The Enchanted Room: Remembering Childhood Libraries

If a book is a dream that you hold in your hand, then a library is a collective embrace. A library isn’t just a room that is filled with books, but each book a room within a room, waiting to be explored. Sweet nothings between two lovers, a thrilling car chase, fantasy lands – a library allow you to be a witness in these rooms.

Aastha, 17 years, 2017


In the small, sleepy town of Cuttack, summer is long. Too long or so they say. The sun glares down at you, the sweat sticks to your skin and there is little you can do outside. I don’t remember the heat so much because I escaped into a different world through books.

Growing up in a joint family with 20 members at any given point and more in a state of influx, I craved a space for myself, for my dreams to soar. They did – through the hundreds of books I borrowed from my school library and the personal collection of my father’s cousin. When I was in the middle of a book, I became anti-social – at least my mother complained that I did. Time, space and people did not matter.

That was during the holidays. During school days there was only one thing I really looked forward to – the library period. Once a week for 45 minutes. It would take us around seven minutes to march up to the library room, three to settle down and another precious 10 minutes for the librarian to call attendance. My heart would protest at this waste of time. But I still had 25 minutes to browse and select one book to borrow for the week. One book? One book would never do for my insatiable appetite. So I quickly picked my book and spent the rest of the time trying to influence what books my friends borrowed. Therein followed arguments about why they should read a certain book, and why I recommended certain titles. Discussions on likes and dislikes ensued till we were hushed into silence by the librarian with a strict bun and a permanent frown. Of course I do not remember her name!

Sometimes the library felt solitary. Everyone borrowed. Not everyone read. Not everyone talked about books. Often I would feel like something was missing. Here I was in this magical world full of stories, stories waiting to be read and shared. I craved lengthy discussions on books and ideas, curious to find out more from someone who had read more than I. But many questions remained unanswered. There was never an adult to negotiate these conversations.

I wonder if my library had been more than just a collection of good books, would I have become a different person – more collaborative, more open to different ideas, more patient?

A library isn’t just a place where one goes to read books. It is a place for sharing, for asking and answering questions, for feeding the imagination. It is a place for travelling into the many worlds that can only be opened with doors made of paper and a welcome mat sewed together with ink. Travel alone or travel together…

Aastha, 17 years, 2017


A couple of years ago, I came upon a new outlet of the library chain, Just Books, in a bylane in the western suburbs of Mumbai. I paused on the pavement outside, holding the arrival of a local library in my heart like a warm secret. Through the glass front I watched the librarian sift through the books that were in cartons and arrange them on the shelves, and I recalled how, in the summer of my eleventh year, I was a librarian too.

My friends, Anu, Sriram, Ranju, Balaji, my sister Adithi, and I, started a lending library in the garage of Meera’s house. Meera lived in number 46, while the rest of us lived in houses across from hers on second cross lane, Vasant Nagar. Our city was called Bangalore, in those days green and serene, less city and more town-like.  

Meera was a soft-spoken, studious girl, so dear to her father’s heart that he parked his car on the street outside and gave us the use of his garage for a library. We loved to read as much as we loved playing together, so that summer we pooled our books, and led by the oldest – Anu, 14 years old and gregarious – lined our much-thumbed-through Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and Tarzan comics, and Enid Blyton series along old shoe racks that we’d decided to use as shelves.  We named it Bluebells Library. How could we not! In those days, books like The Faraway Tree and Adventures of Mister Pinkwhistle were as much part of our daily fare as sambaar-rice; the image of blue, bell-shaped flowers, blossoming along pleasant, wooded paths, danced in our oily crew-cut or pig-tailed heads in the tropical heat of Bangalore.

Word got around and our friends (and their friends) from in and around Vasant Nagar trooped into Bluebells Library. We took turns to play librarian, chatting about the books, issuing and making a note of them in a ruled register and collecting payments of 50 paise per book. To shift from being a reader of books to becoming a provider of story magic was terribly exciting. We did our duty as the local librarians officiously … perhaps too much so, for the day 10-year-old Balaji decided to take his favourite comics back home, a fight broke out.

What started with Anu ordering him to keep them right back, became a scuffle in the hallowed space between the bookshelves. Balaji yanked Anu’s long braid and she grabbed a fistful of his summer mop in her fist. In the meanwhile someone fetched Balaji’s sister, Ranju, who came charging in to drag him away from the fight. But then Balaji’s precious wristwatch fell to the floor and its glass broke. Sobbing, he retrieved all his books from the shelves. We stood by, stunned and sorry, and allowed him to trudge on home.    

