Can a book change one’s life? When I hear the claims of people about the one book that changed their life, I often wonder! Is our lives based on such shallow principles that one book and its ideas can change all that?
So, it was interesting for me to listen to a speech by the character of a superstar, played by the actor Mammootty, in one of my favourite Malayalam movies- Kadha Parayumbol (‘while the story being told’). This was the same movie that got remade (not so successfully) in Hindi, by the name “Billu” or “Billu Barber”.
While delivering a speech to children in a school, the superstar character spoke about the impact of art on the society. Let me paraphrase the same from my not so good memory:
“I don’t believe that cinema or art has so much influence on the society. There would not be many a mother in Kerala, who hasn’t cried listening to the famous poem of Vailoppilli Sreedhara Menon, ‘Mampazham’. But even now, those very mothers would beat their children if they dare to break a bunch of flowers from the mango tree. Nobody has stopped punishing or scolding their children, after reading Mampazham”.
The poem Mampazham (ripe mango) was about the tearful sorrow of a mother, on seeing the first ripe mango fallen from the tree in her courtyard, because she had scolded her only son, who is now no more, for plucking the flowers from that mango tree. The child was upset and had declared to her that he would never go to that tree again; even to pick up the ripe mangoes. Today, when the first ripe mango fell to the ground, she couldn’t control her tears as her son was not there to pick it up!
The character in the movie was establishing that there is not much influence that any art form can impose on our lives! I am not sure if it is entirely true. Definitely, there can be some influence from what we read, observe and learn.
Arts and books in particular, open up ideas for us to imbibe and the accumulation of those ideas is what defines our character. In that sense books might change our life. But again, to believe that a single book can change a person’s life is little too much for me, in most cases.
Yet, I have one book that really changed my life. It is the novel named ‘Resurrection’ by Leo Tolstoy. This being one of the lesser known works of the master novelist was not even known to me when I came across this book. Again, I only vaguely remember the story line of that novel (about the guilt, and attempt at redemption, of a Noble and the view of human miseries though his eyes), though the book is still in my possession!
It is not the content, ideas, or message, per se, of that book, but the book itself, that changed my life. Let me explain how!
I was one of those many children from rural India, who were deprived of the English medium education. I must say, being fortunate to be born in Kerala, the standard of education available to me was far better than in many other parts of the country. The government aided schools strived to impart all-round education, including seeding of ideological preferences. However, in the rare occasions when we had to interact with the students of English medium schools from the city, we realised the huge difference that existed between us.
You, especially from the younger generation and those from the metros, may think it is mere childish inferiority complex to talk so. But you will realise how it was for a child from those circumstances, if you know that till the age of 17, he has not; (i) read an English newspaper, (ii) not seen a TV, (iii) not seen an English movie or cartoon, (iv) not used a telephone; or (iv) had electricity at home!
In the early 1980’s, English medium education was still a luxury in Kerala, like most parts of the country, except in the larger cities. We, as students of Malayalam medium, were always told about the virtue and importance of mother tongue etc. We even heard the politicians opposing English education in schools. However, it was very easy for any child to make out the different classes that existed within society, on the basis of skills in English language.
By the time I completed my Pre-degree (equivalent to Plus Two), with minimum pass mark in English, I was in a position to read and barely understand English, but nothing more. Speaking in English was still a distant dream. I answered all the questions in my Air Force interview in 'yes' or 'no'. Though this interview was my very first real conversation in English, I must have done something right, with my 'yes' and 'no', for they selected me into Air Force!
At the age of 17, when I entered the Admin Training Institute of Indian Air Force, I was for the first time forced to interact with people who did not know Malayalam at all. The interactions in early days were really tough and often funny. But, Air Force with its emphasis on English got me the necessary exposure to this wonderful language. I started picking up the bits and pieces of conversational skills in English.
Time flew and our first vacation came in six months. We all left for our homes, feeling very proud to return as government employees; that too nothing less than soldiers of Indian Air Force! At home, with one month leave, I began the pleasant task of visiting all the relatives at their homes. The freedom, of not being a student any more, was enormous.
In one of those journeys to relatives’ houses, while waiting for my bus, I noticed a book exhibition. Books were always my weakness. I started by reading the bits of newspapers used to pack groceries brought home. School libraries were not worth the name. There were no public libraries within accessible distance from my home. But I still managed to find and borrow books, from all possible sources. Though, I had to hide them from my father, who did not believe in the virtue of reading anything other than text books, I still managed to get and read them all the time that I could find!
So, when I saw the books exhibition it was only natural for me to walk into that. Now with my own hard earned salary in my pocket, I was free to buy any book! I looked around and saw that a lot of the books were in English. The exhibition, arranged by one of the Leftist publications of those days, Prabhat Books, had a large collection of Russian books. Those glossy papers, large prints, beautiful covers were all too tempting for me- but for the fact that they were all in English and not the Malayalam translations.
Then I saw the ‘Resurrection’!
Leo Tolstoy was already familiar to me through Malayalam translations and reviews. Also, the price of the book was very minimal with the then Soviet Government heavily subsidising it. So, I couldn’t resist the temptation. I thought, ‘why not buy this book? Even if I can’t read, understand and enjoy it, at least I can hold it in my hand with pride. At the age of 18, we didn’t have anything like mobiles or i-pads to show off. For us in Kerala, it was still the books and magazines that we carried in our hands to show off.
So, I ended up buying it. Once bought, I ended up reading it. Once read, I couldn’t resist it. Though, I still did not know a lot of words in the book, it was easy to understand the general flow and believe me; I fell in love with Leo Tolstoy! When I completed my training and got posted to New Delhi, my love for Tolstoy got further expanded to Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many more Russian writers; with generous help from the Soviet Government’s policy of subsidising the overseas propaganda- the benefit of which was evident in the number of book exhibitions in New Delhi.
While USSR did not succeed in converting me into a Communist (in fact, their subsequent Glasnost and Perestroika were catalysing forces for my turning into rather an anti-communist), their generosity definitely converted me into a voracious reader of English books. My interest soon grew beyond Russian literature and a large part of my still meager salary got spent in buying books. The rich Air Force libraries also helped me in widening my reading interests.
In those days, I developed a habit of using the new words that I pick up from the books I read and using them in my conversations. Air Force is one of the best places to pick up fairly good spoken English skills. In fact, I am indebted to my parents for giving me birth and to Indian Air Force for developing me into whatever I am today! It was only because of my stint in Air Force, that I could undertake and achieve further education, beyond all my wildest dreams!
I left Air Force after completing 19 years of service and then dabbled for some time in writing law books and practicing law before entering the corporate world. Today, I make a living out of my skills in English and I consider my journey as a great success both in terms of job satisfaction and in terms of monetary success (now drawing a salary that is 427 times of my first month’s salary).
I know, I won’t remain for long in the corporate world and will surely seek other interests and new challenges, soon. Today, I have the confidence to experiment with my life and my career, for I know I have that powerful tool– the English language, assisting and supporting me!
While I continue to love my mother tongue Malayalam, like I do love my parents; my respect for English is not any less than my respect for Indian Air Force or my gratitude to Resurrection for changing the course of my life!
PS: Most of this post came out in my ‘man-to-man’ conversation with my son, while explaining the need for, and the importance of, reading books. I couldn’t resist the temptation to share it with all, through this post; for I believe I must keep attempting to write so as to spread at least some part of the wisdom that those numerous books introduced to me! One day, I hope I will be able to create a decent multi-lingual library in my village.