The Book Thief

My parents admitted me in a boarding school when I was five years old. The reason for this was the lack of good English medium schools in our area in those days. I was admitted to the first standard. It was the first time I was staying away from home. It was also the first time I was attending a formal school. My only previous experience of something similar was going for a few hours to a sort of playschool (there were no real playschool in those days) not very far from home.

Since it was my first time, the transplantation to the boarding school was a traumatic experience for me. I felt sad, depressed, miserable, and terribly homesick. In those days, most of the time, I spent crying. I really missed my parents and siblings. Also most of my classmates were more than a year older to me. Many of them were quite used to staying away from home. In fact, for some of them, life away from home was like a picnic.

The medium of teaching was English and my knowledge of that language was nil. In the playschool in our village, where I went the previous year, what I learned was the Malayalam alphabet, a few Malayalam words, and to count up to hundred.

Many of my classmates who were born and brought up in the towns and cities were quite fluent in English—they could speak English quite well. I felt very inferior among those city born and English speaking community. There were a couple of children like me, with no previous experience or encounters with English or English speaking people.

During the initial days, it was very difficult and all I wanted to do was to go home. The boarding was run by a priest, but he was worse than an army sergeant. At 5:30AM, the alarm will sound and everyone had to get up, make the bed, and complete the morning rituals. If someone was in the bed even for a few minutes more, then they will be punished brutally. Those who had experienced the agony of the merciless beatings once would never dared to it repeat again. By 6:00AM everyone had to be ready for the morning prayers. It used to last for 15–20 minutes and after that it was study time. Breakfast was from 8:00–8:30AM. Then we had to get ready for school, which started at 9:00AM.

Once the initial starting troubles were over, I was comfortable going to school. In fact, it was the only thing that I liked about the entire setup—going to school and learning. I could grasp things really well and soon I became one of the favorite students of my class teacher. My class teacher was a nice lady and she encouraged me to work hard. Since I didn’t have anything else to do, that is what I did whenever I could—study.

After school, it was recreation time from 4:00PM to 6:00PM.Since I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t have any inclination to play, I used to sit with my books by the side of the playground and study. So, I progressed really fast, well ahead of the class, as learning was what I did to forget the sadness and sorrow and to prevent the depression and homesickness.

In our class there were two bullies—Alex and Abraham. I have never encountered such nasty and cruel fellows in my four and a half years of existence. They were the unquestioned leaders and uncrowned kings of the bullying gang in our class. All the students were afraid of them and would never make a complaint against them even if they did something nasty. They had a huge advantage over us—they were twins. Also I think they were a year older than most of us. May be it was their second or third school, as they seem to fit right in while most of us were getting slowly and painfully acquainted with the formalities and protocols of the boarding-school life. I was sure that their parents had dumped them in the boarding school to get rid of them from home.

These two thugs used to terrorize the entire class which consisted of a group of kids who didn’t have any knowledge of the power of organized resistance, guerrilla warfare, or the strength of a group. They ruled the class by terror. Some joined their gang and became their foot soldiers, collection agents, hit gang members, and spies. Others including me lived in a state of constant terror as we didn’t know what mischief these sadistic goons were up to. All of us were afraid to complain about them to our class teacher as they had warned us about the consequences. Students who were staying in the boarding had to suffer them there also. Day scholars were lucky, as they didn’t have to worry about them after school. I had to do the homework for them on several occasions.

A few weeks after the Onam holidays, a large bus with pictures of books and the name MIR Publishers, came to our school. MIR publishers was a publishing house in Russia and since it was completely funded by the Russian government, the prices of the books were very low. They had a lot of children’s books. One book that I remember even now was about how to perform scientific experiments at home. It was called Scientific Adventures in Your Home or something like that. That was a book I bought when I was in the fifth standard. Another book that I had was titled “When Daddy was a Little Boy.” There were many good books on Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Engineering, etc. But in the bus, which came to our school while I was in first standard, most were story books for children. It was a mobile bookshop, where the large bus was converted into a beautiful bookshop with hundreds of books in different colors and sizes neatly arranged in shelves mounted on the walls and on tables on the floor of the bus.

We were allowed to go to the bookshop and buy the books that we wanted. Many of us just went to browse the books as we didn’t have any money to buy them. Some of the day scholars bought books as they could get money from their parents. After a few days, our warden announced that we could also buy books, if we wanted. He limited the number of books that we could buy—students from classes 1 to 4 could buy maximum two books, 5 to 7 could buy 4 books and 8 to 10 could buy 6 books. We didn’t have to pay cash; we just had to show our ID cards to the sales clerk, who had the list containing our names and number of books that each of us could buy.

Once the permission to buy the books was announced in the boarding, the twin thugs had a brainwave. They wanted to have a collection of books. Since they could only buy a maximum of four books, they came up with the idea of confiscating one book each from the other students in the class; even their gang members were not exempted from this. It was like paying protection money to the mafia gang. Once the announcement to bring one book was made in the class, everyone, even those who were not interested, was supposed to go and buy a book and give it to them. It was like a scene from Oliver Twist where Fagin and Bill Sikes force the young Oliver to pick pockets. If someone didn’t have the money to buy the book, they were supposed to steal the book from the shop. They warned that if a book was not given to them, then the consequences would be dire.

