“Has anyone read a storybook before?” I asked, as I held up a copy of ‘The Jungle Book’ that I was about to read out to the 5th and 6th grades. Forty pairs of eyes looked up at me, some with a tentative look, some with a look of wonder, all with immense curiosity. These children had never encountered an alien creature like me, and didn’t know what to expect from the Delhi girl who had entered their class with them that morning. Some of them couldn’t help but stare at the big black bag behind me, which was bursting at the seams with books. The concept of colour in books was new to them as their textbooks were crawling with small black alphabets on stark white paper, joined together to make words they didn’t always understand. Emperor Ashoka’s conquests and the skeletal system alike remained mysteries to them, for even their parents could often not decipher the words written in their textbooks. They had never dared to venture beyond the black words in their school books.
As I waited expectantly, one lone arm shot up in the middle of the group. I followed the arm down to a face, a face with a pair of twinkling eyes, and a little smile through which I was told that he had once read a book about Prophet Muhammad’s life. That was the first time I laid eyes on Muhammad Ali, and it was also the first time I realized that the magic which had already been found by volunteers before me in the villages I had visited earlier was yet to be discovered here, where no one had laid the ground for the exploration of new worlds and people beyond what these children had been accustomed to all their life.
It had always been easy for me to establish a connection with the children, throw myself into a book and transport us all to a new place, but here I felt a sense of apprehension rushing over me. My fingers clutched the book a bit tighter as I looked down at the cover, Mowgli staring back at me. I remembered reading ‘The Jungle Book’ for the first time, befriending Mowgli and Bagheera and Baloo. I recalled the feeling that had engulfed me, a warmth associated with finding a new home, and now I felt it replace the nervousness. I opened the book, ready to introduce Muhammad Ali and his friends to a world I had known and loved all my life.
I smell the blood of an Englishman”
This couplet had been the means of transportation into my safe haven, the world of books and stories far away from the home I had grown up in, long before I had even learned to read. It would take me to a place where beans had magic, beanstalks led to castles in the sky, and geese laid golden eggs, and that day it reminded me that I had some magic of my own, in books instead of beans.
I started with the beloved “Once upon a time…”, and before I knew it, the story had been heard, the video of an African jungle had been watched, and the children and I had each drawn an animal for our jungle chart.
Outside, a bell was heard to announce the lunch break, and the room slowly emptied as the children trickled out to play. They collected outside to play football or run home for a quick bite; all except for one child. Muhammad Ali stayed back, looking between the bag full of books and us. His eyes did all the talking, and I quickly pulled out a book and started reading it out to him. Slowly other children peeped in to see what was keeping Muhammad Ali, and hearing his chuckles and excited questions, they joined us. We huddled together in a growing circle, and as soon as we reached the last page of a book Muhammad Ali would turn expectantly to the black bag of books.
Finally, I pulled out a slim book with a nondescript black cover and saw the expressions on the children’s faces fill with disappointment. The book didn’t look as interesting as the others we had read – without a colourful cover and interesting characters announcing that an even more interesting story was waiting to be read, this story hadn’t the same charm as the ones before. I, however, had a feeling this one would be much beloved. “Pehelwaan Ji Plays Cricket” was printed across the cover, and the disappointment prevailing within the group soon changed into peals of laughter as the story drew to a close.
Another bell warned of the end of lunch, and once again a slow stream of children left the room increasingly empty till none remained but one: Muhammad Ali. I smiled to myself before asking him why he didn’t go to eat his lunch with the rest of the children, why he didn’t join them in their play. He matched my smile with an equally broad and bright one, the corners of his smile reaching his twinkling eyes. “Mera lunch toh ho gaya hai, yehi mera lunch tha1.”
My heart skipped a beat as I looked down at the young boy in front of me, a Jack of sorts, who now held the magic beans.
I may have left behind a bag of books, full of colour and interesting characters, but the magic passed on in those beans is perhaps leading the children of Lankerchey Thang2 up into castles in the sky, where Muhammad Ali and his friends fight giants who threaten “fee-fi-fo-fum”.
- Mera lunch toh ho gaya hai, yehi mera lunch tha – My lunch is done, this satisfied my hunger.
- Lankerchey Thang – A small village in the Kargil district of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir.