My Favourite Books as a Child

I have always loved reading and my earliest memories are either reading or looking for something to read. Growing up in the mid to late seventies and eighties in India meant that other than the school library and maybe friends, access to books was limited. But I still managed to read, sometimes resorting to newspapers and magazines to feed my reading addiction.

I was always reading one to two grades higher than my peers and by the time I was in grade seven and eight, I remember being allowed the read from the adults’ section in my school library. This was a locked cupboard from which teachers and other staff were allowed to borrow books and I started reading books from authors like George Orwell then. I think I was probably the only student at that time who was accorded this privilege.

But this post is about my favourite books I enjoyed as a child, so let’s dive right in.

The earliest books I read and loved are those written by Enid Blyton. An English children’s author, Enid Mary Blyton who died in 1968 has written books since the 1930s and whose books have sold more than 600 million copies and have been translated into 90 languages and as of June 2018, is in 4th place for the most translated author.

My first introduction to Blyton’s books was the Faraway Tree series. The stories take place in an enchanted wood in which a gigantic magical tree, the Faraway Tree grows. The tree is so tall that its topmost branches reach into the clouds and it is wide enough to contain small houses carved into its trunk. The wood and the tree are discovered by three children named Jo, Bessie and Fanny, later updated to Joe, Beth and Frannie, who move into a house nearby and go on adventures to the top of the tree along with the inhabitants of the tree, some whom befriend the children. As I am writing this, a memory pops into my head. I must have been five or six and we were travelling down south to my paternal grandmother’s ancestral village to attend a wedding by train. I can still remember the title of the book I was reading, which was The Magic Faraway Tree and the 24-hour journey (at least the time spent in reading) flew past in a jiffy!

I have also read a few of the Noddy books, but don’t have any great memory of reading them. Noddy was made by a woodcarver in a toy store but runs away after the man begins to make a wooden lion, which scares Noddy. As he wanders through the woods naked, penniless, and homeless, he meets Big Ears, a friendly gnome who decides that Noddy is a toy and takes him to live in Toyland. The other toys can hear him coming by the distinctive Parp Parp sound of his car’s horn and the jingle of the bell on his blue hat. Noddy’s best friends are Big Ears, Tessie Bear, Bumpy Dog, and the Tubby Bears. Noddy has many run-ins with Mr Plod, the local policeman.

I then graduated to reading Blyton’s mystery books like the Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers and the Famous Five. Of the three, my favourite was the Five Find-Outers mainly because one of the characters used to disguise himself to solve the case. I read these books more or less during my primary school days.

The Secret Seven is a group of child detectives consisting of Peter, the leader, Janet who is Peter’s sister, Pam, Barbara, Jack, Colin and George. Jack’s sister Susie and her best friend Binkie make occasional appearances in the books who they hate the Secret Seven and delight in playing tricks designed to humiliate them, although this is partly fuelled by their almost obsessive desire to belong to the society. Unlike most other Blyton series, this one takes place during the school term time because the characters go to day schools.

The Famous Five is a series of children’s adventure novels featuring the adventures of a group of young children, Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina or George and their dog Timmy. The stories take place in the children’s school holidays after they have returned from their respective boarding schools. Each time they meet they get caught up in an adventure, often involving criminals or lost treasure, sometimes close to George’s family home at Kirrin Cottage in Dorset. George’s home and various other houses the children visit or stay in are hundreds of years old and often contain secret passages or smugglers’ tunnels. All the novels have been adapted for television, and several have been adapted as films in various countries.

My favourite, the Five Find-Outers is set in the fictitious village of Peterswood. The children, Larry or Laurence Daykin, Fatty or Frederick Trotteville, the leader of the group, Pip or Philip Hilton, Daisy or Margaret Daykin, Bets or Elizabeth Hilton and Buster, Fatty’s dog, encounter a mystery almost every school holiday, always solving the puzzle before Mr Goon, the unpleasant village policeman, much to his annoyance.

Another set of books written by Enid Blyton I loved were her school series, Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. I have read both the series throughout my school days and when GG was in primary school, I introduced them to her and she was as hooked as I was. Reading these books always made me wish I was in a boarding school with all the fun that the girls had. My friends and I would try to recreate their world in our school.

