Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 01/10/21 8:55 AM

Feature: The Book Cupboard

The book cupboard

A coming- of- age story featuring the writer and a cupboard.

To all intents and purposes, it was an ordinary cupboard. Made of some indeterminate wood, maybe teak, given a light varnish, adorned with an incongruous bright blue doorknob, the cupboard sat in a  corner of the formal drawing room in my grandmother`s house in Palakkad. It was a bit of an anomaly, sitting there amidst ornamental peg tables covered with lace, a sofa set  upholstered in navy corduroy,  and photographs on  every wall….with J. Nehru and M.K. Gandhi inexplicably part of   the family pantheon.

But that cupboard was my Narnia. Every summer, for two hot and humid months of school holidays, I’d go into the cool inner parlour (the outer one got all the sun), open the cupboard and settle down in front of it whilst I decided on my read du jour.

Today I see that the cupboard has only four shelves. Back then, it seemed like a lot more, able to hold hundreds of books.

This is a coming- of- age story, and that cupboard was where I came of age. The books I came across in this cupboard were all `grown up,` mysterious, many incomprehensible of content but all of them exuding  a febrile excitement. I`d pick up a book by a hitherto unknown author and carry it away to the divan in the front parlour, settle down,  and immediately lose myself in its pages.

Which is how I got hooked on Leslie Charteris` debonair Robin Hood figure, Simon Templar aka The Saint. How I walked into my personal Happy Place one day with a Georgette Heyer — I think it was These Old Shades —  and  never wanted to return to the drab humourless world outside. How I chanced on the Master,  PG Wodehouse; came across that sardonic sharpshooter  cowboy Sudden in the books by Oliver Strange; how  I indiscriminately devoured Shakespeare`s plays as well as volumes of poetry.

I also met the likes of Ayn Rand, Simone de Beavouir, Anais Nin  and Sartre on those shelves. At 14, even a precocious 14, I realised I just wasn’t getting The Fountainhead.  Sartre I read,  was not too  impressed and I have to confess, that first impression stayed all the way with me through college when we had to parse his existentialism, to date. Beavoir,  I just loved, and couldn’t wait till I could lay my hands on all her other works. Nin, I could take or leave.

It was not all edifying literature but it sure was enjoyable literature. I read EL Doctorow`s classic Ragtime, I relished the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, I exulted over Joseph Heller`s Catch-22 and rather admired Hemingway. I ploughed through a tome of Maupassant`s stories; I read Pride and Prejudice as well as Northanger Abbey, and resolved to track down every book written by Jane Austen in the next few months itself. I also read a whole heap of Mills & Boon, sifted the good from the banal, and refused to think of romances as a guilty pleasure…just not possible when I was reading Tolkien and Virginia Woolf alongside Janet Daileys and Lilian Peakes, and enjoying them all.

One big learning was a deep and abiding respect for books, the tender care to be lavished on yellowing pages and torn covers. In a vain bid to impart some sewing lessons to us, my grandmother would get in a sewing mistress we simply called `Teacher`  twice a week. One good thing that came of those rather ineffective classes was, I made cloth covers  for a few books which Teacher embellished with lace. I distinctly recall a red cover for The Fountainhead. Which I faithfully kept aside to revisit when I was older…and did so in college, this time both getting and appreciating much of what Rand had to say.

There was no order to how the books were put away in the cupboard, and that was part of the charm. Once, hunting for a Louis L`Amour, I came upon a book titled Laird Of Loch Lomond,  with the  most intriguing jacket pic of a curvaceous damsel swooning in the arms of a well-built man in a silky white shirt. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had chanced upon my first bodice- ripper and of course I had to read it, cover to cover. Another day,  it was a find of pure gold: P C Wren`s Beau Geste,  and I was soon learning all about the French Foreign Legion and the code of honour.

Actually, all of the books were insidiously imparting a learning. Sitting in Palakkad,  then just a small town rendered picturesque with the Western Ghats looming protectively over it, I’d read all about the  American Wild West, the sophisticated cities of London,  Paris, New York and the French Riviera,  all haunts of The Saint; I`d laugh with Wodehouse, even as I learned about stately old piles, impecunious younger sons and pig-obsessed earls.

There were rules to accessing that cupboard, the main one being that no books were to be found randomly about the house, and out of place. You took a book, you read it, you returned it to the shelves.

One summer,  I had a brainwave and asked Amma (which is what we called our grandmother) if a cousin and I could take all the books out, dust them and put them back carefully. She graciously assented, and requested that we put in some silverfish-repellent powder too, while at it. Speaking for myself, that  was an enchanted couple of hours because I actually came across a handful of books that had hitherto escaped my attention. I have to speak for myself because the cousin I commandeered to help was not into books (at all) and would rather have been roaming the large compound , climbing the mango trees or sneaking a cigarette at the willow pond.


As the years went by and we grew up, some of my cousins would take to reading, then leaving their books in that cupboard; which is how writers like Henry Miller, James Hadley Chase found themselves jostled up against Charles Lamb’s telling of Shakespeare, Milton`s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and Antoine de Saint Exupery`s The Little Prince. I`m not sure Amma read these new additions though I did see her with a Miller in her hand once, and hurriedly exited the room in some embarrassment.

Are we what we read? That is open to debate. What I do know is that the books in that cupboard inculcated in me a love for words, for language, for discovering new worlds, the people who inhabited those worlds, and different ways of living. That cupboard shaped my future, in that I soon knew I wanted to work with words. It fed into the values I came to value as I was growing up.

The one drawback to the magic cupboard? You never found the complete collected works of any author in there. If you wanted to feast on all of your new favourite author`s works, there was no help for it. Back then we didn’t buy books, we borrowed them from libraries (which some of us still do, three cheers for the Eloor Library!) and so I`d have to wait till we were back in Pune or Delhi or Jabalpur,  to continue my search.

The child that I was never once questioned  how the collection in that cupboard was so eclectic. Years later, sitting with Amma, I marvelled at her reading range.

“Oh, all the books in there  were not mine,“ she laughed. “It was a shared collection between my brother Ramachandran and me.“

After  Amma passed on, the cupboard found a place in my sister`s house, much of its contents in mine. It is still stocked with an eclectic collection of books; the last shelf is nearly empty, though. I should go over with some books, once the coronavirus recedes and life becomes somewhat normal again.

This appeared in the SUNDAY HERALD magazine of 10/01/21.

Related Links:

Book review: The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Books: The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

Books: Me and my favourite reads

Feature: On Books and Bangalore

Books: Is India Reading?



an eclectic libraryFeaturelove for booksnostalgiathe book cupboard

Sheila Kumar • January 10, 2021

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