A Canticle for Libraries
|Image Source : Nathan Naze|
“The heat would melt the tar on the road, as I walked back home from school with friends. None of us would notice that the stiff black leather shoes burnt the feet with concentrated heat. From home I would walk to the British Library, the melting tar would stick to the shoe. Despite all our claims of the lake-generated pleasantness, Bhopal burnt in April and May, as much as the rest of north India.
The library was an air-conditioned oasis. I was willingly lost, hardly noticing the air conditioning. Lost in Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Lost in Punch. Lost in Christie, Sayers and Wodehouse. Lost gazing at the stars, in a fascinating atlas of the universe. Lost in Toynbee, Greene and Yeats. Often understanding little but so completely lost, that is how I discovered the world.
For every book I read, I read many more back-covers. I probably learnt more from the back-covers than I did later at my four-year engineering programme.
Last week I took my mother to a shop near the library. While she shopped I went and just stood in front of the library which was no longer there. In its place there was another library, the Vivekananda Library. This was a June evening, not a May afternoon, after 25 years. And out walked a familiar face from the past, from the different library.
Since 25 years change a boy, more than a man, he could not have recognized me. We chatted briefly, all he needed to know was that there was a time that I used to visit the British Library. His lament (in chaste Bhopali) started with “saheb, ab jaan nahi rah gayi” (there is no life any more). He said that they buy books with no thought, often from the shop across the road. The membership has dwindled. The staff runs the place for the salary they get, not for love; it’s a travesty of the memory of the great man whose name it bears.
Both of us were blinded by the dense fog of nostalgia. For me it was the discovery of the loss of the dearest of friends. The only solace being that perhaps things were not as bad as he made it out to be. I went back to my mother, who knows what the library meant to me.When I used to go to the British Library, I also used to visit the Hindi Bhavan, which was my gateway to Indian literature. It had a great collection in imposing glass cases and steel almirahs, but it didn’t have any jaan. I would select the books quickly and get them issued, never linger on, never get lost…..”
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