“It is to books that I owe everything that is good in me. Even as I grow older, I realize that art is more generous than people are…” – Maxim Gorky
This morning, my father pulled out an old black and grey dusty old suitcase with a golden handle from under his bed and declared that henceforth I keep ‘my property’ in my own room.
‘What’s in the suitcase?’ I asked him donning a strange expression, and as I rushed to open it [to my surprise], the smell of my childhood consumed me. It was full of old books of my growing up days, books from Soviet publishers and writers, books that were left unattended for years.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to go through each of those books – I grew up with – figuratively speaking; those that have always given me a feeling of warmth and magic.
Those days, while I was already getting familiar with names like CS Lewis, Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens, E B White, Rudyard Kipling, Louis May Alcott, and not to forget Enid Blyton, my parents also bought me a stack of books from Russian publishers and authors [most of those names unfamiliar to me] from book fairs which I equally cherished.
Those rusty, illustrated books from the Soviet, translated in English and regional languages were stories about real children and their tryst with life.
My mother often read those stories to me at bedtime. The lovely sketches and covers with simple and realistic plots, intertwined with magic, folklore, and a healthy dose of humor enchanted me.
In them, a mischievous eight-year-old boy finds all sorts of trouble. In another a small boy’s transforms from an underachiever into an A student.
I vividly remember a book where the protagonist Elena, a poor girl with little hope of living, meets a magic cat and that changes her life trajectory forever.
I remember a hardback pocket book on astronomy called Space Adventures in your Home by F. Rabiza fueled astronomer ambitions early in my childhood, until my math and physics classes in high school made it clear this was an unrealistic life choice.
The bulk of my mini book shelf was made up of books published by Raduga, Malysh, Progress Publishers, Pravda and some lesser known others—and those were an essential part of the growing-up years. Tolstoys, Pushkins, and Dostoyevskys naturally came to my life in the course of the journey.
It has been nearly three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and those Soviet era books are a lost world now. Potter maniacs may give me a glance of scornful indignation, but for a generation that grew up in the ‘80s [and earlier], these glossy books, with their touching stories and fascinating illustrations [translated in English or regional versions], served as a sort of strange connection between distant lands and still fire the imagination.
Strangely, the world depicted in the Russian stories was so unique, far removed from the neighborhoods of Indian cities or towns, different in weather, names, food, and facades, yet, those exotic books belonged to a world its readers felt able to touch, to sense and know well and today it remains a part of my most cherished memories.