The Neighbourhood Library

My elder daughter and I have been having a mock argument for years. I say one should not make notes or underline sentences in books we read for pleasure, and she thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to do so. Then it dawned on me that I was conditioned to keep the pages intact for the next reader but she has grown up in an era where the book belongs to her. You see, most of the books that inspired me were read when I borrowed them from a library. Buying books was an indulgence that came much later when books became easily available. Moreover, my generation and the generations before me tried to understand the world through hard copies that weren’t accessible at the click of a button. We searched for information and entertainment in libraries, after making repeated visits, and were often put on waiting lists. Journals and magazines from overseas always reached us with a time-lapse, one that we accepted with the resignation of living in the License Raj. Although books were a large part of my life, I didn’t own even a quarter of the number I had read. It was a given that one never bought something when it was possible to borrow it. The average person didn’t buy a book unless it was a special treat or then available for a steal on Flora Fountain’s second-hand make-shift footpath stores. A book had to be as revered as Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali to be purchased because it could be studied and passed down.

There were majestic libraries such as The Asiatic Society and the British Council which still stand but they were more commonly frequented by academics. It’s the obscure ones that didn’t last and which I can’t help reminiscing about. They were set up by young entrepreneurs in nooks and corners of the city. A visit to the local library was an outing I looked forward to even if was housed in a garage and consisted of a couple of hundred square feet space. After all one met charming characters inside its dusty confines, be it Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. There were espionage books, romance novels, whodunnits, classics, and comics that could be rented for a nominal fee-a few paise. One didn’t worry about an algorithm tracking the selections and then using the data to plug more of the same. The reader was responsible for enhancing or stunting their own intellectual growth; a freedom that is sorely missed. Aside from a disdainful look by the librarian, we got away with the occasional trashy read.

Librarians were privy to a hallowed world and seemed to be uncaring of anything outside of it. They gave us a specific time frame to complete a book, failing which it went up for renewal. One usually got an old dog-eared copy with yellowing pages but then we hadn’t yet become germophobes so it didn’t matter. There were fines, penalties and secret blacklists if the borrower failed to comply with the rules. We made sure that the pages remained free from tomato ketchup and oil stains (while simultaneously reading and snacking) because every return was accepted after careful scrutiny. In our school years we had a compulsory library period where I read Amar Chitra Kathas. There was nothing more escapist than reading about Ghatotkacha hurling a sparkling chakrayudha (never mind what it is) at Karna or Sage Durvasa being garlanded by a flying nymph, before sitting through a Mathematics or Chemistry lesson.

But then, before we knew it, books could be bought from the comfort of our homes at throw away prices. Besides, the advent of dynamic, visual mediums made them diminish in importance and in turn neighbourhood libraries became redundant. Today, a small library seems all the more distant at a time when book shops are at risk of closing down. Even so, this is not a lament on changing times because change is inevitable. Shakespeare would be appalled at the size of the modern-day book that passes off as literature. I suppose it doesn’t matter if the format differs, as long as people continue to read, imagine and write, which they do given the plethora of creative talent out there. This is just a short note to remember a comforting place I used to visit. I’m happy to say that if nothing else, at least its value survived the loss of the era it thrived in.

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