GROWING UP in urban India in the late '50s and '60s meant growing up with books. Television did not exist in the Bombay of my boyhood, and Nintendo was not even a gleam in an inventor's eye. If your siblings were, as in my case, four and six years younger (and worse, female), there was only one thing to do when you weren't with your friends. Read.
I read copiously, rapidly and indiscriminately. Chronic asthma often confined me to bed, but I found so much pleasure in the books piled up by my bedside that I stopped resenting my illness. Soon reading became the central focus of my existence; there was not a day in my childhood that did not feature a book, or several. One year I kept a list of the volumes I'd finished (comics didn't count), hoping to reach 365 before the calendar did. I made it before Christmas.
An abiding memory is of my mother coming into my room around 11 every night and switching off the light. I wasn't smart enough to think of holding a flashlight under the covers, but sometimes I would wait for my parents to fall asleep in their room, then surreptitiously switch my light on again to finish the book they'd interrupted.
It was, of course, my mother who'd started me off on the bad habit to begin with. When I was still in diapers she would read to me from the Noddy books of Enid Blyton, stories about a nodding wooden doll and his friends in Toyland. My mother jokes that she read them so badly I couldn't wait to grab the books from her myself; by the time I was 3, I was reading Noddy, and soon moving on to other stories by Blyton, easily the world's most prolific children's author, whose prodigious output (more than 200 books) could take you through an entire childhood. When I outgrew Noddy there were Enid Blyton fairy tales, nursery fantasies and retold legends; by 7 I started on her thrilling mysteries of The Five-Find-Outers (and Dog); by 8 I discovered her tales of British boarding-school life, midnight feasts and all; by 9 I was launched on the adventures of the "Famous Five" and of four intrepid British teenagers in another series which always had the word "adventure" in its titles (The Ship of Adventure, The Castle of Adventure and so on).
Today, Enid Blyton has become the target of well-intentioned but over-earnest revisionists, her stories assailed for racism, sexism and overall political incorrectness. But generations of post-colonial Indians have read (and still read) her books, entranced by her extraordinary storytelling skills and quite indulgent of her stereotypes. After 200 years of the Raj, Indian children knew instinctively how to filter the foreign -- to appreciate the best in things British, and not to take the rest seriously.
For colonialism had given us a literature that did not spring from our own environment, and whose characters, concerns and situations bore no relation to our own lives. This didn't bother us in the slightest: a Bombay child read Blyton the same way a Calcutta kindergartner sang "Jingle Bells" without us having seen snow or sleigh. If the stories were alien, we weren't aliented; they were to be read and enjoyed, not mined for relevance.
Indeed, the most popular British children's books other than Enid Blyton's were the ones that didn't take themselves too seriously. My own favorities were the "William" books of Richmal involving the escapades of an irrepressible schoolboy (all tousled hair, grubby face and cheeks bulging with Licorice All-Sorts) who was forever tumbling into ditches, pulling off outrageous schemes and messing up his elder sister's love-life. A close second came the Billy Bunter series by Frank Richards, whose stories under half-a-dozen pseudonymns earned him attention in George Orwell's famous essay on schoolboy fiction. Richards created an uproarious world of British public-school characters, from the eponymous Bunter ("a fat, frabjous frump") to his doughty Yorkshire classmate John Bull. There was even a dusky Indian princeling, improbably named Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, who played cricket magnificently, mixed his metaphors in a series of sage howlers, and answered to the name "Inky." I suppose that, reading the books in independent India half a century after they were written, I ought to have been offended; but I was merely amused, for Frank Richards never wrote a dull word in his long and productive career.
Another hardy perennial was Capt. W.E. Johns, whose hero "Biggles" made his literacy debut as a World War I flying ace and agelessly fought through the Second World War and the Cold War before his creator finally -- in the RAF jargon he made so familiar to us -- "went West." (Biggles' adventures inspired my own first work of published fiction at age 10 -- a credulity-stretching saga of a figher pilot -- but that is another story.) BLYTON, Bunter, Biggles: that insidious imperialist Macualay had done his work too well, his policies spawning a breed of Indians the language of whose education made them a captive market for the British imagination. What about Indian books? Sadly, I suffered a major handicap: my parents' peripatetic life (I was born in London, grew up in Bombay and would move to Calcutta before I turned 13) cut me off from the literature of my mother-tongue, Malayalam, the language of the distant southern state of Kerala. As with other children of migratory Indians, English became not only the language of my schoolbooks but of my private life: I played with my friends in English, quarreled with my sisters in English, wrote to my relatives in English -- and read for pleasure in English.
The colonial inheritance made this a common predicament among India's city-bred urban elite. But where more proficiently bilingual children like my wife, growing up in Calcutta, also read nonsense verse and fairy tales in vivid Bengali, I had to make do with Lear and Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen in English. There were few good Indian children's books available in English in a market still dominated by the British. The one area where Indian publishers could hold their own was in retelling the Indian classics. I remember several versions of the traditional tales I'd heard from my grandmother -- episodes from the Ramayana, the great epic in which he god-king Rama rescues his abducted queen from the demon ruler of Lanka, the Mahabharata (which later inspired my first novel), and the fables of the ancient Jatakas and the Panchatantra. Many of the fables had become familiar in the West through their retelling by Aesop, and thanks to the colonial legacy we had the European versions too.
