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REMEMBERED READINGS

- The mystery of the vanished volumes

Cleaning out some bookshelves recently, I came across an old hardback. The colourful paper jacket had long gone but I recognized the book even before I read the title. Silverfish had mauled the pages but with extremely limited success. I cleaned the precious volume carefully before inserting some dried neem leaves and putting it back, leaning it by itself at one end of a long shelf.

Forty-odd years ago, at the age of seven or eight, I’d fallen ill with measles. Not being from a home that spoke the language in any daily exchange, my English wasn’t very good and my mother thought it might be an idea to try and improve it by getting me a storybook. One afternoon, she came back from teaching at her college, bearing a present. “I’ve brought you a book,” she said, and I was very happy because I thought she’d brought me some comics. When I saw the thing had no illustration save on the cover, and lots and lots of words, my heart sank. But I was bed-bound, with no other entertainment to be had in those pre-television days, so I began to read the book, starting with the title and the author’s signature that was embossed on the spine under the jacket. It was a funny name, even for an English-foreign person, but ‘Blyton’ was easy enough to pronounce; the ‘En’ part of Enid, however, stayed close to the vowel in ‘pen’, till many years later, when, hanging with advanced desi-coloured Anglophiles, it became clear it was a long ‘ee’ with a slight tongue-squiggle that was required. Above the name was the title, The Mystery of the Missing Man, and on the page on the right a long, orderly list of other books that also began with the same words, “The Mystery of”. Going past the title and author’s name I tripped into a whole parallel universe from which there was no easy — or desired — escape.

Over the next year or so, I ate and breathed Enid Blyton. That first book was from the Five Find-outers series, of which there were eleven more, then there were the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, and, finally, with no sense that this might be slightly odd reading for a nine-or-ten-year-old Calcutta boy, the whole Malory Towers series about a girls’ boarding school by some very foreignious sea. The Missing Man had the greatest impact, though, and I remember the almost physical ache of wanting to be in the little English village called Peterswood, conspiring towards adventure in something called a “shed” at the “bottom” of a garden. Each Blyton series tasted and smelled different, each had its own agonies and joys, each threw up its own favourite characters, its hateful figures. Looking back, it’s easy to see Blyton as a somewhat crude, if magical, key to the world of reading and literature, her world cauterized by this odd, Caucasian innocence as a kind of anteroom or reception area from which one entered far more intensely mysterious, labyrinthine corridors of narrative and language.

The Blyton mysteries tripped off discoveries in other directions: there was the far more viciously funny English childhood of Richmal Crompton’s William, set in a very different country, where the meadows were littered with burnt-out shells of German bomber planes; boarding schools shape-shifted and became the boys-only Greyfriars, with the fat unsympathetic character of Billy Bunter occupying the centre and one Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, an oddball ‘Indian’ from some other India appearing at the fringes; the WW2 war comics ran alongside this reading, and the Royal Air Force stuff bled into all the many Biggles books; from the black and white of the small comics one graduated to the sophistications of Tintin and, much later, Asterix; the mystery-addiction demanded stronger and stronger fixes, forcing one to overdose on the dozens of Agatha Christies with their infinite, genteel murder variations and thence to a proper speedball of sex and violence in the James Bond books and then on to the ugly, dirty, totally addictive world of James Hadley Chase.

Looking back, my journey from Blyton’s usually poor and often swarthily complexioned villains (whose worst crimes are smuggling and some quite gentle sorts of kidnapping) to the ruthless killers and drug-pushers of Chase takes no longer than three years. From the unreality of lashings of soda pop and raspberry jelly to the unreality of the pimp in one JHC book who injects a young woman with heroin (just once) to instantly turn her into his addicted sex-slave is, in retrospect, incredibly compacted. To be suddenly tunnelled from Sahaj Path and Dr Seuss to D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene and Doris Lessing via countless paperbacks and comic-books is an experience I know I share with many middle-class urban Indians who grew up in the 60s and early 70s, in that slab of time which was properly post-Independence but still very much pre-television.

The other day I watched Helena Bonham Carter play Enid Blyton in a Channel 4 bio-pic. In an unrelenting, Mommie Dearest kind of biographical evisceration, Blyton comes across as a truly nasty, manipulative, horror-mother, a cross between Margaret Thatcher, Diana Mitford/ Mosley and Lady Dracula. Though Blyton’s contempt for the poor and her deep-rooted racism (towards, it has to be said, everyone from gypsies to French mam’selles) became clear shortly after one outgrew her, this movie was a revelation as to how much damage she caused to everyone in her vicinity, not least her own two daughters.

Meeting an English friend at the pub, I mention finding my old copy of The Mystery of the Missing Man and then coming across the Blyton movie. My friend, who’s about five years older than me, looks bemused. “I can understand the book being precious to you, a kind of an ur-book, I suppose, but why would you waste an afternoon watching a whole movie about Enid Blyton?” “Well, wasn’t she central to your growing up? To your reading when you were a kid?” My friend bursts out laughing. “No one I knew read Enid Blyton. Who reads Enid Blyton?” “Well, the movie says her books still sell 7 to 8 million copies a year.” “In India, probably, and maybe Africa.” Startled, I run through a whole list of names besides Blyton — the Jennings series?, no, Bunter?, heard of, never read, John Creasey?, who?, Modesty Blaise?, yes, of course, Edgar Wallace?, my parents generation, not us, P.G. Wodehouse?, of course, the Sudden series? James Hadley Chase? Who? Nope, never heard of them.

I look around at the sunlit pub garden, children crawling on wooden tables, glasses of beer condensing on wooden tables, the odd ice-bucket with white wine, my friend’s hand tapping on The Black Dahlia, the James Ellroy he’s re-reading. I feel overcome by a wave, not a wave from Smuggler’s Cove in the Famous Five, not quite a wave of the dementia both Blyton and Thatcher suffered in their final years, but something akin to Alice dropping through a rabbit hole. I’d always understood that the England I’d found in my childhood books was an imaginary one but, till now, I’d always assumed I shared that imaginary England (and its spin-offs) with English people who were roughly of my generation. Suddenly, that first Blyton book sitting on my shelf back in Calcutta takes on a whole new dimension. Suddenly the anteroom it created and the mazes it led into become far more exclusive, special, particular to me and to people who were from the same place as me. Even the Englands and Americas those books created, I realize, were perhaps Englands and Americas particular to south Calcutta and nowehere else.