Heidi was the first book ever purchased for me. I was about 6 or 7 years old at that time, the same age that Heidi is when her story begins. Heidi was also the 16th and the 73rd book bought for me. Yes, you read it right. Till date, I have owned 3 Heidi books and each one has a story attached to it.
Heidi-1 was with me for just a day. Raju, my maternal uncle, had just received his first pay cheque and in a fit of generosity decided to buy something for his 8 nephews and nieces. So what does he do? He goes and buys some books, one of which is Heidi. Only, Heidi is not one book here — it is a serialised version spread over 6 palm-sized books with tiny illustrations and microscopic lettering. He then distributes these 6 “Heidis” to 3 of his nieces and nephews in a random manner. I am one of the recipients and get books 2 and 5 of Heidi.
We 3 recipients of the Heidi books were so thrilled with the gift that neither its random distribution nor the impossibly small lettering bothered us. We could squint and read, couldn’t we? It was a Saturday that day, so we didn’t have to worry about school either. After lunch that day, we got down to reading the books in serial order, with each one reading his or her books aloud for the others. I still remember the instant connection I felt with Heidi — her spirit, loyalty, adventures and love for her family and friends proved irresistible. At the risk of sounding corny, I knew that I had made a friend.
I am not sure whose mother discovered the books that evening. The small lettering was deemed unsuitable for us children and were confiscated, never to be seen again. My poor uncle got an earful from all our mothers for buying something so child-unfriendly. And that was the rather dramatic end of Heidi-1.
Heidi-2 came to me a couple of months after this incident. A gift from my parents, it was everything that Heidi-1 was not—a hardback version with a large print, full-page illustrations, and the entire story in one book. I was thrilled to have my friend back and for a few months, Heidi-2 would sleep on a chair or a pillow near me!
Heidi-2 lasted for about a year. Because of the nature of my father’s job, we changed houses and cities every other year or so. And somewhere in one of those changes, we lost some stuff. And that included, you guessed right, a box of books, which included Heidi-2. Though I don’t remember it, my mother says I cried a lot over the loss of Heidi-2.
Heidi-3 was gifted to me by Sridhar, my eldest brother, on July 6, 1981. I still remember that my whoops of joy at receiving the book, woke my grandparents from their afternoon nap, for which I was quite severely reprimanded by them.
Heidi-3 was also different from her predecessors—paperbacked, unabridged, unattractive and with no illustrations. But it didn’t matter one bit, as reading the unabridged version made me feel so grown-up and important. And this time I was taking no chances with the fate of this book—the book stayed with me while shifting houses and/or cities, and not with the packers and movers !
Strictly speaking, Heidi-3 is not be my oldest book. But as a book, Heidi was my first and is, therefore, my oldest book. I still read Heidi now and then. Ok, I confess, I read the book at least once a month. It is never a “cover to cover” reading, though. I only read the parts that I love the most — for example, how Heidi gets Peter to read, or when Clara starts walking, or Heidi reading to Peter’s Grandmother, or Heidi’s interactions with her grandfather. It is one of those books that I have internalised so much that I can probably recite the entire book from memory by now !
Heidi-3 has been with me for about 30 years now, and has lived in over 5 cities in India and even came with me to London for a year-long stay. Heidi has been that friend who stayed with me as our family moved houses and cities across India, as well as that friend who saw me through the transition period of settling into new schools and making new friends in new places. Heidi was my very own self-help book, guiding me through childhood, teenagehood and adulthood. And I know that Heidi will be there for me as I enter middle-age and as I eventually grow into old age.
My mother teasingly asked me the other day, “So when are you going to give away Heidi?” This question was prompted by my donating many of my childhood books to a nearby library recently. “When is that book going away?”
My answer to her was, “Never. Never ever. I can’t even bear to lend my Heidi. How can you expect me to give it away?”
About Heidi: Authored by Johanna Spyri and published in 1880/81 in German, Heidi is among the best known works of Swiss literature. Its appeal across the world lies in the simplicity of the storyline. A young girl’s relationship with her grandfather forms the spine around which the story is developed through love, friendship, loyalty, selflessness, homesickness, simple living, philosophy and prayer—all seen through Heidi’s words and actions. If you have read the book, you would know what I am talking about, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Go, grab a copy of Heidi
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