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.