BY mother and stepfather were not great readers, and books were a scarce commodity in my life until I was about 12. In those lonely childhood years, I was to discover that books could be good friends, steadfast and reliable, and I seized upon almost any printed matter that came my way, whether it was a girls' classic like "Little Women," or a True Detective magazine, or Edgar Allan Poe, or "Insect Life in Mozambique."
Fifty years on, my reading habits are still as wide-ranging and omnivorous.
But I think it all began in that forest rest house in the Siwalik Hills, a subtropical range cradling the Doon Valley in northern India. Here my stepfather and gun-toting friends were given to hunting the wild animals that still roamed those forests. He was a poor shot, so he cannot really be blamed for the absence of wildlife today; but he did his best to shoot down everything in sight!
On one of these "shikar" trips, we were staying in a rest house near the Timli Pass. My stepfather and his friends were "after tiger," and set out every morning with an army of villagers to "beat" the jungle, in order to drive the tiger out into the open. Never excited by this form of sport, I stayed behind in the rest house, fully expecting complete boredom for the duration of our stay. Exploring the old rest house, I discovered that one of the rooms was furnished with a dusty bookshelf, stacked high wi th books that hadn't been touched for years.
It was here that I discovered "Three Men in a Boat," by Jerome K. Jerome, which I finished reading that same day. The next day I read most of the stories in M. R. James's "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary." On the third day, while the sportsmen were still looking for their tiger, I chuckled over my first Wodehouse ("Love Among the Chickens"), sampled O. Henry, and started on "David Copperfield." Camp broke up before I could get through "Copperfield," but the forest ranger said I could keep it, which I did, thus becoming the only person with a trophy to show for the hunt, the clever tiger having proved elusive.
After that adventure, I was always looking for books in unlikely places; and I had a knack of finding them, too.