Wherever people habitually congregate, that is a potential site for a library.
– S R Ranganathan, The Five Laws of Library Science (1931)
Illustration: Alia Sinha
In anti-intellectual cultures, or cultures that prioritise the so-called everyday business of living over reading—more particularly life in the survival mode—reading is often seen as taking time off from life, and thus a luxury. Historically, reading has been seen as a proxy form of living, sort of like today’s social media. Marcel Proust tried to break apart this polarised view of living versus reading by calling attention to the relationship between childhood reading and its many interruptions — a friend coming to play, dinnertime, sun glinting in your eye, etc. These interruptions might have seemed annoying at the time, but according to Proust, they are what made the memory of reading so sweet in the first place. The reader is haunted by the world that is filtered out while reading. Proust does not recall the books he read, merely the physical and emotional landscape in which he read them, seen through the eyes of the author, as it were. Life and literary landscape are foregrounded and made memorable precisely because of their mutual conflict and intrusion.
In the colonial Hindi world of childhood reading, there never seems to be any solitude or space to separate the pleasure of reading from the pleasure of interruptions. But this did not mean that children were discouraged to read or that their reading was considered a deterrent to the actual business of living. In what seems to be an impossible task, they were expected to carry on both tasks simultaneously. At least this is the evidence we get from children’s magazines like Balsakha, Banar (Allahabad) or Balak (Lehriya Sarai and Patna) from the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The vernacular printing boom initiated by Nawal Kishore Press (Lucknow), the Indian Press (Allahabad) and sundry others used the subscription mode (via the postal service) as the prime means of reaching its audience. Indian Press promoted special series such as the Saraswati series or the Daku Mohan series through attractive offers in which subscribing to the first few books ensured the supply of the entire series. The children’s magazine was a particularly popular offering. One could say that these serialised publications available on mass subscription acted like a circulating library — a cheap home delivery system, which moreover did not require the books to be returned. Thus instead of seeking out the solitude and silence of the library, children were encouraged to read in their homes. The idea of a physical library affording public access to unlimited books was replaced with the idea of an identifiable set of books and magazines made available in the midst of the crowded home and mohalla — the printed object being read aloud and shared as a community.
It is relevant that this is the time when the library movement was flourishing in the bigger metropolises as well as in the southern parts of the country. The Calcutta Public Library (est. 1836) and the Madras Literary Society (est. 1818) had both paying members as well as a policy that permitted entry gratis to students and ‘respectable strangers visiting the City’. According to Prashant Iyengar, the library movement came gradually to be associated with the rise of anti-colonial nationalism, adult education and cultural renaissance in the first half of the twentieth century. In the Hindi belt, this kind of library space was perhaps realised only within the walls of the prison—only the self-taught political prisoner had access to isolation and a public fund of books.
The reading fostered through the children’s magazines involved a different engagement with the public sphere and an entirely different notion of selfhood and intimacy with books. The magazine was like a shiny new toy that everyone scrambled to grab. The struggle for ownership made reading an antagonistic exercise, in which one had to fight or spar with a whole community. In the hope of increasing their sales, the editors further stoked the exasperated complaints of child after child pleading for their own individual subscriptions so that the magazine would not be shared with siblings and neighbours. While literacy and nationalist goals were important and often interlinked, the child reader was concerned with more immediate and local issues, which usually involved a desire of self-recognition. It could be the desire to win the prize for solving the math puzzle or have one’s letter to the editor or photograph published. The reading space was not intended for solitary reflection in any case.
The child reader was always crowded. The father helped to solve the puzzle. The brother snatched the magazine from the sister’s hands. The boy complained to the editor that his cousins teased him about being fat and if that was why his photo was not getting published. The editor was constantly berated for playing favorites and taking bribes as news travelled of who was and was not getting published.
There was discontent with the reality of crowding, but there was also a relish in crowded places. Even as kids were squabbling with and criticizing their adult caregivers, the contest also enabled a sense of intimacy with the people they were fighting against. Adults were, after all, making possible that space of critique. Thus the world of early childhood reading in Hindi could be credited with producing children who were uninhibited, and freely talked back to adults, but obeyed them in matters concerning more momentous life choices. For instance, the teenage Amritlal Nagar agreed to give up participating in the civil disobedience movement after his father guilted him with the prospect of his younger brothers’ threatened career options. The logic advanced was that while he had secured a fat dowry thanks to his early marriage in a wealthy household, his brothers had to fend for themselves.
There is no doubt that the crowded child reader gained in sociability and worldliness, but the impromptu library located in the domestic courtyard simultaneously robbed him of an alternative world free from the pressures of survival or the exchange relation. While the home was the place for leisure reading, the library became associated with informational access and passing exams, an association that continues to this day.
This theme of reading not as limitless pleasure but rather as transitory use-value was epitomised by S.R. Ranganathan, the pioneer of the library science movement in his first law of library science, namely that “books are for use”. It envisioned a relationship with books divested of their sacred and antiquarian quality; not simply to be shelf-decoration but grounded in an everyday need.
While Ranganathan does not say this, his vision of anti-preservation implies the possibility of developing an iconoclastic attitude towards books — not simply the physical desecration of books as they pass through multiple hands, something that happens on a routine basis —but a potential for fulfilling the meanings to which books only serve as introductions. It is a potential for a Proustian tough love bound in the wisdom that reading might bring us to the threshold of spiritual life, but it does not constitute it.