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.

14 comments:

Swarna said...

How poignant, Lakshmi!
To me the words 'wasted crosswords' sums up your feelings (and mine) on the fading away of someone's favourite childhood destination. I wish to think Mahesh Circulating Library opened elsewhere....

praneshachar said...

a very nice nostalgia thro your post. yes my guess was right too, who else can be this much book freak than lakshmi. I too remember these days libraries are slowly fading out particularly the circulating libraries in their place DVD libraries have come in and what a craze to search for non released movies.
good to start the day with such a nice write up
this I am saying not from my lips but from my heart
have great days ahead
pranesh

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

""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."

So evocative, and catches the atmosphere of a library so well.

Beautifully written piece, reliving the days of every book loving child.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Swarna: Thanks....'wasted crosswords'...Im sure it implies a lot...esp to me.
Pranesh: Yes, this is a peice of memory. It's sad tat libraries with books are dissapearing!!!Thanks fr sharing ur thoughts.
Raji: Thanks...yes, I miss that library very much.

Karthik said...

Hi Lakshmi,

Good one that brought back memories of not just my fav Anantha Circulating Library on DVG Road, but of so many such places in and around Gandhi Bazaar. May be I will pen about it sometime. At the same time I felt sad at our lack of interest in preserving heritage buildings and traditional businesses as we get swayed away by modern luxuries.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Karthik: There was one Anantha library on DVG road?? I never knew about it...we lived very close by..i should ask my parents about this, maybe they remember. I really do think you should write about it, it will help me understand how basavanagudi was then, and understand what changes have affected it, as a locality. Yes, it is indeed very sad that we are loosing out on so much because we aren't really preserving our heritage...many good buildings are going down for the sake of new restaurants....I do hope something can be done about this. Thanks for the comment.

Deepti said...

dear lux,
i too remember that library on mainroad. i had borrowed a book once from there. ya, it was prettysad to see it being rundown now...
you express everything nicely........

green indians said...

lovely piece. my childhood memories tumbledback.we have had the pleasure of indulging our fantasies during our vacations with the help of the freindly neighbourhood book library. sadly library nowadays symbolises 'DVD LIBRARIES'
please do read our new blog entry on birding in the greater rann of kutch and lets keep the spirit of the written word alive n kicking.
sarita

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Deeps: You remember, don't you?? Well, atleast I have one person here who has seen Mahesh Circulating Library once...books there were pretty old weren't they? What books did you borrow from there??
Hey Saritha!! I must say I have always been a great fan of your blog posts on birding!! They are fun to read, I will check them out ASAP...and I must say, I'm honoured to have you here. Thanks for visiting! :-)

Maddy said...

I enjoyed that trip down memory lane - into the land of musty old books.

Lakshmi, i would like you to read (i.e. if you have not read it yet) 'The shadow of Wind' by Zafon. It starts with a child in love with books. A brilliant bit of writing, one I loved to the last page.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Maddy: The "Shadow of Wind" huh?? will definitely try it, if you suggest it! :) You do have a way with books, you know.

Praveen G K said...

I remembered my library in my area...I dont know whether it still exists..the name of the library was "Cynosure circulating library", and I could almost relate instantaneously to what you have written so beautifully :-)

Absolutely fantastic...!!!!

Suchitra said...

Excellent post ! Reminds me of my fav library in Malleswaram, Shankar Circulating library- Its still functional but it is dying a slow death :(

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Mr. Praveen: Thanks a lot for the comment! :-) Loved your similar post on cynosure library.
Mrs. Suchitra: Welcome to my blog! Shankar Circulating Library huh? I'm glad to know that is has managed to survive, even though barely...I feel we need to encourage bangalore's remainng libraries.Something by the name of Hippocampus--a library of books+cd's has become esp famous i heard. It's sad some of the traditional circulating libraries are dying out...i wish there was a way to make them stay alive.