Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the Death of a Library

Update: *This article finally made it to Deccan Herald's Education Times. :)

It’s just another busy afternoon. The librarian sits with his door graciously open in an attempt to tempt a few interested visitors into his little abode. This library is not the kind which loudly calls for attention, squeezed as it is between a clock repair shop and the dry cleaner’s on one of the lesser roads of Basavanagudi. There is no dearth for people on this road, that’s true, but they move about purposefully, forgetting to even glance at Mahesh Circulating Library as they turn this way. The evening traffic rumbles on perennially, choking the world outside with smoke, noise and partially burnt carbon. People shout, children scream, and pandemonium reigns.

But the library is a strangely soothing place--its walls are immune to the changes which are so constant to the world beyond its threshold; it is the guardian of the world gone by, preserving faint traces of what belonged to the past. It has books which try to remember the ancient times, and is a loving home to the words of imaginative minds whose voices linger, unspoken, through the many bound novels which rest peacefully on its shelves; it doesn’t have those popular newspapers which always talk about depressing disasters on the front pages. In fact, almost everything here is old: everything from the cheap paperbacks of the seventies to last year’s Kannada dailies. Some of them are withering, yellowing silently in their respective shelves, slowly accumulating dust with every passing day as nobody cares enough to dust them once in a while.

A little girl waits as she turns a bend on her way to the market with her mother. Her eyes search for that little inconspicuous bit of building, and she smiles when she is reassured that it is there like it always is. She breaks free of her mother and rushes in, to see if the library has received new comics. She gets the same answer she has come to expect. The librarian replies in the negative. But she is optimistic that this time’s denial means a double bonus for the next visit. Once again, she has to make do with the 1993 fortnightly editions she has already nosed through a million times. But she finds pleasure in digging through the haphazardly stacked comic books, earning that August edition with missing pages that she loves so much. It’ll cost her fifty paisa per day, but that’s OK. She knows she’ll be done with her Tinkle in about an hour. She glances back at the library, hoping that she could have been allowed to sneak in one more novel.

The little girl is a little grown up now. But she’s faithful to her library, which was the first one she has come to know. Some people do frequent the library, but they happen to be the retired folks and occasional housewives who drop in on sultry mornings to collect some wisdom, or learn new recipes. There is no one here in the late evenings, and a ghastly silence descends on this forgotten corner of the street. But the girl wants to visit it every single time, her eyes feasting on the rows of those bound novels. They are the mystery she cannot reach, filled with words she cannot understand, and stories which she cannot crack. She wishes she could grow up faster, into a fine young lady who could listen to what they have to say. But for now, she must satisfy herself with the puzzle in the recent magazine Highlights that she has borrowed.

The library is growing old too. Now everyone notices the books which are falling apart, wasted crosswords which are already pencil-darkened, and a missing copy of Highlights comic which still hasn’t been returned. Looks like the little girl buried it below her bed and forgot about it. The library is not doing good business, and how can anyone survive with a mere two rupees a day? Even the beggars on MG road do better than that. The manuscripts here are in various stages of decay….and no one is sympathetic anymore. But the little girl is still a visitor; she’s too young to notice flaws. The librarian seems to have forgiven her past mistake of losing a library book. She still hasn’t found it, and she is lazy enough not to burden herself with such meager activities when she has already been pardoned. She now reads her Nancy Drew’s, borrowing one each time she has a holiday. They are yellow, 1960 editions, and don’t smell good. She wonders how they were when they were fresh off the press, smelling faintly of paper glue and ink. She wonders how Mahesh Circulating Library was then too, once upon a time when it was painted freshly for the first time, and brand new books were shelved. The librarian must have beamed, and there must have been a lot of customers. The girl fantasizes to think that the library receives mysterious shipments every week, but they are more likely the second hand books donated by a nearby paper walla who dumps his useless booty here when he finds no further use of them. There are generations of books here, wormed through many times by silverfish. They still wait pathetically for someone to pick them up. But the girl is already done with reading her Nancy Drew’s and she now even owns some of the 1993 Tinkle comics. She is also disinterested in the old bound books on the higher shelves. After all, she still has a lifetime to go through them; the library will not evaporate into thin air, anyway.

The girl is now not a frequent customer. Gone are the days when she wore satin frocks and bounced into the little place with expectations. Her world is bigger, and she’s happier buying off books from road spreads instead. Meanwhile, time is slowly advancing, and the girl forgets to realize this.

One fine day, the girl remembers the library. She remembers the joy of delving through 1993 fortnightly editions of comics to find that perfect book. She remembers the expectation, remembers the copy of Highlights book she had misplaced somewhere. She remembers how there weren’t any corridors, how the books weren’t catalogued, and how she wasn’t even a member but the librarian had simply trusted her to return the books without even recording them in his log. Mahesh Circulating Library is just a corner away, and she decides to drop in there, more to remember her times there than to borrow anything. But the library is closed. It’s not a holiday, and the girl does not know why the library is locked. She asks, and learns that it’s been this way for quite a while, and nobody really cares why. The closed doors bother her; she does not enjoy seeing it this way.

