The Sign of the Snake Tattoo. That was the first book I ever read outside my usual school textbook regimen. All of us class VI kids were summoned to the teacher’s desk one by one and asked to pick from a tottering pile of books on the table (you could only go to the library itself from class VIII. Till then, the mountain of kid-lit came to Muhammad).

Looming large: Saparmurat Niyazov.

By virtue of my name and the alphabetical roll-call list, by the time it was my turn, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews, Enid Blytons and precious few Biggles were all gone. All that remained were a dozen or so books of distinctly questionable reputation. So, I had to choose after careful consideration: Did any of the covers have guns, swords, pirate ships or young people peering around doors looking curious? Nope, all gone. Anything without animals or people in period clothing on the cover? Drat, all gone.

With meagre pickings left, I finally chose one that had a terrible watercolour of a turbaned man, looking extremely agitated, and flashing something on his upper arm.

The Sign of the Snake Tattoo.

It was actually not bad at all. Lots of action, midnight escapes and a thrilling romp through the markets of Agra under the gaze of the Taj Mahal.

The tome was, ultimately, a successful baptism into the wonderful world of books. I haven’t stopped reading since and continue to buy way more books than I can possibly read, and way fewer than I absolutely want to (yes, I too secretly lust for that complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes).

Which is why book buffs will love this week’s cover story, on Page L12. Can anything compare with the joy of someone telling you about a whole new set of books to seek out, buy and read? Or at least, stack by the bed? It’s a little like going through the menu at one of those five-star hotel “dessert buffets": Mousse? Cheesecake? Lemon tart? One of each, please!

Also join us, this week, on a trip to eccentric North Korea; or, to be more precise, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Mind you, they use the term “democratic" in a very loose sense; sort of like the term “challengers" in the phrase “Bangalore Royal Challengers".

North Korea is a bizarre country; a country that declared Kim Il Sung president for life…after he died in 1994. They call him their “Eternal President of the Republic". We can safely assume he is a breeze to work with at the office: “Anything pending from my end, Kim? No? Cool!"

Nations such as North Korea have increasingly become oddities, remnants of a time when personality cults and eccentric doctrine ruled entire nations without opposition. Nobody really cares for these oddballs anymore except when one of them gets atomic ideas or is hit by devastating natural calamities killing thousands.

The late Saparmurat Niyazov made even North Korea and its assorted Kims look tame on occasion. Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist for 16 years till he died in December 2006. His list of achievements is truly without parallel: He renamed the months of the year, including one after his mother, he banned beards on young men, designed a new alphabet, banned newsreaders from wearing make-up, restricted smelly dogs from entering the capital and planted gold statues of himself all over Turkmenistan, at least one of which rotated all day so that he always faced the sun.

Niyazov, however, was generous with his natural gas reserves and no one in the European Union or outside felt that he was a threat to the free world.

But, till we manage to actually convince someone to travel to Turkmenistan, you may amuse yourself with our North Korea travelogue on Page L18.

What was the first book you ever read? Do spend some time this weekend to think about it. And then drop us a line.

Priya Ramani is away till August. Catch up on her travels at

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