forget because when you try to remember what you’ve forgotten, you always, always end up remembering something else.
At this juncture (oh, what a personality-laden word this is!) I must warn you that you will regularly bump into friends and family in this column for what are books but friends and family?
Anyway, remembering the book led to looking for the book, and once found, led to reading it, as Maria recommends in The Sound of Music, “from the very beginning”. The first paragraph of the Introduction explains the Pooh part. The second paragraph goes like this: “You can’t be in London for long without going to the Zoo. There are some people who begin the Zoo at the beginning, called WAYIN (that’s the Maria way, you know), and walk as quickly as they can past every cage until they get to the one called WAYOUT, but the nicest people go straight to the animal they love the most, and stay there. So when Christopher Robin (Milne’s son in real life… A A Milne wrote the books in the series) goes to the Zoo, he goes to where the Polar Bears are, and he whispers something to the third keeper from the left, and doors are unlocked, and we wander through dark passages and up steep stairs, until at last we come to the special cage, and the cage is opened, and out trots something brown and furry, and with a happy cry of ‘Oh, Bear!’ Christopher Robin rushes into its arms. Now this bear’s name is Winnie, which shows what a good name for bears it is, but the funny thing is that we can’t remember whether Winnie is called after Pooh, or Pooh after Winnie. We did know once, but we have forgotten…”
So you see, it appears that it’s all right to forget because when you try to remember what you’ve forgotten, you always, always end up remembering something else. Like, for instance, the fact that when director Danny Boyle (and his team) won all those Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, he jumped up and down on the stage like Tigger because he had promised his kids that he would do so. Tigger, for those who don’t remember, is friends with Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and all those wonderful characters who inhabit the world of Winnie-the-Pooh.
My favourite thing to do is buy multiple copies of books, and have them signed specifically for special people.
Incidentally, Slumdog Millionaire is based on a book called Q&A by Vikas Swarup. He is currently India’s High Commissioner to Canada. And I got Q&A as a 50th birthday present! On my 12th birthday, my cousin who is actually an aunt, gifted me Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, which became an equally famous film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. At the end of the film, Rhett Butler demolishes Scarlett O’Hara with the words, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, and walks out of the door. This line has acquired iconic status in film circles, but does it feature in the book? That’s something to check on.
My favourite thing to do is buy multiple copies of books, the great ones, the carefully chosen ones, sometimes even popular ones, and have them signed specifically for special people. That’s how books such as Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto, No God in Sight by Altaf Tyrewala, and A Shot at History by Abhinav Bindra and Rohit Brijnath, among others, have found their way to some homes. This is Big Love. And Big Love turns up in the strangest ways.
For instance, I would possibly never have picked up A Shot at History. Although I salute Bindra for his shooting prowess and his Olympic gold, rifle-shooting isn’t exactly an adrenaline-pumper. I didn’t even know he had a book until I was involved in a children’s book project featuring Indians at the Olympics, supported by Bindra’s Foundation. Even so, there was no reason to read his book — except for that insatiable thirst inside. Since then it’s on my recommended reading list for all.
Choosing birthday gifts has always been an activity of great joy, the only question being which book, what if the recipient already had the book. But that’s these days: more liquidity means more people are able to buy themselves more things, even books. Back then, say some 20 years back, it wasn’t so. Choosing a book wasn’t such a major decision-making process, and certainly not for my son Tejas’s friends on their birthdays. He was and remains a great guzzler of books, but even as a little fellow he realised that not everybody else was.
“Amma, don’t want a book, s/he doesn’t read!” he would wail, and I would go, “But s/he should!” and he would shrug his little shoulders despondently. Looking back, I now see how rotten the poor chap must have felt when the birthday child squealed and gasped unwrapping each present and then, quite likely, pulled a face when it came to the book. Still, I shall stick with books in the hope that someday they will win the reluctant readers over. Every time this happens, a little star twinkles ever brighter.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.