It was not the love for books or the written word that made those gorillas issue such a command. Books for them were a valuable commodity for trade. They could barter the books collected from us to get things they like—food items, toys, crayons, etc.—-from students of other classes.

One day during lunch break I went to the bookshop. I bought two books—my allowed quota—a book on plants and animals for me and another for those gorillas. I showed the books and ID card to the sales clerk who wrote the cost of the books against my name and put the books in a paper bag and gave the bag to me. When I got down from the bus, I saw a little girl from my class standing there. She was sobbing uncontrollably.

Her name was Annie or Ancy; I don’t remember exactly. I went to her and asked why she was crying. She said she didn’t have any money to buy the book to be given to the bullies. Her mother had given her some money to buy books with which she had already bought two the previous day. Now she cannot ask her mother for more. If she told the reason, her mother would complain to the class teacher and that would put her in the gang’s hit list. She was really terrified and hence the sobs.

I didn’t know what to do. I was just a kid. But I knew that if we complained to the class teacher, they will surely be punished. But it also meant that our life and existence in the class would really be an ordeal unless we got Z+ category security. So, I gave one of my books to her and asked her to give that to the ‘Fagin’ twins. She thanked me, went, gave the book to the thugs, and escaped the punishment.

A few minutes later, when I went to give the book, bad luck was waiting for me. “We already have that book. Go and get a different one,” commanded one of the gorillas as if it made some great difference to have a duplicate. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that; but that put me in a quandary. I had already bought my allowed two books and hence could not buy one more. I decided to exchange my book for a new one. When I went to the bookshop and asked the sales clerk to exchange the book he told me that was not possible. No amount of persuasion or pleading would change his mind.

I knew I was in trouble, deep trouble. I didn’t know what to do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And I was desperate. I walked around the store as if I was browsing the books and when the clerk was busy settling the bill of a group of students, I took a book that was closest to me, put it inside my shirt, and walked out as if I couldn’t find anything interesting.

My heart was in my mouth and my entire body was trembling with fear. Only after I reached the school, I could start breathing. I took a couple of deep breaths to calm my nerves and drank a few glasses of water from the cooler. I was completely drenched in sweat.

When I gave the book that I stole to my tormentor, he told me to handover the other book too with a smug smile. If I had a little courage, I would have smashed his face into pulp. That was the first and last time that I stole a book.

After that incident, I tried to atone for my sin by buying as many books as I could afford whenever I saw the MIR publisher’s bookstore even during my college days.

Note:-

  1. The title of the post is taken from Markus Zusak’s book by the same name.
  2. The image of the book-gun is taken from Toxel.com and the artist is Robert who carves guns out of old books found in dumpsters and thrift store bins.

6 Comments

  1. Paresh said,

    July 23, 2013 at 2:16 am

    Lighter thing first: you forgot that girl’s name? Tsk Tsk :P

    This experience has a Dickensian quality to it; the funny (or tragic?) part is; we may struggle for a lifetime to find redemption from such sins, but, the person (or the people) actually responsible may have easily forgotten it & moved on. :)

    Loved it overall. Please write more frequently. :)

  2. Bindu said,

    July 23, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Just loved the post, the first part brought back memories that are still as fresh as then. Nursery for me too was in a village and totally in Malayalam. Joined class I in the middle of the school year in an English medium school. I still remember the first day when the girl who sat next to me asked me to write one , two , three and I had no clue what that was,till she pointed to the blackboard and I saw the familiar ‘onnu’, ‘randu’, ‘moonnu’ :D

    Books redeem us in so many ways, don’t they? And yes, I remember those red coloured book buses and the lovely books with colorful pictures with mysterious names like Masha and Ivanushka

    Do write more frequently, I do really miss these gems :)

  3. Sheeba said,

    July 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Cute post :) .. loved it. All the innocence of a four year old boy, is magnificently portrayed. Hats off, Alex..

    Where are those bullies, now? Any information? :)

  4. Alexis Leon said,

    July 25, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Paresh: It was a long time ago :-) Yes, you are correct. Thanks buddy.

    Bindu: Yes, I too was in such a situation. Read Ex Libris. Amazing book and amazing people–the Fadimans. Thanks for recommending it. MIR publishers was one of the nice things that ended with the fall of USSR.

    Sheeba:Thanks you. I don’t have any idea about them. I left that school after the first year.

  5. Dhanush Gopinath said,

    August 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    You know what Alexis. While you were writing this. I was actually reading Markus Zusak’s book. And I didn’t see this till today, when I visited my own blog.

    Excellent post as always :) I know I am here after a long time.

  6. Alexis Leon said,

    August 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Dear Dhanush,
    That is a surprising coincidence. Hope you are fine and all is well.
    Take care buddy.