Adreyo Sen is pursuing his MFA at Southampton College.
He is a frequent contributor to Indiana Voice Journal.
Recently, I was reading Wendy W. Fairey’s Bookmarked: Reading my way from Hollywood to Brooklyn, a moving account of how her childhood reading intersected with her experiences growing up. What confused me, however, was her reliance upon books that normally form part of academic programs to frame her memoir, novels such as Jane Eyre and David Copperfield. I am certain that other books, especially by the beloved architects of our childhood, could have had a magical effect upon the formative mind.
I found myself wondering about the books that formed an integral part of my childhood. Jotting their names down, I discovered that, in fact, I read a lot of books by the same few authors. Furthermore, I discovered that there was a method to my seemingly eclectic reading.
I am currently a student in the MFA program at Stony Brook, Southampton. Over the course of the two years I have spent here, I’ve found my writing developing in myriad ways. I’ve learnt to create protagonists who are sympathetic, who mature over the course of the story, to steer clear of my tendency for the overly abstract. Even so, what I write now is in many ways the product of my rich and richly-fraught childhood reading.
The novel I am writing towards the completion of my thesis is one that depends upon magic realism and fantasy to reflect the authorial intentions of its writer-protagonist, an eternal child-woman reared on her own imagination, who builds the world of the novel with the assistance of her dolls and the people she interacts with in her limited sphere. And thus she partakes of Jane Austen’s closed world, while letting her fancy frolic on the untamed moors that Emily Bronte would have cherished. My characters include a little child, forever three, who can cross continents in the winking of the eye, through handbags and walls; and a bower-bound adolescent who traverses the world through her daydreams in various guises, including the Angel of Death and the Raven Queen.
I now know that my novel is deeply embedded in the densely magical worlds I encountered as a child. Learning English as a five-year-old, having shifted from Kolkata to the far more cosmopolitan city of Bombay, I relied on the fragrant hardcover editions of Noddy that were my sweet tutor’s dearest possessions. Later, I would fall in love with Enid Blyton’s more fanciful stories. Strangely independent children, much concerned with fair play and honesty, traverse new worlds with the assistance of a magical “faraway” tree and a wishing chair. These books were perhaps the earliest roots of the fantasy in my novel.
Enid Blyton, like other English children’s writers, was an inescapable part of childhood in India when I was growing up. My relatives and neighbors had been reared on her stories and on my fifth and sixth birthdays, I received many hardbound editions of her books. There was something very beautiful about these books, with their lovely paper and smell.
I had an audiobook of the first installment in Malory Towers, one of Blyton’s boarding school series. Darrell River’s burying of the hatchet with the initially aloof Sally (later her best friend) and her farewell to the school at the end of the academic year always tugged at my heart. I can still hear the closing music of the audiobook in my mind.
Thinking back on Enid Blyton, I realize that there were certain elements common to all the books I loved as a child. In these books, the railway served as a conduit to a world of magic at a remove from the everyday rainy humdrum of the children’s lives. The railway compartment itself was replete with possibilities. The books relied upon a mysterious and forever unknowable natural world – gardens and brooks and rivers and the wide-open countryside, with its darkly whispering trees. And, of course, food played a prominent role in these novels – the children had unashamedly voracious appetites.
Between the ages of five and twelve, I often used the railway. The railway was my link to my criminally indulgent aunt in Kolkata and my grandparent’s lovely home in the sleepy university town of Shantiniketan. Curled up on one of the berths, sipping the evening chicken soup (the railway had a deliciously predictable menu), I would often read novels that, in fact, began with a railway journey. This was the case with many of Blyton’s books, as with Edith Nesbit’s fantasies and, of course, most of the seven Narnia novels.
My grandparents’ crumbling white house was surrounded by a garden. Now, I know it to be finite, a poor escape from the wider world outside. But, as a child, I thought it was neverending. It was full of tantalizing things – old pens, erasers and biscuit tins left behind by earlier residents, strangely reminiscent of the house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, suddenly falling mangoes and jackfruit, little kittens who crawled through the fence and sullenly subjected themselves to my caresses. To me, it was a world where anything could happen. The trees seemed kin to the trees that must have surrounded Arthur’s court and the trees of Narnia.
Walking the garden, I could vividly see the tragic accident that sets off Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a sulky child awakening to her own beauty in Yorkshire’s stern loveliness. I could close my eyes and imagine a beautiful woman, whose life would soon be tragically cut short, lying on the branch of the ancient jackfruit tree, an adoring, shy man waiting for her to finish her book. I could imagine walking down the leaf-strewn paths and discovering myself in Narnia. The stone sculptures seemed to be remembering their nocturnal adventures in the manner of the statues in Nesbit’s The House of Arden.
