When I was seven or eight, a children’s club came into existence within the neighborhood (thank God for those adults who had the idea to found it!) in which we lived. It was called Baal Bhavan, which translates to “The Building for Children.” And very aptly it was named too, because it was a place where children could be whatever they wished to be: an artist, a musician, a sportsperson, a kid having simple fun, a bookworm, or all of the above.
It was actually a bunch of buildings clumped together in a largish area. This compound had a building that housed the Ladies’ Club, and the one adjoining to it was the Children’s Building. These were surrounded by a play area with the usual collection of see-saws, swings, and monkey-bars.
The children’s building also housed one very special room – the library. It was a long rectangular room with brightly colored kid-sized tables and chairs scattered around the room in cheerful disarray. This was where little kids were given mounds of play dough that they could mould into whatever their imaginations could dream up. (I can still smell the moldy, sticky mess of play dough as I write this. The power of association, especially that of smell, is so immediate, but long-lasting at the same time, isn’t it?)
Three walls of this room, from ceiling to floor, were lined with shelves filled to cramming with brand-new books of all kinds: fat and tall, shiny and bright, hard-backed and full of pictures, paperbacked and full of words. There were books of every kind that a kid’s mind could wish for. (I’m not sure if it was done with intentional, if well-meaning, guile on the part of the adults who ran this club, but I don’t think there’s a better way to instill the love of reading in tiny tots than to surround them with the sight and smell of so many books while they played innocently. I’m sure most of them learned to read by Osmosis alone.)
I devoured all the hard-backed picture books pretty fast and stretched my arms towards the thicker paperbacks, which stood a little ways above the shelves that held the picture books. And my hand closed around one book called “The Summer Adventure” by Shashi Deshpande.
Skimming through the contents of the back flap, I surmised that it sounded pretty mysterious. I’d never heard of that author before, but I was willing to give any and every author a chance, so I took the book home. And thus began my long-standing (still going strong) affair with mysteries.
That book was one among a trilogy of mysteries solved by a bunch of cousins. They keep coming upon crimes, small and big, as they’re innocently navigating through their vacations in ever-changing (with every book) settings. Sound familiar?
Yes, don’t they sound like some of Enid Blyton’s books? I’m not sure to this day if Shashi Deshpande was influenced by Enid Blyton, but I and my siblings grew up referring to her as the Indian Enid Blyton.
She brought a whole new India, which was very familiar and yet was just out of reach, to us. We couldn’t have enough of this adventurous foursome and their exploits in both rural and cosmopolitan India.
Deshpande is known to have written this series for her two young sons originally, and boy, am I glad that she did! Only much later did I learn that she has only written four books for children, while she has written several short stories, novels, and thought-provoking essays for adults.
Recently, thanks to a wonderful friend (thanks, SK!) living in India, I got my hands on one of Deshpande’s collections of short stories (sadly, her books are not easily available any more even in India).
Deshpande seems to seamlessly vary her voice depending on the audience at hand. (I’m in awe of those authors who tread both adult and children’s literary worlds with seeming nonchalance. I know for a fact that it’s not easy to do.) No wonder she has been awarded some of the highest awards in Indian literature.
Here are a couple of passages from my favorite from the trilogy, The Hidden Treasure:
There was a steady stream of carts on the road. Some had whole families in them, some were full of baskets, pots and all kinds of odds and ends. There were also many people walking, women carrying pots and baskets on their heads, or babies on their hips, with older children walking, or skipping, by their sides. And all the bells around the necks of the animals and the creaking wheels of the carts sang a kind of gay little song. The children exclaimed in pleasure at the sights and sounds.
“Nothing to what it used to be,” Fakira told them. “Now they all want to go by bus. Nobody wants to walk. My own grandson wants to waste his money on the bus. Even now, I can walk all the way and back very easily,” he boasted.
Growing up, I used to dream about what I’d say if ever I had the chance to come face to face with Shashi Deshpande. I have drafted numerous letters to her, all in my head, which I never put down on paper.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s what I should do: write to her now and tell how she, along with Enid Blyton, has been instrumental in my finally taking the first plunge into my dream-world of writing for children.
Who has influenced you into taking the first step towards the goal you’re currently working or the one you have already achieved?