To Connect

Sumi, my very young friend told me that her favourite book at the moment is Black Beauty. My memory flew back to a place called Royal Tunbridge Wells in the UK . On a horribly wet and cold day, Dad drove a sulky little me who did not want to go out in the rain, to the Library in Tunbridge Wells. It was seventeen miles from where we lived in Benenden, and the nearest big town for shopping.

The Library was a big mustardy brown building with slippery stone steps. It looked very imposing.

Our coats were dripping wet, so we took them off and hung them on hooks beside a warm radiator. An elderly lady in a pale blue cardigan and navy skirt welcomed us. I had never been in a public library before and was charmed by the lovely paintings, the quietness and the warmth inside. Dad explained to the lady, Mrs Higgs, that he wanted me to read widely and thought that being a member of a library would be the best way to do this. The lady nodded in agreement and a smile. “ How old are my dear?” she asked me in a hushed voice. “ Twelve,” I replied. “ Oh! Then you are old enough to have your own card.” She explained the rules of the library and the importance of returning books on time. “ Don’t scribble in them. Don’t fold the edges. Use a book mark always,” she said. Dad filled in the forms and we were shown the children’s side of the library. I loved the sheen of polished wooden floors and the tall dark brown shelves filled with books.

Through the huge windows I could see the rain pelting down now. It was warm and comforting to be inside the library.
By one side of the wall there were large arm chairs, in pale blue and pink patterned chintz, forming a square. Several children were sitting very comfortably, heads bent on whatever they were reading. In between the bookshelves there were large wooden tables and children were sitting here too, writing, with big books in front of them. They all looked like they belonged here.

I browsed over so many books, not knowing which ones to choose. After a while, Mrs Higgs appeared beside me. “ Can I help you? “ she asked in a whisper. I nodded and followed where she led. She reached up to one of the shelves and handed me a book. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. Then she picked out another book – The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burford. Both books were about animals – a horse, two dogs and a cat. I wasn’t a great animal lover but I loved these books.

I had a little notebook in which I wrote down new words and their meanings and how to use them in a sentence. It was the beginning of a life time of scribbling in little books. Over a few months I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and now that I’m reminiscing, I think the seeds of the activist in me now were sown then. I was sixteen when she introduced me to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the poetry of Boris Pasternak and the great Russian writers.

Little did I know then that one day I would have shelves of books with my own name on them, and translated into two languages.

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Usha Jesudasan