My first encounter with a library was not a pleasant one. I was in the third standard and around eight years old. My father’s idea of a birthday present was to take me to Prabhat Circulating Library and Book Shop near the Kohinoor Mills Circle at Dadar. I was terribly excited when we stepped in because I thought I was going to get a book. I remember being rather disappointed when I discovered that instead my gift was a membership in the circulating library. I knew what I wanted: I am afraid I was taken in by the vibrant colour and the promise of excitement in a Donald Duck comic and a collection of Dennis the Menace cartoons. Donald Duck was a familiar character from the rare cartoon films at Shree Cinema. I had no idea then that the comics were boring, as I would discover a few years later. I didn’t even like Dennis the Menace much; but the need to possess, to own, was strong in me. This idea that one should take a book, read it, and then return it, was strange. It seemed like a pallid thing compared with the thrill of ownership and forever more.
My school did not have a library that could break me into the library habit. Each class had a collection of vaguely age appropriate books in the cupboard and these were distributed once a week in the so-called library period. Many of them were moralistic books about good children who gave up their pleasures for the poor and did other wonderful acts of piety. They did not hold me for long. And being handed a book by the class monitor from a pile of random books is scarcely likely to constitute a wonderful experience.
The next library I joined was at Elphinstone College. It must once have been a wonderful library but it had degenerated into a place where you might find old P. G.Wodehouses, their pages yellow with age and the wear and tear of generations of users. The Class IV staff ran the library, and the librarian was huddled somewhere deep inside it. It was closed access so you had to check the card catalogue for a book that you wanted—and you had to know what you wanted making the library a transactional place rather than a space of discovery and serendipity. Once you had located the book, if you could locate a book you wanted, you had to copy out all the information you wanted for say, Joy in the morning and hand it into the peon who would then vanish for an hour or so and then return with the wrong book.
The library often did not even have the books that were recommended on the syllabus. But it never occurred to those who constructed the syllabus in those days to check whether the books they suggested were available in the city or even in the country. In my final year of college, the sociology syllabus changed entirely and a new paper ‘The History of Social Thought’ was introduced. The main textbook prescribed was not available in India; this was before the Internet, much before even mobile telephony. And so the authorities actually sent out a notice to students asking them to contact their relatives abroad to send copies of the book. Some good soul in our class actually got in touch with a cousin who took the trouble to post the book out and she shared it with all of us. As you can see, I did not have much luck with libraries.
I joined the British Council Library when I was in my first year of degree college. I only got up the courage because my friend Mitali Majumdar was already a member and she said she would see me through the process. And it was a daunting process: you had to fill out a form and then there was a waiting period and finally you would be called and asked why you wanted to be a member of the British Council Library. An unkind woman asked me, “Why do you need the library?” I said I wanted to read books. This was the wrong answer according to her. “Yes, dear,” she said dripping sarcasm, “But if you are studying sociology why do you need British books? You need to read Indian books.” I shrugged but she let me pass into the hallowed portals of the library. It was very clear that they were doing you a favour and you should be grateful. (The United States Information Service, doing its bit for the Cold War, was much more accessible and much friendlier but its collection was much less interesting.)
There is another story which I think is illustrative of how we, as a nation, think of libraries. When the BCL closed down, an anguished parent emailed me to say: “You must protest this terrible thing they have done to our children. Where am I going to find another children’s library like the BCL?” I explained that I did not see how I could protest. Can we, in all fairness, hold the British government responsible for providing a reading space and good books and magazines and films for our children? Why are we not demanding this of our own government? I said as much to her and she wrote back in an aggrieved fashion, saying that the world was in a terrible state because of journalists like me who would not do their duty.
There is a moral in this somewhere, in the way the British Council turned people away and subjected each application to a ruthless scrutiny to ensure they weeded out the unwanted. Now the BCL, like many other libraries, is hanging on by its fingernails. At any moment, the funding may be cut and the whole thing will fall into the pit and the books will end up on the tables of one of those Rs 100-a-kilo sales at Sunderbai Hall.
As of the time of writing, the Mumbai version of the BCL is a virtual library run out of a go-down. They send you emails asking when you’re going to renew your subscription. This is a bit of cheek, actually. Because sometime down the line, I got a life membership. And when they closed the library’s physical space and went virtual, they declared that my membership had ended and I would have to take a new one. This was so unjust that I refused to have anything to do with them for years.
They are not the only ones who are intent on self-destruction. Almost every library in India seems to be designed to put people off. I recently became a trustee of the People’s Free Reading Room and Library, an old library in Mumbai. Subsequently, in a fit of generosity, I decided to become a member of every other library open to the public.
I started with a Parsi library in the Fort area and asked if I could become a patron member. The man at the desk, a surly sort, said I would need two members of the library in good standing to introduce me. I asked whether he could supply me with a list of the members. He said that he could not do that for reasons of confidentiality. I had no idea why anyone should want to keep their membership in a library confidential but I respected the sentiment if not the logic behind this. Could I speak to some of the members then? I asked. He said that this would disturb the members.I had a substantial cheque in my hands; I tore it up and left.
Other libraries were equally forbidding. One wanted copies of my academic record. Another asked for the usual two members to sign you in but only those who did not have any books that were overdue. It was hopeless. Quite clearly the libraries of Mumbai had no need of fresh members even as they keep up their steady moaning of dismay at how things are so different from the time when every young person wanted to read.
I know that young people do not want to read but I think there are many people who do want to read. There are many people who would like to join libraries. They are daunted, first by the architecture and then by the general air that the library is not for them, that they have to be worthy of the library.
This is, I believe, part of our inherent elitism. We kept the doors of our libraries so firmly closed against the barbarians who would misuse our spaces that we ended up with no one inside the doors. I am not constructing some kind of argument for the internet where it is the solution to this elitism. It has its own barriers: you must have a computer, you must know some English, you must have money for access to a cybercafé if nothing else.
But I do believe that the state of our libraries can be traced back to this attitude of exclusion. Being safely inside myself, I would like to keep you outside. So what if the air grows cold and musty and the books fall to pieces? It is my library and I will not have you using it.
If we would like students to return to reading, if we would like our young people to use our libraries, we are going to have to try and make them human in scale and humane in attitude. We are going to have to drop this idea that you have to be worthy of a library. But doing this may be much more difficult than finding sponsors and keeping the libraries on life support.