Reading ‘Roots’ in Sickbay

My reading of Alex Haley‘s Roots was feverish. Literally and figuratively, I suppose, for not only did I finish it in a little over two days, but I did so while running a body temperature above 98.4 F. The circumstances of my reading–the location, my physical condition–played no insignificant part in my reaction to the book: overwhelmed in more ways than one.

I was fourteen years old then, attending a boarding school tucked away on a hillside in the Indian Himalayas. Our daily schedule, starting at 530 AM rising, followed by physical drills, breakfast, classes, lunch, sports periods, prep (study periods), and then ‘lights out,’ left little time for unstructured activity except for weekends (and even those didn’t exactly leave us alone to our devices). In these circumstances, a minor illness wasn’t the worst thing possible; rumor had it the matron was kindly, the sickbay beds were comfortable, there was no waking at unearthly hours, and best of all, the food was supposed to be edible.

So the chills, the shakes, the elevated temperature, the bodyaches, which visited me one afternoon weren’t exactly unwelcome visitors. I had been in boarding school for little over a year and had never climbed the steps to its infirmary facilities. Now was the time. As I told my classmates I was heading for a checkup, confident of admission (the matron was an expert at rejecting the fakers that occasionally showed up hoping for a reprieve from prefects and classes), a young lad spoke up, ‘Take a book with you in case you get admitted.’ He was right. I needed supplies.

I headed to the library and picked out Roots. I had had my eye on it for a while, but had been daunted by its size. But now I would I have ample time. Book tucked away under my arm, I climbed the stairs, asked to see the matron, and a few minutes later, was being led to my bed in the upper ward. From my window, I could see Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, its glistening snow-capped summit mocking my bedridden state.

I stayed in sickbay for the next two days, free of the onerous schedule that my classmates were being subjected to, a few flights below me. But despite the ‘company’ of a few seniors in the same ward as me, I was isolated. There was no schoolwork to do and little conversation was possible. (Needless to say, there was no television.) So I read.

Haley’s book was my first sustained encounter with slavery narratives. I was unprepared for the descriptions of the brutal shipping of slaves across oceans, the backbreaking, cruel, and relentless plantation life, and the utter dehumanization of those that fueled the economic engines of the American South. There were times when I struggled with the dialects but I could never stop reading, so utterly absorbed did I become in this tale from so far away, one that would become a member of that group of cultural productions that changed my view of the US forever. (I’ve blogged on those here, here, and here.)

I was physically weak, and at times, my eyes would water and my head hurt from the persistence of my reading, but it seemed like a small price to pay for entering the world that Haley had depicted for me in his opus. From the time I rose, through breakfast, lunch and dinner–in bed–I kept Roots handy, and never stopped turning its pages.

My fever broke; the body aches receded; the matron took my temperature, bade me open my mouth wide and say ‘Aaah’, and satisfied that I was on the mend, discharged me. I walked back down to the mundane routines I had left behind. When I entered my dormitory, I was greeted with some sniggers at having pulled off a successful ‘escape.’

I had escaped all right; if only those boys knew what I had  ‘seen’ and ‘heard’. And felt.

Note: I knew little of the plagiarism and questionable genealogy controversies associated with Roots, and would only learn of them much later when I had moved to the US.

3 comments on “Reading ‘Roots’ in Sickbay

  1. This book cannot fail to shock and move us. I read it in my twenties and like you unaware of any associated controversy. In a way that matters not – it was a ‘story’ that needed telling and I suspect that for many like myself, it was a first exposure to what when on in those awful times and even now is still ‘root’ for much of the wealth here in the UK.

  2. […] little while ago, on this blog, while writing of my reading of Alex Haley’s Roots as a schoolboy I made note of it as “a member of that group of cultural productions that changed my view of […]

  3. […] my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I […]

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