Malory Towers is a series of six novels based on a girls’ boarding school that Blyton’s daughter attended, Benenden School, which relocated during the war to the Cornish seaside. The series follows the protagonist, Darrell Rivers, on her adventures and experiences in boarding school. Darrell Rivers begins her first year at Malory Towers, a castle-like clifftop boarding school in Cornwall. Determined to do well and make friends, her first term is turbulent and the first book ends with Darrell becoming best friends with Sally Hope. Darrell eventually covers herself in the personal, scholastic and sporting glory that was originally expected of her and is head of the fourth form, games captain of the fifth, and head girl in her final year as well as being a successful lacrosse and tennis player. When she is in the fourth form, her younger sister, Felicity, joins her as a first former at the school. From then up until the last book in the original series, the focus is also on Felicity and the rest of her form. At the end of her school life, Darrell is bound for the University of St Andrews with Sally, Alicia, and her friend Betty. She puts her younger sister Felicity in charge of upholding the standard that she and her classmates set. The second series follows Felicity from the third year to her final term.

St. Clare’s is a series of nine books about a boarding school of the same name. The series follows Patricia or Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan from their first year at St. Clare’s. The series had the girls up to the usual English boarding school antics like the Malory Towers and we aspired to be like them.

Once I had finished the teenage detective books, I moved to slightly older books, and the timeline is roughly the time I was about 10 to about 12-13 years. I read the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series almost concurrently and my preference was for Nancy Drew, maybe because I identified with her more. Both series were created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer with the Nancy Drew series created as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boy series.

An American teen, Nancy Drew is a fictional amateur sleuth living in the fictional town of River Heights with her father, attorney Carson Drew, and their housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. Nancy is often assisted in solving mysteries by her two closest friends, cousins Bess Marvin, delicate and feminine and George Fayne, a tomboy and also occasionally joined by her boyfriend Ned Nickerson, a student at Emerson College. Often described as a super girl, Nancy is well-off, attractive, and amazingly talented at everything. The books were ghost-written by several authors and published under the collective pseudonym of Carolyn Keene. Over the decades, the character evolved in response to changes in US culture and tastes. The series was immensely popular worldwide with at least 80 million copies sold and translated into over 45 languages and has been translated into film, television shows and computer games. A cultural icon, Nancy Drew is cited as a formative influence by many women.

The Hardy Boys, brothers Frank and Joe Hardy, who are amateur sleuths, solving cases that stumped their adult counterparts. Frank is eighteen and Joe is seventeen and they live in the city of Bayport on Barmet Bay with their father, detective Fenton Hardy, their mother, Laura Hardy and their Aunt Gertrude. The brothers attend high school in Bayport, where they are in the same grade but school is rarely mentioned in the books and never hinders their solving of mysteries. The books themselves were written by several ghostwriters, most notably Leslie McFarlane, under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. This series was also very popular with the books selling more than a million copies annually, and have been translated into more than 25 languages, television shows and video games,

These were the books and series that brought a lot of smiles during my childhood. This was a childhood where there was no internet, no smartphones and computers were large and restricted to offices. So, one of our minimal forms of entertainment was books and probably today’s children would never know the pleasure of just sitting down with a good book and spending hours on it.

Which were your favourite books growing up?

School Stories: Memories and an Alternate Reality


As you now I studied in JB Vachha High School. What you don’t know was that my paternal grandparents were strictly against me and then my sister attending this school. They wanted me to attend the nearby South Indian school which was my father, his siblings and all his cousins alma mater. But my mother stood strong and in the face of intense opposition, went ahead and got me enrolled into my school. Amma, my mother, used to see my neighbours and other girls in our neighbourhood wear the blue and white uniform on their way to school and insisted her daughters also should be in the same school.

The biggest objection my grandparents had was that my father’s alma mater offered Tamil as the mother tongue language and this was not offered in my school, which offered French as the second language. They worried, and probably rightly, that if we didn’t learn the language of our ancestors, we would no longer be good Tamil girls. But amma had her way and we started school in the school of her choice.

The other day, I was thinking what if amma did not get her way and me and my sister ended up in the school of my grandparents choice? Actually I don’t have to look too far to see this, as I did have friends in the building and in the neighbourhood who did go to the school. I would say, we would be fluent in Tamil, which today, we can only speak, but can’t read or write. And this in turn, would have made me get BB & GG to take Tamil as their mother tongue language instead of Hindi which they took.

