Lessons in Small Print: Sweet Serendipity
On the last Saturday of every month we (my counsellor friend Rupal Patel and I) get set for a date… with the Blabbering Bookworms. It’s a name they’ve given themselves, this bright bunch of 11- to 13-year-olds. Avid readers all, they teach us several things. Among these is their ability to appreciate the beauty of the moment.
To make the most of a sunny day after a mad Mumbai monsoon season we once decided to take the discussion of Michael Morpurgo’s understated little gem, The Mozart Question outdoors. (This is a personal favourite title I recommended as a great work of fiction introducing the young to the Holocaust horror.) Kicking off our shoes to feel the grass beneath our feet on the lovely lawn of the Experimental Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, we were ready to talk. But thanks to exam fever in most schools, a mere fistful of kids turned up that evening.
That was disappointing. More voices always mean more views and verve, more heft and heart. And then life – and luck – took over. Quite by chance we watched rows of kids, some even younger than ours, file into the theatre beside us, clutching a violin each underarm. We followed them quietly, sought permission and soon sat listening to an amazing violin concert performed by pupils of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation. Suddenly, least expected and from nowhere, our children’s no-show had segued into a superb show!
Early in our time together, we stumbled upon another happy coincidence. This time it was in the foyer of the Little Theatre where we’d gathered to chat about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Before they could begin sharing thoughts on C.S. Lewis’ masterly second allegory of the Narnia series, the children stopped dead in their tracks. Facing them stood a fine armoire, a Sevres cabinet with inset plaques of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, donated by the Petit family. “Wa-wa-war-wardrobe – the wardrobe!” they yammered in disbelief, pointing to it. Here was an incredibly situated prop straight out of their book of the month. They literally wanted to tumble into the exquisite antique furniture piece, to follow the fantastic trail of adventures befalling the Pevensie siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.
My 8-year-old daughter experienced the same delightful discovery through the pages of books when we were shopping for paints at Crawford Market, and found ourselves across the road from the J. J. School of Art. That afternoon she clutched a favourite book underarm – a 1919 pocket edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories which a grand-aunt had gifted on my tenth birthday. It came stunningly illustrated by the author himself, whose wooden bungalow stood on the J. J. School grounds before us. This was where John Lockwood Kipling, teacher of architectural sculpture, brought his family when stationed on campus during his son’s earliest years.
We surrendered to serendipity. Squatting under a mango tree at that spot, I read aloud the tale of The Elephant’s Child (about how he got his trunk) on the banks of the Limpopo River in Africa. Hooked by it, my excited daughter wanted to wander around the historic precinct. I knew it well after becoming a signed member of the Bombay Local History Society, having trundled along guided walks until nine months pregnant!
A book is somehow sacred, said John Steinbeck, admired writer of my own adolescent years. Then I knew it was books that completed me. Now I know few things fire me the way this does: a shot at spreading the power and passion of the printed word with pre-adolescents. In the communicated joy of language lies the template of their future.