Book review

Can the world of books be a little too cut off from the rest of the world we live in?

In Kavitha Rao’s ‘The Librarian’, an obsession for books takes a dark turn.

Remember stepping into one of those heritage libraries with its comforting mustiness, the constant pall of dust in the air, bookshelves that loomed high enough to necessitate a ladder, and all those books, miles of them, that you couldn’t possibly finish reading in one lifetime?

You viewed the world through a bibliophilistic lens, believing that the people who inhabit such a space – the staff, the readers, the authors and their characters, even the resident cat – were your only kin.

You were bound to them by the pull of the written word and the timeless cocoon one disappears into where the characters come alive and reality, as it were, ceases to exist.

If you do, Kavitha Rao’s The Librarian, brimming with intricate detail, is as much your story as it is that of Vidya Patel’s.

Withdrawing into books

When ten-year old-Vidya walks into The Macmillan, housed in a magnificent heritage structure, it feels like a homecoming. At the helm of The Macmillan, reminiscent of The Asiatic Society Library and The David Sassoon Library in Mumbai, is the enigmatic librarian, Shekhar Raghavan, who is thirty years her senior and living her dream of a life surrounded by well-loved books. Such is the impression that The Macmillan and Raghavan make on Vidya that her association with both deepens over the years and she eventually begins to work for the library.

Vidya experiences the sheer joy of living her dream, at the expense of shunning the outside world. It’s enough for her to be in the midst of timeless beloved authors like Kipling, Chaucer, Dickens, Wilde and Shakespeare, and an eccentric mentor whom one can trade quotes with all day, every day, over cups of freshly brewed coffee. Vidya dives headlong into the world of books – book clubs, “IIT authors” (you know who they are), the digitisation of libraries, niche bookstores, literature festivals, and, in one instance, even an interview with a highly acclaimed Indian poet and novelist.

She also gets a taste of the mundane, behind-the-scenes aspects of running a library – missing books, late returns, dwindling memberships, and changing tastes – compounded by apathy from the government and corporate patrons who want to see tangible results for their funding. The challenge is also in the maintenance of a heritage building with prized first editions, rare manuscripts, and near-ancient plumbing. Shekhar, Vidya and the handful of people who work there, including the mother-hen of the establishment, Mrs. Sen struggle to keep the Macmillan afloat even as Vidya follows Shekhar deeper into the dark woods of an all-consuming enchantment with the written word.

The bond and the darkness

At the heart of the book is the bond between Raghavan and Vidya, both misfits in the outside world who regard The Macmillan as the closest there ever will be to “home”. Vidya is the protégé – the book-obsessed offspring that Raghavan wishes his son was. And Raghavan is the mentor, a quasi-parent whom Vidya yearns for, coming from a family that not only does not share her love for books, but would go to great lengths to quell her association with them. Little does Vidya realise that every family, even the one she has come to regard as her own, is dysfunctional, even noxious in its own way.

At no point in the progression of The Librarian do you sense that Raghavan’s or Vidya’s love for books is spiralling into an obsession. Then again, isn’t that the inexorable nature of obsession itself? There is a recurrent note of foreboding that begins with Vidya’s narration of the incidents that led to Mrs Sen’s disappearance, eventually unravelling the delicate threads that hold the library together. The narrative takes its time in setting up the milieu and building pace, hurtling towards a finish that is at once expected and unpredictable. While the pace flags in the sections that go deeper into the logistics of running a library, it is also an insight into a world that the lay reader may not be privy to.

Rao strikes a delicate balance, sometimes tipped in favour of the bibliophiles, and sometimes in giving voice to those who believe that there is life outside the confines of a book. These other characters, who are not quite enamoured of books, are juxtaposed as obvious contrasts. It is to Rao’s credit that they don’t come across as conscience-keepers.

There is also a strong sense of place, a fierce fondness tinged with sorrow in the depiction of both The Macmillan as well as the city of Mumbai itself. The library, in some ways, reads like a metaphor for the city of dreams, exacting a toll on those who love and serve it, in return for the privilege of belonging.

The Librarian, Kavitha Rao, Kitaab.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.