After several helpful Bengalis give us conflicting directions and we blunder about a little, what we finally walk into is an oblong room in the ground floor of a tall half-hidden house, with large wooden tables, high-backed chairs, low-hanging bulbs and wooden newspaper stands. (The next time I would see these solid wooden newspaper stands was more than a decade later in a JNU mess, where the newspapers were pinioned so no one could steal them.)
We realise it is a traditional reading room. You can come and go as you wish, spend the whole day reading, but you cannot borrow any of the books. “No!” shrieks the old woman in charge of business as though I had asked for her kidney. “Of course not, we don’t let books go out of the premises – they are all antique, can’t you see?” With a sour face, she makes us fill out a form. After I am established as a bona fide member and a hundred instructions are read out to me, I venture upstairs where there is a reading room meant for children.
Up the dodgy wooden stairs, then. Breathing in an ever so slight musty breeze that sneaks in through the skylights. And then, suddenly, I am blinded by the glass-fronted bookcases that line the walls and reflect a dazzling combination of yellows thrown by multiple bulbs of varying wattage. There is a long table with an uneven surface and I run my fingers over the lumps. My grandfather leaves me there and goes downstairs to read the padlocked newspapers.
After spending hours and hours choosing a book from the shelves (the old crone comes again and again to oversee), I climb onto a chair with Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did. Only an hour and a half, then it’s closing time. Already?
I feel a searing sensation just below my diaphragm (I am yet to learn the word). On the way home, I feel for the first time the tightness of chest that would later characterise, to the great consternation of adults all around, every single one of my most mundane partings with lovers (at seven, I am yet to use the word in any meaningful context) and nightly, with yet-unfinished books: a sharp anticipation of tomorrow and a complete yet never-uttered-aloud belief that everything will fall apart tonight and I will never know how it ends.
By the time I am eight, and in Class III, I am a proud member of the school library – which does allow one to take home a book every week – and in complete and utter love with the tall, spare, elderly librarian, Miss Jo Wasal, who lives with her mother on Circus Avenue. The school library in my memory is filled with an orange light and has a polished wooden floor.
I try to remember its other features. It should be easy. It was my most beloved space in the entire school – and yet, I draw a blank. I only get a fuzzy feeling between my eyebrows and a pinched sensation in my throat. I clearly remember the dusty mezzanine floor upstairs which we would use in our high-school years to discuss love affairs. I remember borrowing Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and I remember it taught me a great deal about sex and the clergy. I remember my friend Sushmita Das crooning Librarian Girl to me most meaningfully. The rest is a joyous muddle. Hope, Escape, and the Beginning of Angst against Mother and World.
Sometimes, there can be panic
It is 2012. Alone in Paris, without much French, I spend out my days in the university library. One of the largest in the country, it extends on both sides of the road with a little bridge in the middle. Among the hundreds of thousands of books in French, there are a few thousand English ones.
I sit close to the English shelves, and allow the day to dictate my reading. On days the sun floods in through the large windows, I read my TDR journals and briskly take notes. But most days are grey and a pale light filters in,, and I read novel after novel after novel, taking a break only to instant message with the spouse. It is in this library that I read Jamaica Kincaid’s deeply autobiographical novel Annie John.
One day, Annie John’s most upright mother finds a secret stash of books that she has purloined from the school library. It’s just that she borrowed these books to read, and after reading them and loving them and absolutely giving away her soul to them, she cannot bear to part with them. So she keeps the books. In a later interview, I find that Kincaid drew this incident from memory of her own school days.
The passage makes me pause, and a sudden panic seizes me. I look up. Around me, the faces have changed. The Senegalese girl has gone and now there is a thin French boy sitting in front of a laptop. The copying machine in the corner is whirring. Two extremely fashionable girls are doing their assignments at the table across, sharing a little pack of yogurt – their illicit lunch. Outside, a pale sun has broken through the grey winter sky and the snow has begun to melt. A jogger is panting, his gloved hand resting gently on a bare tree. The world around me has changed in the last hour while I was in the Caribbeans.
The many faces of love
At every stage in my life there is a library I am acutely obsessed with.
Through heartbreak it is British Council Calcutta’s old Shakespeare Sarani premises, where it is possible to weep silently over Hanif Kureishi (I am sixteen). At the dawn of new love, it is the National Library at Alipore, formerly the palace of the Viceroy of India, where my favourite aunt meets him (I am eighteen). And a sudden phase of sanguine endeavour at twenty, when neuroses aside, at the Presidency College Arts Library in the Main Building, I am briskly editing the college magazine and studying for finals and busybodying about here and there. One day, the librarian whisks out an old ledger that enumerates what Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, the great mathematician, used to borrow and read (Paradise Lost, apparently, and countless books on philosophy!).
In JNU, for the first few years of my twenties, I am a complete slave to the eleven-storey library building that stays open all night in exam season, where I perfect the leisurely discovery of a whole new reading ethic, from newspaper archives to sociology and economics. Later, though, I reveal my fickleness (I might be constant in my love life but am most perverse in booklife). The JNU library is completely overshadowed by the Sahitya Akademi library in the heart of leafy Lutyens. This is where I shall write my PhD thesis eventually, sometimes letting myself get distracted by the hundreds of Bengali books on its shelves.
However, the submission of my PhD thesis changes all that, almost overnight. The submission proper is preceded by a formal surrender of the library card. It makes me wildly upset. As long as I had the card in my wallet, I had not spared a single thought for the eleven-storey building that dominated the JNU skyscape – and my early twenties – for years, but now that I did not have the card, I feel deeply bereft.
Finally, three days after submission, when I have no locust standi whatsoever in the campus anymore, I decide to do something about the crushing despair I feel. So here’s what I do. I skulk around the entrance, pretend to read the notices, and then, apropos of nothing, I confidently stride in. There is always the risk the security guard at the entrance would ask to see my I card. But before he can say anything, with great fanfare I sign my name in the register, use my old id card details, and with the studied nonchalance of a busy scholar, I rush in and vanish.
The library has, in the intervening years, poshed up. I take the elevator to the fourth floor, the Languages Library, and inside the ante room, where the old bookcases are perfectly unchanged and lovers are whispering to each other in the shadows as they did in my time, I exhale. I make my way through the dusty shelves – German, Japanese, Sanskrit volumes, and then at the back, the familiar books that had constituted my life: Chinua Achebe, David Malouf, Paule Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, Patrick White, a sudden glut of Romantic poets and Victorian essayists, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and, then, all jumbled up, Indian writers. At one end is the familiar dust-encrusted window through which, across the skyline, can be seen the Qutab Minar.
I pull out a book, march up ahead and grab a chair at the community tables. I cross the rubicon to my own past, let life recede and only its telling take over. And I read feverishly till it is time to go home.
Devaptiya Roy is the author of two novels, The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Weight Loss Club, and her most recent book is The Heat and Dust Project, co-written with husband Saurav Jha, which tells the story of a journey across India on a very very tight budget.
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