When I was a young girl, my father used to sit me on his stomach as he read the newspaper. Even then, as now, he was a tubby man and his tummy made for a comfortable spot for me to test the durability of newspapers as I poked holes through headlines with my all-mighty forefinger. Little did I know that it was going to be through those precious, transient moments that I would eventually learn to recognize letters and words, their forms and sounds.
My father read aloud while his finger traced the sentences. On and on he read, about politics, interest rates, social commentaries, riots, fires and earthquakes. Every few lines or so, he’d stop and tap me on the shoulder to ask “Where is ‘hazard’?” or “Where is ‘percentage’?” I crinkled my eyebrows and made a show of searching hard. Nine out of ten times I pointed to a random word and got it wrong. After a few tries, I was eager to get something right and stabbed the paper with greater gusto, growing more competitive. My old man caught on, realizing he could make a game out of this. And so he did.
For the first six months, I got everything wrong.
He halted in the middle of sentences with increasing frequency and picked out a whole string of words. Disappear, fluid, wig, deportation, museum. I made an effort to listen closely as he read through the lines. My random finger-pointing became more focused.
My favourite letter of the alphabet changed weekly. Q was a little girl doing a curtsy; E and F were fraternal twins; S was a wriggly worm in the mud. Words like coma, peony and wander sounded like pure poetry to my ears, requiring no syntax, perfectly acoustic.
I began demanding books instead of newspapers. Newspapers were out of the question. The words were too tiny, their stories too ominous and foreboding. Besides, earthquakes and hurricanes were of no concern to a four-year-old. I craved magic, castles, goblins, potions and adventure. Good should triumph over evil, without fail, always.
One day, my father came back with a paper bag full of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, and my life changed forever.
I began to associate characters with people I met in real-life. My extended family, too, had grumpy old women and cantankerous old men, sweet-toothed cake thieves, good-hearted fairy godmothers and the occasional goblin. The world became a fairytale, the fairytale the world.
It is hard to think what would have happened had my father not sat me on his stomach on that fateful afternoon of my childhood. Or if he had swept aside his daughter’s interest, casually ignored it in the presumptuous but not unkind way of adults.
I owe to him my love for literature. His enthusiasm was infectious and his knowledge of authors made entering the world of books as effortless as gliding into the vast, shoreless sea.
And till today, I still pick up Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan when the world gets a bit too grim.