How many of you have ventured into the forbidden realm of reading during a class with your teacher droning on unintelligibly and you having the time of your life? Well, I must plead guilty, as I was one of those who indulged in the vice, and, later on, paid for the luxury dearly.
But, before proceeding further, I must tell you how it all started. My father got transferred to Karachi, and that meant leaving my old school on Mall Road, and getting used to the new one at M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi. The transition was not easy in terms of environment. I thought I was excellent in Urdu, but was soon rid of the notion. My accent set me apart, and initially there was some good-natured ribbing on my ‘ho hai’. Once that was out of the way, I got on famously with my new classmates.
I shared with my new friends the love of reading and since there was no space elsewhere in the classroom, I was given the last bench. As luck had it, the girls who went on to become my besties were also the denizens of the last row. Very soon, I saw them engrossed in novels tucked away in the text books of Urdu and Religion. Actually, the same teacher used to take both the subjects and she was as old as the hills, or perhaps even older. She hardly used to take rounds and my friends read their novels in her periods. One of them shared ‘These old shades’ by Georgette Heyer and another ‘The Blue-Eyed Witch’ by Barbara Cartland.
‘These old shades’ was, simply put, magic … and I was spellbound. I got the book issued from my school library and when I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was a totally new genre for me, as I had been into novels of Alistair Mclean and Colin Forbes at that time. ‘These old shades’ was funny, witty, poignant, intriguing and full of historical references, bringing to mind very vividly life under Louis XV. Oh what fun it was reading about the foibles of nobility on both sides of the English Channel. On the other hand, I was unable to finish ‘The Blue-Eyed Witch’. It was dull monotonous reading, specially after the scintillating events and dialogues of ‘These Old Shades’ and ‘Devil’s cub’. The friend who had given me this book tried to tempt me with three more books of Ms Cartland, but I just couldn’t read them. I tried … I really did, as I did not want to offend my friend who was a diehard fan of Ms Cartland, but her writing style was not to my liking. May be if I had read Ms Cartland before reading Ms Heyer, I might have completed her books instead of leaving after reading one to two chapters of the books I was given, but what you eat and read is something no one should criticize!
I joined the backbenchers reading club, and was rewarded by the ‘Devil’s Cub’, the sequel to ‘These Old Shades’. After that, I got into Jane Austen, and I loved her books, though Heyer remains my particular favourite. I read the Bronte sisters and found I liked Emily more than her more celebrated sister, Charlotte. After dabbling in classics of Dickens I started reading fiction voraciously and, to this day, I bless my teacher of Urdu and Religion whose ineptitude exposed me to my all time favourite, Georgette Heyer and later Godfather by Mario Puzo. At about the same time, I got introduced to an Urdu writer, Ibne Safi. And God, was he good! He was an amazing fiction writer, his genre being crime mainly, and he was so funny that he got me into trouble in 10th grade.
You see, this habit of reading that had started during Urdu and Religion periods had emboldened us so much that we all started reading in other periods as well. I was reading an Imran Series book by Ibne Safi when I forgot where I was and burst out laughing! My Physics teacher swooped down on me and confiscated my book. Till she snatched the book, I had failed to notice her standing in front of my desk, and glaring at me with all the pent-up fury an educationist has for those who refuse to pay attention to her lecture, according to my friend who had watched her descend on me. The outcome was not at all good for me. My parents were called by her and I got a big dressing down.
In a way, my getting caught was a blessing in disguise. My grades had been slipping and my parents made sure that I had no opportunity to read books hidden in my journals like I had become used to doing. It all came full circle when I noticed my 12-year-old niece Sara suddenly becoming so studious that she would retire to study in her room at odd times. My sister-in-law told me happily that Sara had started working very hard. Needless to say, warning bells started clanging in my mind. I went to Sara’s room and saw that she had a social studies book in her hands and was immersed in it. Even more needless to say that I found a Harry Potter book between the covers of that social studies book when I asked Sara to show me what she was reading.
Sara still reads, but only after she is done with her work. We all had to work very hard to get her to leave the habit that she inherited from me, but with love and persistence we made her see that there is a proper time for everything. So all this long narrative means to impress on elder siblings, teachers and parents to keep their eyes on the children under their supervision. In my days, it was books but nowadays the temptations are unlimited and dangerous, and it's the duty of all elders to watch their charges.
PS: still not ashamed of reading Georgette Heyer then!