Just some days ago, I was sitting in front of my towering bookshelf, wondering if I had some books in my childhood that shaped my life as it went on. There were many, of course, since we all truly are the cumulative results of the books and movies we see as children, but I didn’t want to find my favourite books. I wanted to find books that perhaps I didn’t give grand old titles to. Books that were never brought out to be shown to friends or books that I never set on the main shelves, but rather the books that I kept on the highest or lowest ones-out of sight, out of mind. Nonetheless, books without which my bookshelf and my life would not be complete.
Struck by interest and amusement, I got to my feet and traced the spines of the books on these unimportant shelves, letting my hand pick out ones that called to me. Odd book after odd book, yellowed, musty pages, torn covers, from years of being lugged around the country in trunks every time we moved, and the generations of hands that held them.
I created for myself a nice little pile, but the ones that stood out to me the most were my comic books; my entire collection of Tinkle digests stood dusty and proud on the top of my pile, and shuffling through the 20-odd books, I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the memories of incidents that moulded me into, well, me.
“Mummy, can I buy a book?” I’d ask, tugging at my mother’s shirt as we made our way onto the platform of the train that would take us to my grandparents’ house for the holidays.
She’d look down at me and sigh, adjusting her grip on my drooling baby sister in her arms. I knew what she would tell me. That I already had a lot of books, and that I was already carrying a bag filled with novels and diaries enough for more than twice the amount of days we were going for.
“Ask Papa when we stop walking,” she’d say, holding my hand tight and walking briskly, lest we get lost on the noisy, crowded platform.
I’d stare ahead, trying to find him following the coolie who held our luggage on his head with a balance I could not even imagine in my little 6-year-old body. I had tried often, to balance my books on my head. I was getting better at it but that was only because my face was a rounded square – easy to balance things on for fun. But this man held two suitcases filled with clothes and toiletries and food and diapers and whatever I had watched my mother pack the night before.
We’d stop where our compartment was meant to arrive and the coolie would be trying to bargain for a little more money, “…sir, we’ll put all your stuff nicely into the train also, if you give us this much more…”
I knew better than to interrupt my parents when they were bargaining, and sat down on a suitcase, rechecking my bag to see if I had all the books I needed. Of course I didn’t – I needed more!
“Arshia, careful,” my father would say when I began to swing my legs, seated precariously on a wheeled suitcase, and I would recognise this as the perfect entry for me to make my demand.
“Can I buy a tinkle, Papa?”
“You already have so many, no?”
I’d make a sour face and let out a long whine. Long enough to make my father reconsider, but not long enough for him to get angry.
“We’ll see, where’s the thela (cart, stocked full of magazines and comics and books that we’d find dotted all over the train station)?” he’d ask, not wanting to say no either, I’m sure.
I’d get up excitedly and point down the way we came, recalling all the ones I’d seen, and which one would be the best for buying a tinkle. He’d say ‘alright’ and tell my mother to go with me so he could keep an eye on the luggage on the bustling platform.
We’d weave through the crowd, me trying to speed up but not daring to let go of my mother’s side, what with all the stories of kidnappings and accidents I’d been warned of. We’d reach the thela and I’d plant myself on the side, a huge smile on my face, barely being able to see on top of all the books that were stacked up in front of my face. Glistening copies of new tinkle digests would glow in my face as the shopkeeper handed them down to my little hands, clouding my mind from making a practical selection.
“Mummy, can I take two?” I’d ask, eyes downcast, clutching two copies against my chest, knowing full well that she’d glare at me and say no.
There were times when she gave in as well, but this was not one of those times. I’d stare at the books for what seemed like hours, whether trying to mentally read all the stories inside each one, or saying my goodbyes, I don’t know. Begrudgingly, one digest would be handed back, money would be handed over, and all my sadness would be wiped away by the thought of sitting in the train for an entire day, being lulled by the movement of the train over the tracks, watching all the villages and fields going by (paddy fields were my favourite). I feel like I should note, overnight trains didn’t always mean 24 hours, but the movement of the moon and the sun was enough for me to feel like it was an entire day.
I’d nestle into a corner of the blue berth, setting all my books in front of me; my Tinkle proudly taking the helm. And for the next hour or so, I’d immerse myself in the stories of Suppandi-the silly helper who messed up all his tasks, Ramu and Shamu-the mischievous twins who always got the better of adults, Shikari Shambu-the hunter who was scared of animals, Tantri the Mantri-the evil minister who failed in his plans to kill the king time after time, the longer stories sent in by older readers, and of course, the educational pages filled with facts and stories from the days long past us.
I never really realised how much I loved and retained those facts until I found myself telling my sister about things I had no recollection of knowing. It was only once I took out these Tinkles that I remembered a hot summer day in my grandparents’ house in Bhubaneshwar, when I was swivelling around on the chair in Nanu’s (grandfather’s) study, reading the Hand-in-Hand-With-History section in a Tinkle, marvelling at little stories about Gengis Khan, and the Black Death caused by rats. I was perhaps the only 6-year-old in my class who knew about the Bubonic plague.
If I could, I would talk about these memories forever. But this post has become long enough, and I think I’ve said all that I wanted to say about Tinkles, and about 6-year-old me reading them. So I’ll end it here; leave little Arshia swivelling around the pristine study, painting things into her memory that she would not recall how she knew, until she pulled a dusty stack of Tinkles off of her bookshelf and felt drawn to a digest labelled 2007.
Have you had any comics that made up a huge part of your childhood when you were a kid? Did you also like reading as a kid? I’d love to know what you think!