It’s quite likely that we would be slightly more conservative and not have too many friends from other community groups. In our school, we developed a more liberal mindset and because our classmates came from not only different strata of society, but also from different communities, we learnt to be able to have a live and let live attitude.

And the most important thing, according to me is our school is a girls school while the other school is a co-ed school. And if I think back, with the exception of our physical education teacher, a music teacher and some peons in the school, all our teachers and staff were women. This means that while in school, we had no filter! We spoke what we wanted, especially when teachers were not around and because there were no boys, we spoke about things that may have been either taboo or spoken in a hush-hush way in a co-ed school. Remember, this was the eighties India where the country was still in the throes of socialism and liberalisation was still at least four-five years away. The con, atleast for me was that I was unconfortable with boys, until I entered graduate school because my degree programme also had a higer percentage of girls compared to boys and so I barely interacted with them. Being in a single sex school does allow the school to tailor the teaching style according to the students and my school also offered a whole suite of extra curricular activities which in that day and age, hardly any school offered. Of course, the bulk of these extra curricular activities were geared towards making us good moms and housewives, but still in that India, when we used to speak with our friends and family from other schools, they barely had anything more than a library and physical education period. We used to have music, dance, cookery, laundry, stiching, embroidery, girl guides, social service and typing. I am probably missing some, but in hindsight, all these are things that probably would have made more sense half a century back.

If my amma had not had her way, I would not be the person I am today and because we spent a good portion of our early lives in school, we spent 12 to 13 years in the same school, the school and its ethos and philosophy have moulded us. For this I am so very thankful that amma took a stand and ensured she gave us the opportunities going to this school offered us.

So how did your school mould you? I would love to hear in the comments below.

Filter Coffee: The best way to wake up!

Growing up in a tambram household in the seventies meant you woke to the sounds of MS Subbalakshmi singing the Venkatesha Suprabhartam and the smell of fresh filter coffee. I have always loved this ritual of coffee drinking and even today take my time to drink my first cup of coffee.

Filter coffee or kaapi as we southies call it, is the perfect cup of coffee. I rate it far above any coffee chain and with due apologies to coffee drinkers from popular coffee chains, I just don’t see the attraction for those, especially with the prices they charge. So what’s the difference between an espresso and filter coffee? I looked this up since I used to think an espresso is just the decoction of the filter coffee which is thinned slightly. An espresso, Italian for quick, is brewed with with high-temperature at almost boiling and has pressurised water running through finely ground coffee beans. It is also denser and more concentrated than filter coffee. The filter coffee is somewhat similar, it is made by filtering packed ground coffee through hot, boiling water through a filter, but instead of being pushed out by pressure, the water poured on the top half of the coffee filter runs down to the bottom purely on the basis of gravity. This means the brewing process takes much longer and is not really instant as the espresso is. It also means, you need much more water and coffee grounds to get the same amount of decoction for filter coffee.

I have never liked drinking milk and there are many stories in my home about how my paternal grandmother would force feed me milk, even as a toddler. Because of this intense distaste for milk, I must have made the switch to some sort of chocolate milk pretty early on. It was some protein powder in various flavours including chocolate that I drank for a few years. I switched to drinking coffee pretty early considering that most people I know didn’t start drinking tea or coffee until their teens.

My grandmother and then my mother used to buy raw coffee beans from the coffee board once every few months and then grind them till the house was full of this evocative aroma of coffee. Then using a small coffee blender they used to grind a small amount of the beans which would be just enough for a week or so. This ensured that the coffee we brewed was absolutely fresh. When I started college, it became my responsibility to get the raw coffee beans since there was a coffee board office not too far from my college. I still remember she would buy the Peaberry and Plantation beans. The Peaberry beans are also known as caracol, which is Spanish for snail, and is a naturally occurring mutation present in arabica and robusta coffee varieties where only one bean is present inside of the coffee cherry instead of two. The Plantation variety is probably a coffee plantation crop and I have no idea if it is a robusta or arabica.

A few years after I graduated and started working, the coffee board closed down its office from where we used to purchase our stock of raw coffee seeds and once my mother finished up her stash, she started buying blended coffee powder. Fortunately for us, we live very close to the heart of the tambram community, Matunga, where there is a store which sells freshly ground coffee powder, so that’s where she buys it from today. And when I make a trip to Mumbai, I never come back to Singapore without a few kilos of that freshly ground coffee powder in my luggage.

