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Bestselling author Anita Nair recalls how
a little known English artist changed the life
of an eight year old from Avadi.


Coral-Island
Peterkin brandished his cudgel in its face. Illustrations by Leo Bates for 'The Coral Island' by R M Ballantyne. Published by J M Dent & Sons, 1949

I am not certain at what point in my life I actually decided that writing fiction was what my life was going to be about. But I know for a fact how I decided to become a traveller, and because travel had to be paid for, a travel writer.

In the summer of 1974, a neighbour’s young brother, Babu, came to stay in the flat above mine. He knew how to fashion aluminium crosses, build matchbox houses and tell stories. And he also had with him a second hand book. It was The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne.

I had discovered the joy of reading very early and by the age of eight had begun to devour books with the rapacious appetite of a silverfish. These were children’s books (mostly by Enid Blyton), Russian stories sold by the travelling bookshops of the former USSR, and comics. But none of these books fed more than my basic need for stories.

However Babu’s book was like entering a magical cavern. The Coral Island was enhanced by line drawings and colour plates by Leo Bates. I remember the first time I browsed through the book. I remember pausing at the first colour plate of an island chief with a cock under his arm talking to the Captain of the ship while a young boy looked on. It had me mesmerised. Babu let me borrow the book and eventually gave it to me as a goodbye gift for he said he had never seen anyone as enchanted by a book as I was by The Coral Island.

Imagine this: an eight year old girl in pigtails and soda bottle glasses holding a book so close to her nose that she sniffs at the old sweet smell of the pages even as her eyes race across the print. A spell is cast by words and pictures. Somewhere beyond the suburb she lived in, a little military township where they made armored tanks, was a whole world waiting. A world of sharks and candlenuts, phosphorescence in caves and penguins, blowholes and strange customs.

I loved the sweep of the story; the adventures that the three boys Jack Martin, Peterkin Gay and Ralph Rover get up to after they set sail in the Arrow and it is wrecked in a storm amidst the coral islands in the Pacific. But what made it that much more real and immediate for me were the illustrations and the colour plates. I had two particular favourites. One was of the boys coming across a sow and her many piglets sleeping beneath a yellow plum tree. And the other was of Peterkin brandishing a cudgel in the face of a penguin.

I had never seen a plum – red, yellow or purple – in my life. So I substituted it with a fruit I was familiar with. The sapodilla. In Chennai there were plenty of sapodillas and I knew the taste and aroma of the fruit. I hadn’t seen a penguin either. And for the penguin I sought the curmudgeonly behaviour of a younger cousin. I created a world of wonder with what I knew and what I imagined it to be.

I was too young to question the veracity of the story I was reading and as an adult I resolutely stayed away from checking how authentic were the adventures, or even just how plausible. I was in love with an alternate world and wanted to keep that flame steadfast for as long as I could.

Old fashioned colour plates have a certain magic. Almost sixty-three years after the copy I have with me was printed, the tonality and texture of the paintings are just as magnificent. The book is much thumbed. For all through my childhood I read it every few months. Each time a certain drabness entered my being and the monotony of the everyday gnawed at my spirits, I went into The Coral Island, lingering at the colour plates even as I read. Slipping into a secret world of my own.

Many years later, I started travelling, and one day as I stood by a fjord in Norway, it occurred to me that for as long as I lived I would seek to do this – try and find the path to my childhood place of enchantment. That landscapes and customs may change, but each time what I sought with every journey I made was that magical breathlessness I had found in The Coral Island.

Did Leo Bates ever think of what his colour plates may have done to change the life of a little girl from Avadi? Did he, by God, did he?


- Published in JJBooks.com in July 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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