My Life in Books

Photo: Vipman via Shutterstock

This article was inspired by My Life in Middlemarch, a bibliomemoir by Rebecca Mead, which draws on her readings of George Eliot’s Middlemarch over the years.

I loved the idea of writing memoirs that are intertwined with a book. But since there isn’t a book I reread regularly, I thought that instead, I would try and trace my life through the books I read. After my mother passed away, I went through my old books in her house, which took me down memory lane.

So here goes. Bear with me as this will be a much longer piece than the ones I normally post on this blog.

I grew up around books. My father read voraciously, as did my grandmother—in fact, between them, they created a mini-library. My mother introduced me to poetry and Daphne du Maurier’s novels. She used to reread War and Peace every few years. As a child, I remember opening the glass doors of our bookshelves (bought shelf by shelf by my parents whenever they could afford them and stacked one on top of the other) and inhaling that lovely smell of books.

One of my earliest memories of reading is a story about the “Gloops”—amorphous greedy people with long arms, who ate and ate and ate. It was in a large book that belonged to my mother as a child (probably published in the 1930s). I don’t recall the title, but it was a treasure trove full of stories and illustrations. As a foodie, it’s not surprising that “The Gloops” is the only story I remember!

In our family library, there was also a set of books for older children which included Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and The Travels of Marco Polo. Each of these took me on an incredible journey, as I fell through the rabbit hole with Alice, and was tied up by the Lilliputians with Gulliver. I don’t remember reading Marco Polo’s book but do remember the illustrations of strange creatures, including people with eyes and mouths in their chests.

In 1967, we moved to Santiago, Chile, where I discovered Enid Blyton’s books at the British Council Library and devoured all of them. The stories about the Five Find-Outers (and Dog) inspired me and some of my schoolfriends to form a group of investigators (complete with dog). Our only case was to find a notebook stolen from one of our classmates. We spent many happy hours poring over clues and statements but never found the notebook or the culprit. (My love of detective novels started early!)

Then there were the Narnia books, which I loved. The idea that you could slip through a portal through the back of a closet or at the end of a garden and reach this magical place fired my imagination, and I spent a lot of time looking for gateways into Narnia.

After we moved to Kabul in the early 1970s, my brother Dalip and sister-in-law Nandini used to send me regular packages of books which included the novels of Charles Dickens, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, among others. I also read Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve and Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column.

As I grew older, books widened my horizons. Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which I studied in school in Jaipur, taught me about the different forms that love can take. Ancient Greek literature, which I studied in university in Delhi, was a revelation: the plays, the philosophy and most of all, the mythology, with gods behaving badly!

Books took me places. With RK Narayan, I met the people living in Malgudi; with VS Naipaul, I became part of the Indian community in Trinidad; with Carlos Castaneda, I was drawn into the peyote-fuelled fantasies of the Yaqui shaman Don Juan; with Gerald Durrell, I travelled the world; and with Douglas Adams, I was spun out into space (with a towel and a book that said “DON’T PANIC” in large letters on the cover).

Going through my father’s things in Hyderabad led to more discoveries, including Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. However, for me the most important discovery was a recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood—a radio play set in a Welsh fishing town. Thomas uses words to conjure up not only images but sounds, and the writing is so evocative that I resolved that if I ever wrote seriously, I would try and write like him. This is a book I go back to regularly, both the print and the recorded versions.

Then in 1981, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children burst onto the scene, introducing an entirely new way of writing about India. Even today, I still remember the excitement of reading it for the first time. I also discovered Peter Matthiesen’s The Snow Leopard, thanks to the owner of a tiny bookshop in the old Hyderabad airport who persuaded me to buy it, and I still have that copy.

Books were also my way into art. When I was 17, my mother and I went shopping for new clothes for Eid. Knowing I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about this, she said, “Why don’t we get this out of the way and then go to a bookshop?” At that time, Thames and Hudson used to publish inexpensive but beautifully produced small-format books on Western artists. I got my first three in the series that day: Rembrandt, Constable and Toulouse-Lautrec. A lot of my art books are now in my niece’s house, and her children are discovering them!

My first proper job was at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, which had a decent staff library where I found No One Here Gets Out Alive, a biography of Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors. I got a little obsessed by Morrison after reading it, although I had never heard of The Doors before. The book led me to their music. I eventually got over the obsession but still listen to them.

I married another bibliophile—no surprises there!—and moved with him to Geneva, Switzerland. He introduced me to more writers: Patrick White, CP Snow, Anais Nin, Anthony Burgess, Sylvia Plath and Robert Pirsig, whose Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my favourites. I remember reading Richard Ellman’s brilliant biography of Oscar Wilde—a birthday present from my husband—on cold winter nights while on holiday in Zermatt. This was also the time I discovered Angela Carter, AS Byatt and Jeanette Winterson.

One of my favourite genres is crime fiction, something that I shared with my mother, who loved Agatha Christie’s books. There was a time my parents and I read every book by Christie that we could find. I also read the first detective novel ever written in English—Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, as well as his haunting novel The Woman in White. I got into Nordic noir in a big way, and my favourite writer is Henning Mankell, whose Sidetracked was the first book in this genre that I read. I have reviewed many of the murder mysteries I’ve enjoyed, and they stretch over countries and centuries.

I was always interested in reading books from other countries—I went to bookshops wherever I travelled—but in 2014, when a friend suggested a reading challenge that would cover the entire world, this effort became more focused. Discovering world literature has been one of my most exhilarating experiences.

It has led me to writers I didn’t know: Jose Eduardo Agualusa from Angola, Ismael Kadere from Albania, Svetlana Alexievich from Belarus, Kunzang Choden from Bhutan, Leonardo Padura from Cuba, Eka Kurniawan from Indonesia, Marlon James from Jamaica, Sergio Ramirez from Nicaragua, Scholastique Mukasonga from Rwanda, Samir Yazbek from Syria, and many, many more.[1]

I have also been reading a lot of travel books by—or sometimes about—women, which I have been reviewing since 2013 for the website Women on the Road. It is a shame that women’s writing in this genre has not had more visibility. There are so many excellent ones, and they should be better known.[2]

I am grateful to my parents for giving me the gift of reading. There is something comforting about walking into a home lined with bookshelves. It is the same feeling I get when I walk into a library or a good bookshop—a feeling that I can relax and breathe.

Truly, this is a gift that keeps giving.

Do you have stories about your life with books? Is there a book that has been important to you? Do share your thoughts in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.


[1] To see other books from the reading challenge reviewed on this blog, go to https://talking-about-books.com/category/the-reading-challenge/.

[2] In 2018, I put together a list of my favourites in this genre. I have read many more since, but this might help you get started : https://talking-about-books.com/2018/07/23/women-travellers-tell-their-stories/.

5 thoughts on “My Life in Books

  1. Sophie

    Hi Suroor
    The story of your life through books is fascinating! I loved the part about the detective club you and friends founded when you were a little girl!!
    Of course your challenge is accepted, but as I’m currently a bit busy, I’ll write my story in books soon.
    PS: I have all Mankell’s crime stories too!
    😀

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