I have always been an early riser and used to wait for my mother to boil the milk and make coffee when I was young. Usually at that point, it would be just the two of us who were awake and in that dim lighting in the kitchen when the world is just waking up. Coupled that with a cup of hot steaming filter coffee in the traditional tumbler and dawara where the coffee is not stirred, but pulled is sheer bliss. When my mother makes coffee for BB, GG and S who usually drink in mugs, she will use a tumbler and dawara, which is a small cup which is used to pull the coffee and pull it to mix the milk, coffee and sugar together, with that lovely layer of froth on top and then pour it into a cup for them to drink. Even today my favourite time of the day is in the morning when I am the only one awake and it’s just me and a cup of coffee. Although now, I prefer my coffee to be black rather than with milk, it’s still a filter coffee which I brew every few days and refrigerate.

Another tradition in my home and I think most tambram households, is the ritual of a second cup of coffee after breakfast. Though I don’t follow it in Singapore, but when I am in Mumbai, that half glass of coffee after breakfast is something I really look forward to. And I drink my coffee with milk while in Mumbai because that to me is the taste of my childhood, adolescence and youth and it doesn’t matter how old I get, when I drink that cup, I am instantly transported back in memory.


I can drink lots of coffee, but a few years back, decided to restrict it to twice a day and only indulging in the third cup if I am super tired or outside with friends. I wrote an ode to coffee some time back, so pop by there to read if you are a fan of coffee. As with all my memory posts, writing this brought a smile on my face while I was transported back in time, a time when life was uncomplicated and simpler, when our needs were simple and a cup of good filter coffee was all it took to welcome someone to your home! What’s your favourite coffee memory?

Memories: My Chitti

In pretty much every Indian language, every relationship has a specific name. A paternal grandmother is referred to differently than a maternal grandmother and a mother’s sister has a different name than a father’s sister and some communities have specific ways to distinguish a sister’s daughter from a brother’s daughter and the same for their sons. In Tamil, your mother’s sister and father’s brother’s wife are both called Chitti. I looked but could not find the exact meaning, but it probably means a younger mother or someone who could potentially replace a mother if something happens to her.

My mother is the oldest of four sisters and consequently I am the oldest grandchild from my maternal side. I was very young, maybe slightly older than a toddler when the next sister after her got married and so I don’t have many memories about her. Her last sister was brought up by their childless aunt who lived close by, and so my biggest and best memories are about my second aunt. I was her favourite and in fact, long after she married and moved overseas, I was her favourite. So much so that on one of their trips to Mumbai, during an outburst, her older daughter even complained that she loved me more than she loved her and her sister.

When I first started school, around the time I was about four years old, my parents and paternal grandparents had to go to a temple town in South India for a family wedding. I can’t really remember why I didn’t go, but I assume it was a combination of me refusing to go because I didn’t want to miss school and the fact that my aunt may have jumped at the chance to look after me. I do remember that I was supposed to live with my maternal grandparents and aunt for about a month or so since my parents were supposed to do a small pilgrimage given they were going to a temple town which was close to other temples. My sister would have been a toddler at that point, so they took her along and I was sent to my grandparents house along with my things. My aunt was working as a teacher then in a nearby school and used to take tuitions in the evening and perhaps in the mornings too.
On the first that I was to go to school from there, we were at the building gate bright and early, waiting for the school bus. Even after waiting for more than 30 minutes, the bus did not come and after asking around, we were told the bus had already left. My aunt was so angry, but because we were getting late, she quickly bundled me into a taxi and dropped me off to school. At school, she made sure to tell the teacher to put me in the correct bus (otherwise I would have landed in my parents place which was empty) and when the bus dropped me home, tore the bus driver a good one, which ensured that I was never forgotten as long as I stayed at their place.

Kindergarten ended around noon and I would reach home around 12:30, around which time, chitti would be getting ready for school. She taught primary classes which meant she would leave home around the time I got home. Once she left, my grandmother would get me changed, feed me lunch and make me take a nap. By the time I woke up and was ready, chitti would be back from school. She would then start her tuitions on the days she had them and teach me together with her students and get me to complete my homework. Once that was done, I would go down to play with friends before it was dinner time.

The month flew past before long and I went back home to my parents. But the bond between me and my aunt has remained till day. For both her pregnancies, when she came home from the hospital, I insisted to spending time with her, especially during her second pregnancy because I was older and it was our summer holidays. I must have spent the whole holiday there playing with my sister, cousin and friends and helping her look after the new baby.

