When I was seven years old my parents got worried because I didn’t show interest in reading. My favourite pastimes were painting and building models from recycled objects.
One day Papa took me to the bookshop and I was delighted to see storybooks with colourful covers. The shopkeeper showed us Tarzan, a novel for children from Ferozsons Ltd. But Papa had better plans. He picked up Jamaluddin Afghani from a pocket book series of biographies also published by Ferozsons. “Afghani was a great man,” he said to me. “You must read about him.” The book was a bit too advanced for my age but still it was written for children, so my father read out the first page to me when we got home and then left me to finish it. Now, Mr. Afghani might have done wonderful job for the glory of his nation but frankly, I didn’t find him very exciting for a kid of age 7 and carried on with my watercolour, brush and used up battery cells.
The next year I became interested in snakes after watching a movie about them. After I had painted too many snakes I one day found a small children’s book titled Saanp ka Tohfa. I brought it home and started reading it. But my speed was pathetic. When I got tired I asked my mother to read out a few pages while I was catching breath. That was the beginning.
In those days, Shiekh Ghulam Ali & Sons Publishers used to print these small storybooks for children, which we used to call “8 Anna Books” and “One Rupee Books,” because that was how they were priced. I think they still print them. I used to check them out to find anything about snakes, but sadly they had forgotten to include that interesting topic in their wonderful treasury.
So I hit upon another type of books, the film stories. In those good old days when a film was released in the cinema (VCR had not become common yet), many smaller publishers printed their stories so that people who were too busy to go to the cinema and still didn’t wish to miss the show could read them. Also, people who liked a particular movie could then purchase its book (usually priced at 36 paisas). These books were often poorly written and badly printed but I was happy to forgive the printer when I found some books that were based on films about snakes, such as Nag Muni.
My uncles and aunts were horrified when during one family reunion I took out my collection of film stories and displayed it against my cousins’ dinky cars. It wasn’t appropriate for a child of tender age to spend so much time thinking about film-stars! But Papa had decided never to interfere with my choices again since Jamaluddin Afghani fiasco. His only response was to give me more money and telling the driver to take me to the market so that I could purchase more film stories.
And soon afterwards my world changed. It changed entirely, radically, absolutely… you name an adverb and I would say, “Yes!” I can never forget the day when I first hit upon a 124-page children’s novel with one of the loveliest pictures: a black cobra swimming upstream on the surface of a blue river. With great effort (my reading was still quite pathetic) I succeeded in reading its title: Naag Zindah Ho Gaya. I remember that its price was Rs. 3.50, and I was 25 paisa short. So I went home and told Papa. By that time even he was getting weary of my sinister choices, and his first reaction was, “Oh! Not one of those snake things again!” But he relented when he saw my excitement (I was breathing so fast that he thought I would choke myself if I didn’t get the book immediately). I finished the 124-page novel – again, with much help form my mother. And only then did I realize what I had been booked for.
That novel was just the number 21 in a series of 50 episodes called Maut Ka Taaqub, (The Pursuit of Death) written by A. Hameed! Only 29 were out by that time, and Papa got me all of them.
The story was based around three characters (one of them a snake), who travel through history and miraculously survive for thousands of years. They play important roles in the lives of such famous people like Helen of Troy, Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Cleopatra… They gave me an overview of the entire human history and some wonderful fantasy trips over the snow clad mountains of Tibet and scorching deserts of Gobi. (Nineteen years later I had the opportunity to interview A. Hameed to write his profile in Dawn, and that was indeed one of the most delightful moments in my life).
Anyway, Maut Ka Taaqub was the turning point in my readings… within a year I had not only finished all available episodes (10 more came out soon), but also a number of those pocket book biographies too (yes, including Jamaluddin Afghani!).
And I gathered a large collection of other storybooks. My sisters, younger to me, also joined the club and together we used to have a competition about who would read more pages everyday – in which I usually lost to one of my sisters who read faster than me!
About the same time, I stumbled upon some pictures of historic personalities and places sold outside our school. Soon, I had a large collection of those too, and wanted to arrange them in the chronological order. In the beginning my father helped me but then he told me to do it myself, and brought me an advanced textbook of history.
That was my beginning into books that weren’t written for junior readers. I tried Iqbal’s poetry and Herald Lamb’s biography of Alexander the Great (translated into Urdu) while I was still nine years old, and since many of the history books quoted verses in Persian, I had to get some knowledge in the basic grammar of that language too.
Now the elders in the family were worried again, because I was reading all these books in Urdu, but none in English. My parents, though they had tried to teach me English before they taught me Urdu, made a display of patience again. “Let’s not confuse him,” Papa said. And hence it wasn’t until I was twelve that I first took up reading English [outside the school syllabus] – with the Adventure series of Willard Price, Sherlock Holmes stories and, of course, Harold Lamb’s Alexander of Macedon, this time the original English version.
One important discovery in my road to reading was the mystery stories of Ibn-e-Safi (whom I discovered through the books of Ishtiaq Ahmed). Ibn-e-Safi’s characters had this habit of referring to other books, authors and their ideas. I naturally felt curious about all those references and tried to follow them up. Through Ibne Safi I got interested in thinkers such as Confucius, Nieztsche, Freud and Jung and writers such as Rider Haggard and Earle Stanley Gardner.
Looking back on my readings, I think the one factor that helped me most was that my parents left me to myself. They never forced me to read anything I didn’t like, and they never stopped me from reading anything I wanted to. Except at school, where my interest in reading was endangered by boring textbooks, reading always remained a fun for me, never a punishment.
Today, when I have to write a lot about history, I am sometimes asked if I ever get fed up with all these personalities dead for so long. “Dead?” I wonder. “No way! They are my buddies since I was a kid.” And truly, I had a better understanding with them than I had with any of the friends my own age.
(This article was originally published in Dawn, Young World, sometime in 2001.)