Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enid Blyton books.
I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction - picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of his books.)
Back then I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation or whether someone was a commercial or literary writer. I developed these pretensions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.
But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enid Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years ago why I didn’t try out Enid Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I was age conscious. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s author just wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was naturally out of the question. But my indifference to Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with her.
In my earlier reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enid Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enid Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English - where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).
That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society as it existed at a particular point of time…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.
It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree on which the aircraft was, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.
The plot is simple and straight forward with a moral and social justice angle to it. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion. But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for occasional derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.