One fine day, the doors of that little place open. Sunshine pours into that dingy place once more. That small room even looks cleaner, brighter, and wider. But the books are gone. The lingering smell of old books has been replaced with the smell of kerosene, turpentine and car grease. The painted letters of “Mahesh Circulating Library” have been wiped clean. It is now the mechanic store, a place for broken tires, old cars and vehicles that need fixing. There is noise, and the revving of engines. It’s the quick repair shop, and is popular too. People throng the place, it’s always busy. Everything is painted a bright shade of red to emphasize its presence. It’s a wild transformation of proportions which discomfort the girl. And she had thought the library could not disappear into thin air! She is overwhelmed by the loss. The mechanic store is a welcome change to many, who see the usefulness of the transformation, but the girl is probably the only one who mourns the death of the library. For others, life has already moved on. She thinks could have reached those bound books by now…sadly, she never read them.

That girl is 18 years old now. That girl is me.I finally found the copy of highlights under my bed one day. I don’t know where it is now. I don’t even know if it has been thrown away, but the copies of 1993 tinkles are safe in my personal library back home. I have since roamed many other libraries, where finding a book of choice is an easy thing, but the only library which I have come to miss is the one which had denied me that very privilege.

Monday, January 19, 2009

To my mother, with love

When I look at myself in the mirror, it surprises me how remarkably I look like my mother. Everything from the hair texture to facial features show an uncanny resemblance, and our childhood photos look exactly alike, with the only difference being that hers is in black and white, and mine are in colour. I’m proud of the fact that I resemble her; I’m elated when somebody points it out too. For me, my mother has been perfect, and the fact that I have inherited her features is a source of fascination and pride.

The third week of January is not like all other weeks because my mother’s birthday happens to be on the 20th and it’s a day which deserves some celebration. But by some cruel coincidence, I have always been occupied in the later weeks of January, having time enough to drop an apologetic smile at her and say, “Happy Birthday!” before heading off to face some preparatory exam or another before the season of march finals.

On such occasions, my mother has never even faintly looked disappointed. Her birthdays often meant Rotis and Malai Kofta at a nearby restaurant, and then the next day would resume in the same way. She still made all the coffee, and smiled before I rushed off to face another day at college. Thankfully, this year is not like one of those years. This time, I wish to gift her a bigger present, by recounting those little things that will hopefully make her happy. They are the things I have never told her, although she must have already realized them by now. Some words need not be spoken; some messages are silently understood without a single utterance. My mother knows all the things I wish to tell her today, and she needs no reminding. But on her birthday, I just wanted to announce to the world that I love her very much, and that she is more special to me than I can ever tell. She has looked perfect to me ever since I could remember and has understood me better than anyone else on the planet. I thank her for simply being all she has been, for being my moral support system and for converting those simple moments togetherness into unforgettable memories. From my love for her also springs pure admiration for everything she is, and a faithfulness which surprises me with its strength.

I shall never forget the day when I finally called her “Amma” instead of “Binni”. It had been a nickname I had been unusually fond of, and addressed her as “Binni” whenever I wanted her attention, forgetting her yearning to be called “Amma,” even once. The truth had stuck me suddenly, and she had hugged me proudly that day when I had fondly uttered that word, on our way back from Shantamma’s house. I also remember the day I had returned sobbing my heart out after quarrelling with a best friend in tenth standard and the way she had consoled me. I remember being that five year old, in whose eyes her mother is the greatest person on earth. I remember those days of silent expectations, the times when I waited in impatience for her to appear on TV (She was then a news reader), anticipating a friendly wave from the screen that had been promised. When it did not come, I would cry for hours on end, until she could return home to comfort me. I remember waiting for her after school, panicking quickly if she was late my even an instant. I would be lost without her guiding me through every little hurdle of life, and I thank her for letting me hang on.

So, here, Amma is your little birthday present from my side—A banquet of memories. Hope you enjoyed remembering, and hope we could create even more memories together, for us to recount when we are older. Once again, I love you very much, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lessons in Learning

English classes for me always meant a worn out copy of some ancient book, with pencil marks underlining boring quotes that the author had conjured up. Our essays most often had to be stories, or hypothetical experiences and tall tales spun intelligently to make them sound astoundingly like real life experiences. It was those students who got all the good marks, the ones who talked about extraordinary encounters with wild animals, and imaginative descriptions of wonderful things which had come to powerfully alter the course of their lives. Research had never been a requirement and our opinions were unaccounted for in school essays. After all, who really cared to listen to the opinions of teenage pipsqueaks who knew nothing about the state of affairs to talk about them in the first place?
I was hence very much surprised when I took English classes in college here, which turned out to be a very different experience. Essay writing was different here, and I had to do painful research to support my claims, and had to have a clearly established thesis in support of some well-defined idea. In other words, I was to have an opinion on something, and it had me scratching my head. My opinion? Who really cared for my opinion? Did it matter? Firstly, I was not the sort of person who ventured far enough to have strong opinions on anything. Occasionally, a singular point would either irritate or interest me, and I would try to drive my point home, upon which the other person would often exclaim the exact opposite of my assertions. I would then stutter, back out of the dangerous conversations and let my moderate nature show itself. A simple “Whatever,” or “I know,” or “You’re right,” would dissolve the talk, and I would be all too happy to get on with my life without much ado. Taking sides was never my cup of tea, as I usually found myself unable to debate. I have learnt, through years of patience exercise, that peace is often achieved when I simply keep my mouth shut. Debate never stuck me as a mild and peaceful activity, and I found meek compliance to another person’s claims as the best alternative to shouting myself hoarse in order to justify myself.

