Childhood Book Memory

When I saw this edition of The Little Mermaid from North South Books, with Han Christian Andersen’s text, illustration by Bernadette Watts, and translation ascribed to H.B. Paull, I was at once eight years old again. It felt as if this was the very book I once owned and loved until it fell into tatters. It was, as I remember it, given to me by a relative who traveled to England and picked it out for me, feeling that it was time for me to read something other than Enid Blyton. I read it end to end and backwards, hundreds of times. It taught me that a book could make a person cry.

It turns out that childhood memories, no matter how vivid, may be notoriously unreliable. According to researcher Kimberley Wade, that’s especially true…

If you’re the sort of person who can read a book and become so highly absorbed that you no longer notice what’s going on around you… you may be more prone to memory distortion.

Well, that would be me. It was certainly me, back when I was eight. So who knows? Was it this edition? I can remember the palette, the blue-green of the water, the swish of the mermaid tail. But I can find no details of a book that looked like this, published around the time I was eight. I can’t exactly pull up contextual image of place that would nail that memory. It’s fuzzy, like a page on which water has spilled.

What about the words? I have gone back and read other Andersen stories since then. I read a few translations of Thumbelina including one by Paull, when I was preparing to write The Girl of the Wish Garden in response to Nasrin Khosravi’s fragile, beautiful paintings. But never The Little Mermaid. It was as if I didn’t want to touch that early memory of literacy, opting instead to keep it obscured, maybe protected, for decades.

Now, looking at those words, I felt as if a curtain had gone up and the light shone again on my young self. I think words go into a special place in memory. The farther back you store them, the more secure they remain. From my vault, as I read the first page of the North South edition, the opening words emerged, untarnished:

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep, so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.

At eight, or however old I was, living in India, I did not know what a cornflower was, and I was baffled about fathoms and cables. I’d seen a church or two, so I got that part. But I can still remember those words and how they invited me to turn the page. And I can remember that although the sorrow and the yearning were far beyond my understanding, they touched me in ways at once thrilling and frightening. And the pure injustice of the story? The unfairness to a girl, at once unlike and like every girl? I know I got that part.

So I certainly read the Paull translation, in a book with a blue-washed cover and gauzy images. And it certainly shaped my writing soul. As memories go, that will have to suffice.

Hans Christian Andersen Travelogues and Juvenilia

My son, on a trip to Rome, recently sent me this photo of a house that Hans Christian Andersen lived and wrote in during his year in Italy.


Image © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

What, I wondered, did he work on there from 1833 to 1834? One of his travelogues? It turns out it was his autobiographical novel, The Improvisatore, and the trip was sponsored by ad usus publicos, a Danish public fund set up in 1765 and used in the 1800s mainly to support literature, art and the sciences. In other words, this was a residency!  Many writers will relate to this experience, this life lived two centuries ago. We may rail against the norms and practices of times past, and we should, but we are also connected to writers who went before us.

9781554983247-1_0When my picture book, The Girl of the Wish Garden, was published, one of the storylines of my life as a reader and writer seemed to come full circle. As an 8-year-old in India in the 60’s, I’d been captivated by


Copenhagen, sculpture of The Little Mermaid (Den lille Havfrue) by Edvard Eriksen. Photo © Nikhil Krishnaswamy, 2019

an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories, a gift from an aunt who had visited England and bought a copy for me. The Little Mermaid made me cry. I have a visceral memory of a delicious surrendering to an emotional state. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that words on a page could do that to a person.

So when I found out that an unknown Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was discovered in 2012, that, too, felt inevitable and logical. It was probably written between 1822 and 1826, and shows that whatever else he write, the fairy tale genre came bubbling up for him quite early in his life. Excerpt from the Guardian article:

The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it. “The Tallow Candle had found its right place in life – and shown that it was a real candle, and went on to shine for many a year, pleasing itself and the other creations around it,” writes Andersen.

“Pleasing itself and the creations around it.” May we all be as lucky.