One of my earliest revelatory moments as a newly arrived college kid in the United States involved John Denver. “I like John Denver,” I said cheerfully, only to be met with horrified amusement.
No one at USIS or the International Student’s Office had sent me the memo on Denver’s current status as an outdated hokey country music singer who represented cheesy Middle Americana that was anathema for sophisticated undergraduates at a chi-chi women’s college.
I was a typical socialist-era middle class kid for whom the ‘West’ was an undifferentiated, ahistorical cultural mass, encompassing everything from Shakespeare to Mills &Boons to Archie’s comics, Mozart to Jim Morrison to Michael Jackson, Bailey’s Irish Cream to Marmite to Toblerone. Both intensely familiar and alluringly distant, like the twinkling taillights of the PanAm jets that I would race up to the roof to yearningly track.
The Denver incident was my first inkling that listening to certain music, reading certain books, eating certain kinds of food said Very Important Things about my deepest, most intimate self — or so my American peers seemed to believe.
The first victim of that unfortunate Denver incident was an until then prized possession: A June, 1987, copy of the Reader’s Digest. I quickly banished it to the back of the bookshelf. Blueneck, East Coast New Yorker-loving colleges was no place to branish an old-fashioned publication touting family values, moral inspiration, and gentle humour. My personal connection — and pride — in that particular edition of “Reader’s Disgust” would have made its discovery all the more mortifying.
My mother handed it to me in the midst of frantic pre-college packing, saying merely, “You keep this.” A wealth of love was hidden in those three words, in the forsaking of a treasured reminder of her long-dead father; the man whose face graced the cover of this particular issue. He was once a newspaper giant with a glorious and tumultous career that ended in bankruptcy, elephantiasis, and death, in that short order.
My mother had thought his memory lost to mists of time until MV Kamath penned an unexpected and poignant ode to his former employer in Reader’s Digest 24 years after his demise. In the Reader’s Digest — not Illustrated Weekly or India Today, where it would have signified far less.
Wedged between an exciting rescue story of a New York firefighter and an alarming tale of the extinction of species, my grandfather’s life gained the kind of stature that only the Digest could offer in our ICS/IAS-revering household. As the only foreign publication published in socialist India — gilded with the personal stamp of approval of Panditji, no less — it brought the world into our living rooms, condensing its complexity into a pithy series of articles and features. It was a carefully edited world, however, shorn of the messy politics that afflicted its real counterpart. There was little mention of violence or ideology. We would receive the latest news from the world of medicine and science but not of the Cold War or the Culture Wars underway in America. Jokes were numerous — “College Rags,” “Life’s Like That,” “Laughter, the Best Medicine” — but only the family-rated kind.
It’s this trademark discretion that gained the publication an unparalleled stature in the Doordarshan era Indian household, and a worldview that dovetailed neatly with ours. Self-improvement was necessary, but not to climb the social ladder, make money or other such crass reasons. We learnt instead: “how to improve your vocabulary”; “the right way to praise your child”; “the indispensable art of the apology.”
The deportment classes that arrived in our mailbox with metronomic regularity, gently urging us to do, nay be, better. Hence the inspirational stories of men and women from around the world who faced down the odds; found courage in adversity or in great danger; tended disabled, damaged, or ailing children, parents or spouses with unstinting loyalty. Good, decent people always prevailed, villains rarely got a star turn. The Digest’s most infectious quality was its incurable optimism. All obstacles, great or small, could be surmounted with determination, effort, and the right kind of knowledge.
If you mention Reader’s Digest to my now 80-year old mother, it sparks not the memory of her father but of my brother. Of the 21-year old boy, failing in life and out of his BA in Economics in Delhi University back in the 80s. This was nothing less than a catastrophe in a family of high-achieving Tamil-Brahmin bureaucrats. And then the latest issue of the Reader’s Digest arrived, bearing with it the hope for a future.
No one exactly remembers the article or its specifics, except its conclusion: American researchers had found that children who struggle at conventional academics often exceled at computer programming. The Digest offered my mother a straw, and she held firm on to it. NIIT had just kicked off its first course offering a postgraduate diploma in basic programming languages. The rest is family history.
When my 44-year old brother died in his marina-facing apartment, he was the managing director of a hugely successful online shopping portal based in Los Angeles. He left behind a fortune to his aging parents. They would not consider this a happy ending. But the tale itself is testimony to the gospel-like power of the Digest.
Today, the Digest itself is failing, 90 years after its inception. Most of us reacted not with dismay but nostalgia, like Si’in Va’ukut who tweeted, “Reader’s Digest was fun. Especially vintage ads in old copies. Nycil. Gold Spot. Sigh.” The Reader’s Digest, in a sense, has been long dead, preserved in the amber of my childhood memory, alongside those John Denver songs. The June, 1987, edition, however, endures, tucked away on my bookshelf, dog-eared but intact.