What happens when you are forced to justifying your claims? And when your GPA counts on it? What happens when it becomes a requirement for you to look into matters, establish opinions on them, and dwell on matters that interest you? I say, it makes you a more perceptive individual. Although I complained a fair number of times when I was stuck with an incomplete essay one day before it was due, I must say I learnt a lot in the process. I learnt to think deeper, and widen my perspective. I developed opinions, and someone was even willing to listen to them, which astonished me. I now think that it would be better if this approach was introduced in our country as well. A simple “What do you think?” or “Why do you think this is correct or incorrect?” would work very well in teaching instead of forcing certain thoughts on us. A mere mention of the facts and simply by-hearting them should not become the requirement, but rather, a natural extension of concepts to challenge our thought process should be incorporated. I guess it would wake up the droopy eyed boys in the back benches too! Instead of saying reservation is necessary for government posts, one should ask why? How is it correct or incorrect? I remember that in our tests, especially civics tests, we were forced to by-heart whole sections of our constitution, and spew it out on paper. Wouldn’t you think it would be better if we were allowed to express our genuine understanding of what we learnt in our own words? Or maybe even our own interpretation of the constitution? Sadly, I don’t even remember the Preamble I by-hearted back in eight standard when I am supposed to have known what it was saying. All I can recall is that a bunch of backbenches had been giggling that day, on a joke about the teacher’s hairdo. When the whispers had spread to our bench, we had laughed too, forgetting the desperate voice which had been screeching, “We the people of India…” somewhere up front because we could not grasp the meaning of these words anyway.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year Wishes

This year’s December has been too cold for my liking, but it has still remained one of my favorite months. One of the things that makes this month enjoyable is the holidays I have been blessed with, and the sheer laziness which accompanies it. The world is too dark on December days to be out bird-watching anyway, and so incredibly cold as to numb me if I cross the threshold of my door. This has served as an appropriate excuse to lounge on the sofa, reading the good old Calvin and Hobbes comic, occasionally giggling to myself as I stretch my legs, savoring what little pleasures feel like.

True, Christmas has been a subdued issue this year, but I have been all too happy to simply stare at artificial trees, baubles and electric lighting to experience the Christmas cheer. In light of the recession, I don’t think anybody’s spending a million on presents anyway! Also, the world does not look very pretty through my balcony anymore—just greyer and more forbidding. My mind does not enjoy being passive so I have allowed it to explore, and currently, it seems to have been devoting a tremendous amount of time in capturing dialogues of movies in its grey cells to challenge itself, and is feverishly drawing up resolutions which it is bound to break because the year is ending, and it needs something to do anyway.

Now, it’s the New Year’s time, and is one more reason to celebrate. It’s that time of the year when hope revives, and that is the best part. A half-hearted person sees his hopes reemerge and finds a fresh confidence awakening within him, unless he does not happen to be an incurable pessimist. Ordinary people start dreaming extraordinary dreams, and hope stirs in some part of their hearts--A hope that things can change if they have not already, that the world can get better, and that wonderful things await them just around the river bend. Individual dreams revive, and the New Year always seems to hold a promise of something extraordinary. Some people see January first as just another day. Although it is true, I’d say it is plain boring to look at it that way. January first is supposed to be a beginning—a beginning for better habits, happier days and a transformed world. It’s time to start dreaming, to be comforted, and to laugh off your burdens. It’s time to welcome hope, which is more important that welcoming the New Year. This is the secret of the New Year, which is not just about parties, balloons and cutting cakes. And this is another reason which makes December special to me. It’s very last days are what I wait for—because they are something very close to magical. There is nothing like some Christmas cheer and New Year hope to boost your confidence which helps you accept the grim facts like that of your term days starting, and that your Chemistry professor being rumored to suffer from extreme temper outburst with perfect enthusiasm. I never realized hope could be so powerful! Well then, I’ll hope for cheerful days and peaceful times for everyone. I’ve made better resolutions this time, including becoming a more frequent blogger. And hopefully, I’ll keep my promise.

And to you, friends, I wish a very Happy New Year!!! Keep wishing on stars this new season, and buy new dairies to record your life. Make promises you can keep, and may your hopes stay alive!!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!