Incidentally, I never found Frances Hodgson Burnett cloyingly sentimental, an accusation often hurled at her by modern readers. The Little Princess was the first book to make me cry, and I was fiercely moved by the reunion of the protagonist with her father. A similar reunion also brought tears to my eyes – that of Roberta with her father on the platform in The Railway Children.
The railway has its own mystique in India. In my years growing up, stopping at timeless, deserted stations across the country, one was assailed by vendors with arms full of lovely oddities – the inimitable railway tea, samosas, cunningly-wrought wooden toys, handkerchiefs, perfumes and even foreign cookies in tins I’d only ever see in books otherwise. My grandparent’s house was adjacent to a little hill, below which, everyday at noon, one could see trains chugging along.
The Railway Children is about three children who move, with their creative and adoring mother, to a little house near a train station after their father is unjustly accused of treason. The station and its kindly, if irascible staff, as well as a darling old gentleman who takes the afternoon train everyday, witnesses the children’s maturation. The children are told they are poor, but never feel their new poverty, immersed as they are in all the delights the train station has to offer.
The Railway Children will always be my favorite book by Edith Nesbit. I’ve read it several times and my copy is yellowed and much stained by tea. But I also loved her other books, whose protagonists partake of the same magic that is an undercurrent of my novel. Amongst other magical creatures, they encounter a Psammead (a sand fairy), a charmingly conceited phoenix and an amulet, all of which serve to whisk them off into far-off lands from the past and the future. Sitting in my garden, reading of the travails of the Bastable children and their ill-fated attempts to be good or become rich, I found myself wondering if I’d suddenly find them playing and quarrelling in front of me.
The magic of Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit was comforting, supported as it was by much talk of food. I was a greedy child and could always imagine the frequently mentioned gingerbread and pudding sliding down my throat. But the world of Joan Aiken, another author whose books I devoured as a child, was imbued with magic more ancient and frightening, a magic that drew me in through wonderful illustrations. Not only was I moved and silenced by Aiken’s sobering stories, I found myself using the pictures to write my own poems and stories. Aiken also created Mortimer, a mischievous raven with a heart of gold. In my novel, ravens serve as the familiars of both good and bad characters, closely allied to my story’s fantasy.
But my favorite writer as a child was Roald Dahl. I fell headlong into love with his wonderful inventiveness. An avid reader myself, I rooted for the gentle Mathilda. Dahl’s witches (The Witches) and cruel, marvelously-named giants (BFG) were both frightening and humorous. Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I mentally concocted my own future bestselling confections, even though the only part of its sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Factory that caught my fancy was the villainous army of Vermicious Knids. Taking inspiration from George and the Marvelous Medicine, I force fed my parents a mixture of pepper and turmeric in milk. Grimacing, but sporting, they drank it. My parents weren’t immune from the magic of Roald Dahl either, my mother often devouring the same books I read. She accused me of having the same yellow teeth as the loathsome Twits. I would read and re-read Boy, Dahl’s heartwarming memoir of his childhood, whose moments of pathos are laced with humor. Entering boarding school, I fully expected to encounter his loathsome prefects. I wished to get my hands on the licorice bootlaces he described with such detail, and envied him for periodically receiving a box of sample Cadbury chocolates from the factory near one of his boarding schools.
After moving to Delhi at the age of eight, I began to read the classics, more because of the Penguin Classics’ lovely covers. I dreamed of owning the entire set. My favorite classics were the ones, ultimately, that seemed to partake of my grandparents’ garden and the conduits that transported me there. I sympathized with Jane Eyre, myself a reader shielded from the outside world and mocking peers by a curtain. I didn’t quite like Oliver Twist, but was ready to declare my heart to Nancy. I fell in love with the world of Tom Sawyer and quite approved of his courting of Becky, even if I had little sympathy for the girl, and couldn’t quite believe in the manner in which Tom palmed off his white-washing chore to his gullible friends. I hated Oscar Wilde’s stories because they made me cry so much – the redeemed Star Child who learns to appreciate his mother’s love, the cruel Infanta, the Happy Prince whose sacrifice transforms him, and the nightingale who pricks herself to death all night so that a lovelorn student can give his beloved the reddest rose in the world. I never quite liked Gerald Durrell’s poignantly funny My Family and other Animals, because my mother would insist on my memorizing whole segments of it, so that I could be influenced by Durrell’s writing.Over the course of the last summer, I returned home and re-opened the books of my childhood. Reading them was both painful and thrilling, they brought back memories that often intersected with events I remember vividly. They reminded me of the child I was, gleefully eccentric, proud of his own oddities, somewhat arrogant and pretentious, but overall, I think, also somewhat endearing. And in the pages of Lewis’ Narnia (I only truly liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whose Turkish delight I always visualized as the delicious soan-papdi my sighing mother bought to keep me quiet on train journeys, and The Magician’s Nephew) and in the richly-illustrated fantasies of Aiken, I found the long-forgotten roots of my own writing.