Growing Up in India. The Smell of the Earth

THE greatest surprise I had during my second year in the English school was finding out that our headmaster had published a book, ``Love Thy Students: They're a Good Lot.'' One day I approached him with veneration and asked for his book. He opened a drawer and placed the book on the table with a childlike smile. I gazed at the pink cover and the sharp, black Malayalam lettering: Fr. Manjil, S.J. I thought how would it be if Jim Corbett himself had tossed his ``Man-Eaters of Kumaon'' on the table and smiled at me.

That evening in the bus on my way to my home village I started reading the book. I would read a chapter and then stare at the cover, especially at the name of the author. What intrigued me was the fact that I knew this man. At the age of 13 I had exposure to the possibility that a living person could write and publish a real book. I imagined that Jim Corbett and Ittan Mathewkutty, Bram Stoker and Muttathu Varkey, were all living persons, too.

A major concern of the book was students becoming the victims of ``bad books.''

I really didn't understand what ``bad books'' were. I guessed that they were books with photos of film actresses in them. My oldest brother once complained to my father that I was reading such film magazines. I never again dared to bring home a magazine with such pictures.

At the end of my first year at the school an incident had intensified the mystery of ``bad books.'' We got news that the morning assembly was going to be very special. I was pleased; I loved Fr. Manjil's special assemblies.

At the assembly Fr. Manjil introduced a handsome, gray-haired man and his son, a very tall boy at least 18 years old, yet still a senior in our school.

I had seen this boy drive to school in his own car. I admired his wealth and fortune, although I sometimes felt annoyed with the rich students' flashy displays of Parker pens and English magazines. One of them told me that he pitied me because I had never seen ``MacKenna's Gold,'' starring Omar Sharif, or read the novels of Harold Robbins.

The headmaster had the tall boy step onto the platform and tear up a slim book wrapped in a white paper, a ``bad book.'' Then his father poured oil onto the torn bits of paper. The tall boy set fire to the paper. All of us watched silently as the flames turned the bad book to ashes. Then Fr. Manjil took a very thick cane and bestowed half a dozen lashes on the boy's palms.

This was also the year when a very controversial chapter in our biology textbook confirmed suspicions I had about human procreation.

I did not have access to ``bad books'' in our village library. When I finished all the detective novels and hunting stories our library had, I brought home a battered old copy of the Malayalam translation of Pearl Buck's ``The Good Earth.'' I remember lying in the wicker chair on the porch of our old house and reading about the struggles of Wang Lung and O-Lan on the Chinese soil.

I was immediately haunted by the vastness and the depth of the world that unfolded before me. The reading experience made me cry. I felt proud of my ability to cry like that, especially when the starving Wang Lung family preferred to eat a mouthful of earth rather than eat its beloved cow that was just like one of the children.

The much-delayed monsoon finally struck the Kerala coast. I sat inside our small rural home full of brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, listening to the large raindrops fall incessantly on the clay tile roof. In my eyes I was still seeing Wang Lung drag along on the Chinese soil wearing his straw hat. I felt that I, too, was eating the earth along with him. I could taste it on my tongue. Never before had reading affected me so intensely. For a month I forgot to join my friends to shake mangoes out of the neighbor's trees.

I wished to re-create moments like that. I wanted to write and make myself cry. In no time I sat down and wrote a quarter of a notebook about an imagined farmer like Pearl Buck's Wang Lung. At the top of the book I wrote proudly ``The Paddyfield: A Novel,'' and tried to see if I could cry reading it.

When I returned to school, I was a repeat student, one who wasn't good enough to be promoted. My teachers and classmates did not take me seriously - not until I wrote an in-class composition on the subject: ``My summer vacation.'' Then people changed their ideas of me.

When my classmates wrote about their trips to visit their grandmas, I wrote about the summer itself. I conjured up the heat of the scorched fields that workers burned for the next crop. I showed how the soot and the smoke darkened their skins. I made my readers smell the sweat and the strong odor of what they were drinking. The piece ended with a description of the great aroma of the earth that filled my soul when I strolled all over the field after the first monsoon.

The next day our Malayalam teacher asked me to read my piece aloud to the whole class. After I finished, my teacher said: ``If you choose to be a priest, you will become a bishop.'' That was how I got the nickname that lasted for several years: ``His Holiness.'' But only I knew how much I craved for him to say that if I chose to be a writer, I would become a Pearl Buck.

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