“A perfect trailer house for Jupiter’s hideout!”, I thought to myself. I was walking on one of the trails in my town, pushing Nikhil’s adaptive wheelchair while Nikhil took in all the sights and pointed out things that caught his interest. We had come around a bend in the trail and the house trailer was jammed between a few truck trailers. Overgrown weeds surrounded it. A tall chain-link fence prevented closer inspection. I pulled out my phone and took a couple of pictures. As we continued walking, my mind was flooded with pleasant memories. Of a young boy in the late seventies who was enthralled by mystery books.
Having an older brother meant that I was introduced to his books at a fairly young age. Books authored by Enid Blyton were popular and after going through the Brer Rabbit and Mr. Meddle series as well as an assorted set of books involving elves and pixies, I was introduced to my first Secret Seven book. For a young boy, this was a rite of passage that marked my transition from the make-believe world of talking animals and fairy tales to the world of children who got into adventures. Now, these were plausible adventures, not the Harry Potter kind.
The Secret Seven series was first published by Enid Blyton in 1948 and is apparently based on the children of her publisher. A secret society that was comprised of four boys and three girls, the leader, Peter, was named after the publisher’s son. The seven meet in an old shed. Entry to the shed required a password and they sported badges with “SS” embroidered on them.
Secret Seven had a pretty strong influence on me and my friends. We formed our own “Secret Seven” group in our neighborhood and I was elected leader. Not that I was earmarked for any future leadership positions. I was an avid reader and knew the plots. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is the king! We met at my friend Deepu’s house, he was the only one amongst us who had a bedroom to himself. We made badges, had meetings, and came up with passwords.
The passwords were moot since anyone going to Deepu’s bedroom had to first gain entrance to his house and his mother would not permit strangers in. This did not strike us and the password was whispered with furtive glances when we knocked on his closed bedroom door. As part of our sleuthing activities, we followed a couple of neighbors around on their daily activities, took notes in a small diary, and reported on our findings. After a few desultory meetings with nothing interesting to report the group dissolved and we resumed playing board games at Deepu’s house.
The next step up in my literary ladder was “The Famous Five” series, again by Enid Blyton. The protagonists in this series were older than the secret seven and the books were meant for older kids. The first book was published in 1942 and this series predates the Secret Seven series. The children in these books get into more dangerous adventures. Four cousins, two boys, and two girls comprise the group along with a canine. The Secret Seven also had a dog called “Scamper” but Scamper was not an official member of the group.
One of the protagonists, Georgina is depicted as a tomboy and insists on being called “George”. Her family owns an island “Kirrin island” and they also own a boat, so the Famous Five were more mobile than the Secret Seven. If this series was written today, I suppose there would be some serious examination of George’s sexuality and its implications to the series but at that time, we just took her for a tomboy, much like the ones we knew and played with. What struck me besides the adventures that the children got into was the food they ate. Sandwiches, potted meat, scones, lemonade, and black currant jam. I yearned for that food, but having tasted it now, I’m glad I got to eat what seemed to be mundane Indian food to me then.
The Famous Five resonated with my maternal cousins and just as the Five embarked on summer adventures, so did we on the balcony of our grandparents’ house in Kings Circle, Bombay. The bed doubled up as Kirrin island, as the boat or whatever caught our fancy. A steady stream of delectable snacks from my grandmother’s kitchen kept us company. We discussed adventures, there were none for us to get into unless we misbehaved with our Ajja (Grandfather). But we had fertile imaginations and plenty of time so we had a lot of fun.
“The Three Investigators” marked the next step from the Famous Five. Marketed as “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” the books followed the adventures of three friends, Jupiter, Pete, and Bob. I didn’t realize it at that time but this marked my foray into books by American authors. The books were originally conceived and written by Robert Arthur, but later books were written by other authors. The plots were more complicated than the ones in Enid Blyton’s books and also verged on the supernatural. However, Jupiter, the astute logician always solved the mysteries and provided a rational explanation.
Alfred Hitchcock made an appearance in the stories to add more respectability to the books. Jupiter’s uncle and aunt owned a salvage business and the boys made their headquarters in a forgotten trailer that was buried under a pile of junk and for all practical purposes was lost to the outside world. Jupiter had fashioned a dark room for developing pictures, a periscope, and many other gadgets, all of great interest to me as an eleven-year-old. In fact, the first book, “The Secret of the Terror Castle” inspired me to write a short story for the souvenir brought out for one of our Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. It combined mystery, humor, and food, all three topics very dear to me. I received some favorable reviews from indulgent relatives and neighbors. It remains my only “creative work” to be published in print. I wonder if we have a copy lying somewhere at home in Bangalore.