The other Indian stories I remember enjoying as a child were clever short tales about Birbal and Tenaliraman, two wise and witty men from opposite corners of the country who resolved problems in what were essentially extended anecdotes. The Children's Book Trust, a government-sponsored venture, began publishing subsidized books for Indian children during the '60s, but their quality was erratic and could not match the allure of their imported competitors. Today, their list features Indian equivalents of Enid Blyton, including a series devised explicitly to counter gender stereotypes. Indian kids today also have an indigenous answer to America's famous Classics Illustrated, the Amar Chitra Katha series, which retells myths, legends and historical stories in attractive comics -- and has Indianized the sensibilities of its readers in a manner unavailable to me when I was growing up in India.
But English did give me access to a broader world. Before I was 13 I had read English translations, and competent abridgements, of Camus, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Herman Hesse and Tolstoy. Mark Twain and Moby Dick, also adapted for younger readers, brought America to us, but in our daily reading the U.S. didn't fare as well as the former colonial power. Of course we had access to the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys, but there seemed to be something faintly brash and spurious about them: British books, we were brought up to believe, set the real standard.
The classroom, with its British-inspired curiculum, was a rich source of inspiration. At the age of 9 I was reading Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, at 10 Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (both unabridged); and the Bard himself, mildly expurgated, made an appearance on the syllabus when I was 11. In the same year, an otherwise detestable teacher dictated a passage from P.G. Wodehouse as a spelling test, and launched me on the first great passion of my life.
It took me some seven years to find and finish all 95 of the Master's books, but the pleasure he gave will last a lifetime. When, a month short of my 12th birthday, my father -- then 38 -- was taken to hospital after a massive heart attack, the only thing that could console me, keep me whole and sane as my father battled for his life in Intensive Care, was the compelling magic of a Wodehouse novel. To be transported to his idyllic world of erudite butlers and eccentric baronets, with its overfed pigs, bellowing aunts and harebrained attempts to pinch policemen's helmets, offered what every stressed-out child needs, an alternative to reality. (Wodehouse's farcically elaborate plotting, drolly literate style and side-splitting humor were, of course, their own rewards.) Dad pulled through, and I have remained eternally grateful. India is still the only country where Wodehouse has both a mass and a cult following, if the word "mass" can be applied at all to the tiny minority who read English; he is as widely read in India as, say, Agatha Christie.
I dipped into Dame Agatha myself, but boys will be boys, and my childhood thrills post-Biggles came from stirring adventure sagas: not the preposterous imperialism of Kipling, but tales of the Foreign Legion by Percival Christopher Wren (Beau Geste the best known, Beau Sabreur he best) and of pirates on the Spanish Main by Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood, The Sea-Hawk and their successors). Sabatini was to the historical novel what Stephen King is today to the Gothic. He proved equally adept at recreating the English Civil War and the French Revolution (in Scaramouche, which begins with those lines now immortalized on a Yale doorway: "He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad. That was his only patrimony.") There were other heroes: Leslie Charteris's rakish gentleman crook, "the Saint", and of course The Scarlet Pimpernel (though I didn't like Baroness Orczy's sequels).". As I neared the age at which I could cast off the constraints of childhood and label myself a teenager, I discovered the thrillers of James Hadley Chase, so popular in India that the sidewalk vendors of Bombay did a brisk business in pirate paperbacks bearing his name -- but which he'd never written.
Childhood is also, of course, a time for comics, and here American ones were greatly preferred to British. To an Indian child, the world portrayed in "Archie" or "Richie Rich" seemed infinitely more desirable than that of "Beano." (Comics also made us aware of changing U.S. sensibilities. I still remember the first time black faces appeared on the Main Streets of comic strips, and what that taught me about the state of race relations in America.) The Classics Illustrated series was a sort of children's Reader's Digest Condensed Books, offering colorful capsule versions of more demanding literature, from Huckleberry Finn to Around the World in Eighty Days. But my favorite comics were the Belgian Tintin stories, brilliantly translated by the British team of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. Herge's perfectly sketched adventures of the boy reporter, his dog Snowy and his sailor friend Captain Haddock (whose salty tongue produced delightfully polysyllabic invective -- "bashi-bazouk!", "troglodyte!", "cercopithecus!") are classics of their kind. As clever, if not quite as thrilling, were the Asterix series, featuring an indomitable Gaulish village resisting Julius Caesar's Romans (who all bore appropriately Latinate names, from Marcus Ginantonicus to Crismus Bonus). SO MINE was, all in all, an eclectic childhood. It is, I suppose, a uniquely Indian experience to embrace both Biggles and Birbal, Jeeves and the Jatakas, Tintin and Tenaliraman in your reading. There still were inadvertent omissions I later made up for as a father -- I have since read A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, Dr, Seuss and Maurice Sendak aloud to my twins. But what remains is a vivid sense of books devoured as sources of entertainment, learning, escape -- and vicarious experience.
The most difficult moments of my childhood came on one day every year, the holy day of Saraswati Puja. Hindus dedicated the day to the Goddess of Learning through prayer and ritual and, paradoxically, by denying themselves the joys of reading or writing. Despite the most strenuous efforts, I could never master the required degree of self-denial. If I successfully pushed my books aside, I would find myself reading the fine print on the toiletries in the bathroom or the fragments of old newspaper that lined my clothes drawers. But I think the goddess forgave me these transgressions. For I continued to read and to learn from books; and now she has even allowed me to write a few of them. Shashi Tharoor is the author of four books, including "The Great Indian Novel."