Thursday, October 29, 2009

Library memories

Libraries have always been my most favourite place in the world. I remember going to the British Council Library in Dar es Salaam with my dad when I was 7 or 8 years old and wanting very desperately to live there. I might be mistaken, but the library might not have been big enough to have a separate children’s section, or I was too young to have my own membership – either way, what it meant was that my dad had to check a book out on his card for me. I went through a series of “coloured” collections of fairy tales by Andrew Lang (and no, I didn’t know what his name was until I googled the book titles some time back) – the Red Fairy Book, the Blue Fairy Book, the green, the lilac, the pink, and so on. I remember trying to greedily read as much as I could while my dad made his selection, because I knew I could only take one book at a time… and then I would have to wait till the next time my dad returned to the library before I could get another. (For those who want to read the fairy tales, they are all *hip hip hurrah* online here. Isnt the Internet absolutely the most FABULOUS invention?)

I didn’t get my own membership at the British Council Library till we settled in Madras. It was a long trip to get to Mount Road from where I lived, involving two bus changes on really crowded routes... and only one or two bus services with which I was familiar stopped right outside the lane that led to the library. So it was a very hit and miss affair, and quite often I would have to walk all the way back from the Quaid-e-Millath College bus stop. I was more than willing to take all this in stride, as it were, and did - but all that effort for just 3 books at a time seemed unfair. We were also only allowed to keep them for 2 weeks - I think. (It might have been 3.) That didn’t matter to me, in any case, as I was usually back there in a couple of days, having finished reading my measly quota in no time.

Membership at the British Council was not free, and every year it got more and more expensive. I couldn't afford a one-time lifetime payment, so it was a yearly renewal. And yet I couldn’t bear to not continue with it, because the alternative – the American Consulate library – was such a poor fish in contrast. Membership there was free, so naturally I went there as well to borrow books. But the selection there was narrow-minded in the extreme. I mean, they only stocked classic novels and plays by classic American authors. (Yeah I know, it was the library at the American Consulate – but so what? The BCL, despite being part of the British Embassy, had books by writers from all countries... including America!)

My objection here was not so much to the classics (which I read anyway) as to the fact that there wasn’t any popular contemporary fiction at all. Not even by American authors! Not that it stopped me – some of my favourite authors happen to be American, like Mark Twain. And I also loved the books they had on journalism and editing. (I read them like storybooks – they were funny and sarcastic with their examples of editing errors... and the sections on reporters and reporting were pretty far removed from my personal experience of reporters - most, not all - and their reporting techniques. They were good for a giggle.)

But getting back to the BCL, as a student of English Literature, I felt it incumbent upon myself to watch the BBC dramatisations of Shakespeare’s plays. I pretended to do it for the sake of my college education, but usually I chose plays that appealed to me, not necessarily the ones we were “doing” in class. It was quite difficult to get a chance to watch the videos as there were only 3 or 4 TVs per three or four dozen members who wanted to watch something or the other at any given time. So on the rare occasions that I managed to get one of those coveted seats, I made it my business to not move my butt until I’d got through an entire play at a time – three or four hours of relentless watching, with the attendant who changed the video tape for us occasionally saying somewhat hopelessly “Adhuththa dharam paarkalamey ma” (“You can watch it the next time, dear”). Watch it the next time? Hah! No way I was going to give up my turn halfway through a play, especially after a long wait, and with no idea when the “aduththa dharam” would happen!

My biggest grouse with the BCL was the limit on books, though. When my sister, after moving to the US, called to say that library membership there was free and she could take as many books as she wanted, every single time, my envy knew no bounds. That seemed the very ideal of heaven... and much as I tried to douse the flames of envy by telling myself that the downside was that she probably got to read ONLY American authors, that sour grapes attitude didn’t really work.

So when I got a job in Singapore, and discovered that I could take an unlimited number of books from the library, from whichever branch I happened to be closest to, and return them the same way without ever having to go through a librarian for either service (you checked out your own books and dropped them down a chute when returning them) – believe me, I was in hog heaven! It was definitely one of the biggest perks of living in that country.

