One of the things that has served me well throughout my academic life has been the skill of skimming over many pages of dense text and zooming, with the alacrity of a hungry hawk, on to that part of the document relevant for me. And I owe this skill in no small measure to the works of Harold Robbins and of the lately deceased Sidney Sheldon.
Late 80s. No relief on pre-cable Rajiv-Darshan for the horizon-broadening early-teen. The mind turned to the printed word—-but the only English books allowed at home for “bhodro” (good) kids were the classics (Moby Books with one side text and one side pictures where a glimpse of Estella’s cartoon cleavage was the only possible great expectation), Famous Five and Nancy Drew, the juiceless products of the Communist state otherwise known as Vostok publications, Tintin, Asterix….you get the picture. The “bad” kids, the ones who got “guardian calls” and had red in their report cards, smuggled in these dog-eared Sheldon-Robbins books to school which we, with shaking hands and smoky breath, would leaf through rapidly trying to focus in on the good parts, in the brief minute before “tiffin” ended.
And what a world it was. Screw the “Gajab ka hain din”-style running around trees and the juvenile “Oye Oye”s —-this was the real deal.
There was a chain of second-hand book stores in what used to be known grandly as Hawker’s Boulevard: a strip of sidewalk near, ironically,Ramkrishna Mission in Gol Park —a place where I used to do my “good boy” purchases. But like most good boys whose heart was as black as the ashbuds in the front of March, my eyes would wander, while leafing through old issues of Sportsworld, to the provocative covers of those windows into decadence. The toothy, worldly-wide proprietor,observing my fidgety eyes unable to keep its focus on the picture of Vivian Richards, would say “Ki khoka dekhbe notun eseche?” (Hey boy, want to see..new stuff). I would take the book, fingers flying over the pages, making the pretence of leafing through as if I had any intention of buying it, my mind stopping at those “passages”, imbibing them voraciously and then continuing onwards while the beady-eyed stallowner looked at me with an all knowing demeanour and asked “Ki bhalo?” (Is it good?). Of course I did not/could not buy the book and the shopkeeper knew it. But what he had done was made me lose any moral authority to bargain extensively over the Sportsworld issues which I bought and quietly left, eyes downcast.
Most of you young kids, brought upon a staple diet of Mallika and MMS-es, would scoff and say “But this isn’t porn you are talking about —why the subterfuge?”. To that I can only smile the sad smile of the experienced and say “Son (daughter) you were not in the age group (12 to 15) in the late 80s. You will not understand”.
In any case, an important life-skill was built as a result of these experiences for which I am eternally grateful. Not to speak of a cornucopia of knowledge that I will carry with me long after I have forgotten the length of the Nile or the diagram of the reproductive system of a toad.
Fast forward to the mid 90s. And my second salute of the day to Anna Nicole Smith, also recently deceased, for taking care of another part of my growing-up pangs. In 1996 when I started discovering the joys of the Internet, I was introduced by kindly Yahoo uncle to one Ms. Anna Nicole Smith, 1993 Playboy Playmate of the year. In contrast to the girls I knew (the ones who always threatened to complain to aunty at the possibility of even expressing a desire to have ice-cream), whom I considered to be the true inheritors of the legacy of Nehruvian red-tapism, Anna Nicole symbolized true capitalism: a free market bountiful beauty who beckoned us to the land of opportunity with her wanton looks and drove home the important lesson that the best things in life are not necessarily real.
And so farewell my dear friends Sidney Sheldon and Anna Nicole Smith. Though I never knew either of you personally (and I wish I did, more so for Ms. Smith), you were much closer to me and exerted a far greater influence on my life and “emotional growth” than any of my friends.
You will be sorely missed.