The Hardy Boys signaled that one had moved on from Enid Blyton and was now in the territory of real boy adventures. Frank and Joe Hardy, two brothers solved mysteries that confounded professional detectives. They had a good pedigree, their dad, Fenton was a detective himself. The brothers drove cars, got into physical fights, and had girlfriends. A far cry from the more innocent adventures of the Five or Seven. It was also my introduction to American slang and fast food. While the Hardy Boys books provided the description, I relied on the visuals provided in Archie comics for burgers, pizzas, jalopies, and bowling alleys.
Running parallel to the Hardy Boys series was the Nancy Drew series. Aimed primarily at a female audience by the same publisher, these were also popular at that time. We read these books too, any mystery was fair game though I don’t think I’ve read as many Nancy Drews as Hardy Boys. There was much excitement when he heard that the Hardy Boys would star with Nancy Drew in an adventure. At that time, in the early eighties, I had assumed that the book had just been published but I realize now that it had been published earlier.
I found out years later that the author of the Hardy Boys series – Franklin W Dixon and the author of the Nancy Drew series – Carolyn Keene were pseudonyms. These books were written by several authors. I don’t think it would have mattered to me then, I would have gladly read them. We would also see ads for the Hardy Boys TV series in comics that we read, but in the days prior to the internet or VCRs, we had no hope of watching them.
Somewhere at the end of sixth grade, I read my first Sherlock Holmes and then my first Alistair Maclean in seventh grade. I had crossed the Rubicon and there was no going back. I now had access to the senior library in school and my friends and I moved as a cohort, reading these books and discussing them in school. At local libraries and on my annual trips to Bombay, I devoured amongst others, Fredrick Forsyth, Sidney Sheldon, Ken Follet, Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey, Robert Ludlum, and Colin Forbes. I discovered a whole new world of fiction and was enthralled. I never got into Agatha Christie or Perry Mason. My grandfather loved Perry Mason and so does my wife but for some reason, I skipped these books.
It’s a fair question to ask why no Indian author figures in the books I’ve mentioned. The closest would be Ruskin Bond whose book I’ve referred to in an earlier blog. I don’t recall him writing a detective series though. Satyajit Ray’s books were not known to me then, indeed, it is shameful that the full extent of Ray’s genius was unknown to me till fairly recently and that is again thanks to my cousin Bakin. I suspect my education had a definite western bias and so did that of my friends and cousins. Even though I learned to read and write in Hindi and Kannada my only literary exposure to them came in the form of textbooks. Regrettably, I never read literature in those languages. I’m poorer for the loss.
I read what was available to me at that point in time. I did not discriminate and in many ways, my choices were influenced by what my brother or uncle was reading and what books were lying around at home or at my grandfather’s house. We scrounged for books at my school library, neighborhood library, or what we could find at friends’ and relatives’ houses.
This element of scarcity led to the thrill of finding a book. Each find was like a treasure and was read with great appreciation. A few years ago, Costco was selling the entire Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. I salivated over the set and told my wife what I would have not given to own the set in my younger days. In fact, when our daughter was much younger, I bought the entire Secret Seven series for her as well as a few Famous Five books. In many ways, I was trying to compensate for my childhood.
In retrospect, I think I’m glad things worked out the way they did. We owned a single copy of Hardy Boys – “The Sign of the Crooked Arrow”. It was most likely given to my brother by our cousin Bakin and it was a valuable member of our book collection. It was lent out to several friends who lent me their copies of books in exchange. Not owning these books meant there was the sudden unexpected thrill of finding a book at the library that I had not read before. The joy of visiting a friend’s house and finding that he had received as a birthday gift a book that I had not read. Summer holidays in Bombay found me borrowing Hardy Boys and Three Investigators from the pavement libraries that had a collection that rivaled those of many well-established libraries.
Even though I grew up reading fiction the last couple of decades have found me gravitating towards reading memoirs, travelogues, biographies, and historical accounts. A detour into “Tinkle Tailor Soldier Spy” a few years ago brought home to me the joys of reading a well-crafted novel. Recently, my cousin Bakin prevailed on me to pick up the Karla trilogy by John LeCarre and it sits on my nightstand ready to give me company for several evenings to come.
“A perfect trailer house for Jupiter’s hideout!” I thought to myself as I took the picture. I could see a table and chair inside, it had probably been an office at some point. Nikhil looked at me quizzically. He could not understand what the fuss was about. Would he have read and enjoyed the books I read? Would he have curled up in bed on a summer afternoon oblivious to the rest of the world, engrossed in a mystery and transported to a world far away? Many of these books would have appeared quaint to him. Handwritten notes mailed in envelopes with postage stamps. Adventures on bicycles. We live in a world of instantaneous communication. In all likelihood, he would have been influenced by his older sister and read the books she did and would have delighted in discussing the plots with her. I can only think wistfully of what might have been. The mysteries in books have logical answers. The mysteries in life seldom do.