Here in the UK, membership is free at my local library and I am officially allowed a maximum of 10 books at a time. I say officially, because apart from one curmudgeonly man who is inflexible on the “rules”, enforcing them like a petty dictator, most of the library staff turn a blind eye to my taking up to 15 books. They know me (and why wouldn’t they, I’m there every week!), they like that I enjoy reading so much, and they don’t mind bending the rules a little for such an enthusiastic user. After all, I don’t damage books, I pay any fines that crop up from time to time, I pay the reservation charges even before I collect the books... and if a library isn’t there to lend books to members (even if *shock horror* it’s over the official limit), what else is it there for?


rads said...

Lovely post and I am so totally with you with the BCL experience.

You guys have limits on checking books out? :O we don't out here, not in our county at least. ..and its usually 3 weeks, unless it's a new book, then it's 2, and w ecan renew twice unless there's a hold on it.

Kids volunteer there since 2 years, and it's a fairly busy well stocked library, so book are a plenty! *i know am rubbing it in :P *

Teesu (very very Indian, very very good) said...

Wow! You should be the apple of any library's eye!

Uttara said...

Hey thanks for the Lang link! I devoured those books when I was small.

Anonymous said...

that's what i missed most in doha for 8 years. till georgetown uni qatar campus opened its library to the public. i feel terrible for those who don't have the library experience... even on the shortest of breaks, O is taken to lending libraries in the neighbourhood.
oh, and it's my dream to start one here. esply for kids. you've really got me all miserable about the lack of good libraries here.

Kamini said...

Oh, Shyam, what a lovely post! Just like you, I spent HOURS at the British Council library in Madras. And yes, the American Library was such a poor cousin in comparison, with all those earnestly boring books on Democracy and Capitalism. This brought back such nice memories!

Lekhni said...

I shared your BCL experience too :)

But can I rub it in some more about US libraries ? What are "reservation charges"? Here, you can reserve as many books as you want for free - and do it online too! You even get library books delivered by mail. Or you can download audio books. Oh, and I even borrow Hindi movie DVDs. All free. Yes, I am in library heaven :)

Lekhni said...

I shared your BCL experience too :)

But can I rub it in some more about US libraries ? What are "reservation charges"? Here, you can reserve as many books as you want for free - and do it online too! You even get library books delivered by mail. Or you can download audio books. Oh, and I even borrow Hindi movie DVDs. All free. Yes, I am in library heaven :)

Sunita said...

When I was small (and even now too, though small isn't what even the most short-sighted would call me), my idea of the perfect job was in a library. Overflowing with books was my idea of heaven. sigh!
And now I live in suburban Mumbai where there isn't a single library, unless it's a video library stacked with Hindi films and the most lurid covers :P
There, do you see how lucky you are with your "maximum 10 books"? You've made me so jealous!
Oh, I remember The American Consulate library in Madras (do I really have to call it Chennai?)too. Mainly because it was close to my college and as lowly hostelites we were doomed to just a couple of hours of 'outing time' per week. And that was just not enough when you're surrounded by books.

Suganya said...

oh!! I was just browsing the net and got into your blog.
Being a Madrasi for over 24 yrs, I've never enrolled myself to BCL or American Consulate Library (I know.. now dont pound on me). Though I must say I am into books and read a lot. I had a library ( a private one) near to my home and I use to get books from them. Sign up is Rs.100 (Beleive me ... !!!). But the catch is, whenever we take books we have to pay a certain amount .. say Rs.5 to even Rs. 25, depends on the value of the book. I remember myself paying a lot and getting all those books. Your post reminds me of old days. Well, now being in US, I have a free membership with no limit of how many books I take. Isnt it lovely??

Sue said...

THANK YOU for the Andrew Lang link. :)

Anonymous said...

WOW...looks like I found a person just like me - when it comes to books!

I once wished I could live in the library too - I still do!

If I imagine heaven, it would be a library!