This post took me down so many memory lanes that I throughly enjoyed putting it down. I am going to show this post to my chitti the next time I meet her to show her that I still remember our time together even after so many decades.

Memories: Growing up in an urban agraharam

I grew up in Mumbai, very close to what is the heart of the tambram community in the city, Matunga. Where we lived was a 15 minute walk to the heart of the community, to the market and the temples, to the flower shops and the vegetable vendors, some of whom though they came from the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but could banter with the mamas and manis in Tamil. Before COVID-19 stuck and life changed, my mother used to make the thrice weekly trip every week to Matunga to get her fix of all of the above.

The other day while I was thinking about this, I realised that I actually grew up in an urban agraharam. So what is an agraharam you may ask? An Agraharam or Agrahara was a grant of land and royal income from it, typically by a king or a noble family in India, for religious purposes, particularly to Brahmins to maintain temples in that land or a pilgrimage site and to sustain their families. Agraharams were also known as Chaturvedimangalams in ancient times as well as known as ghatoka, and boyas. Agraharams were built and maintained by dynasties such as the Cholas and Pallavas. The name originates from the fact that the agraharams have lines of houses on either side of the road and the temple to the village god at the centre, thus resembling a garland around the temple. According to the traditional Hindu practice of architecture and town-planning, an agraharam is held to be two rows of houses running north–south on either side of a road at one end of which would be a temple to Shiva and at the other end, a temple to Vishnu. An example is Vadiveeswaram in Tamil Nadu.

Where we grew up was a collection of about 50-60 two to three storey buildings set in a sort of square with roads intersecting them. We were framed by educational institutes on three sides and a main road on the fourth. While our small community comprised of people from different communities across the various states of India, if I look back, I can see the Tamil Brahmin community most predominant here, with most of them from Kerala or the Palakkad Iyers. Most buildings, with some exceptions which only had people from a certain community as residents, had a few tambram families in residence. Everyone was a mama or mami and not uncle or aunty and everyone knew everyone, or at the very least knew our parents and grandparents, many of whom they were either together at school, in the same class or from the same village in Tamil Nadu or Kerala.

In my own building, the bulk of our neighbours were from my own community and this is why I call my small slice of area an urban agraharam. Everyone was solidly middle class and if you probed enough, you found some connection with them, either through family or friends and once the connection was made, you were part of them. I know now that even living in a secular and multi-community city like Mumbai made us quite insular when it came to Tamil culture. The only Tamil culture I knew was the Tambram one and coming to Singapore, to a culture similar to my own was actually a culture shock to me.

But, growing up in a community made mostly of people who had the same values, the same traditions as us was just as charming. Festivals which are unique to my community was commonplace here and I never questioned why the rest didn’t celebrate it. For example, the annual Avani avittam festival which is the only festival for the men who on this day would change their sacred threads used to be held in a nearby school with a few priests from one of the temples in Matunga coming over to conduct the rituals. Since there were enough men who wore the sacred thread, it probably made sense for the organizers to hold a mini session in our area. Since the day was not a public holiday, they used to do the session fairly early so the men and boys could then go on to work and school. And in all the years my grandfather and then father went here instead of to our temple in Matunga, I never questioned why. It all seemed normal to me. We loved going to each other’s homes for festivals like Diwali, Navratri and Ganesh Chaturti in our pavadais and sing songs and gorge on the delicacies.

That was a lovely time growing up. Everyone looked out for each other and mamas and mamis didn’t heaitate to scold or tell on a child they knew if the said child did something wrong. We thought nothing of going into anyone’s house for a drink of water or to use the bathroom. We were also quite safe in our little enclave and most of us pretty much lived our whole lives there till we moved out.


Life in our small community has changed now. Many buildings are being knocked down to make way for high rises, especially since this area is now a prime area, within what is considered the original Bombay and close, but not too close to the city. A lot of people from the community moved to suburbs like Chembur, Thane and Dombivili when the real estate prices here started picking up in the nineties. I think my grandparents and parents even explored the idea of moving to Chembur, but thankfully dropped the idea very soon. Life goes on, but in our area, the percentage of tambrams has reduced tremendously, so much so it can’t be called an agraharam anymore. I mourn for this loss, but c’est la vie and life must go on. The chakra of life never stops and I am sure in some of the suburbs I mentioned newer urban agraharams have been created.