While the rest of us had stood watching the fight, Meera had slipped indoors. Shaken by the violence, she refused to come out for the rest of the afternoon. We received orders from her family to dismantle the shelves of Bluebells Library. The space that had crackled with books and conversation went cold. It returned to being a green-walled garage.  

We grew into adults. Meera continued to live in Number 46, renovating the house and raising her children there; Anu, Balaji and Sriram moved abroad to live and work; Adithi moved to a suburb of Bangalore. She and I became authors. We wrote a collection of short stories called Growing Up in Pandupur, etching in incidents and spaces of our years in Vasant Nagar. Books haven’t left my life. I continue to buy for my own bookshelf and browse among my friends’ books. I’m certain Anu, Sriram, Balaji, Meera and Adithi, like me, have gone on to discover great stories in others’ precious collections. And have dispensed story-magic to friends in their turn.

”You must read this. It’s a real find! But don’t you dare let your kid dog-ear or spill something on it!”  

In each booklover lingers the librarian and the member. So despite the dearth of actual library spaces, our childhood practice of sharing and savoring books carries on.

Read the complete version here

When I was new in a school and did not have any friends, Library was there for me. The new school seemed like a foreign land where no one spoke my language. But the magical room full of books was there, listening to me, talking with me. The rooms of the books made me feel I belonged.

Aastha, 17 years, 2017

SAAD, Saudi Arabia, 1990s

I grew up in an oil-rich desert where books were as rare as water. The only place where I could buy them was the city’s largest mall, which, to my dismay, had significantly more varieties of frozen parathas than books. While most publications were in a language that I could not read, every weekend, I would rush there to buy a children’s magazine in English that would be shipped in from a relatively cosmopolitan city a thousand kilometres away.

Despite the scarcity, we had decent access to the printed word. During my early years, there was no cable television in the neighbourhood and books were the most traded commodity among children. The first ‘book’ I laid my hands on was an Archie comic that my sister had borrowed from her classmate. I don’t think I understood a word owing to my limited comprehension and the rampant Americanisms, but I was suitably impressed by the illustrations. Instantly hooked, I tried to read whatever I could find – Tinkle, Pinky, Chacha Chaudhary and Champak. The Tintin and Asterix series were the caviar of the comic world – hard to find, expensive and difficult to digest.

These books were amassed during the summer vacation when we would visit our native countries. Although I then associated India primarily with squalor, squat toilets and power cuts, it was also the land of bookshops. In my hometown, there were plenty of stores brimming with books. And my favourite was a lone stall in a tailors’ market, whose indulgent owner allowed you to exchange books you did not like! In a few years, my sister and I built what then seemed like a sizeable collection, but we were at a loss as to where to keep it. But soon, Indian jugaad kicked in and a malfunctioning refrigerator housed our literary repository.

A few years after I started reading, I discovered something that made the scarcity of books a bygone thing. I don’t remember how old I was, but one day in school, we were made to stand in a line with fingers on our lips (that did not do much to quieten us) and carted off to a hitherto unexplored corner of the building. To my surprise, this was not like the other rooms in school – here the walls were not festooned with chart paper or a blackboard, but with ceiling-to-floor-long shelves bending under the weight of books. And what’s more, you could even take your favourites home for weeks! Within a matter of weeks, ‘library’ occupied a much sought after grid in the rectangular cells of the timetable in my school diary.

I now live in Delhi, where I have the luxury of ample bookshops and libraries, including one in my neighbourhood. Over the years, I’ve also amassed a collection of about 1,300 books. While most have become termite feed in my ancestral home, a precious few are at my space-starved barsati in Delhi. In a rather accidental, but befitting, homage to my first literary collection, the books are now stored in shelves in the kitchen.

The Japanese have a word for realizing the expanse of the universe that triggers a deep emotional response. Yugen. Library is a place where I experience Yugen. Sometimes, when our universe intersects with another’s within a book or in the Library, beautiful things materialise.

Aastha, 17 years, 2017


What is the ‘substance’ of place? What do I mean by ‘Goa’, when I say that we lived there for a few years during my son Advay’s early childhood? Many things, of course, but perhaps most concretely I mean a very specific web of people, places and moments that mattered and continue to matter. Among these, for us, for all three of us and not just Advay, has been Bookworm, a very special children’s library. In fact, Advay says Goa increasingly means ‘Bookworm’ for him, as his friendships from early childhood fade.

Bookworm may call itself a library, but it is much more than that. Advay stepped into Bookworm as a three year old and fell in love with the place and its animating spirits, the librarians. Now a teenager and a voracious reader since the age of six or so, he recalls BW as a ‘nice’ environment: ‘everybody was happy… we could do fun things, we could read’. ‘Time would fly in Bookworm,’ he says. Advay spent many late afternoons, and Saturday mornings, at the big art table in the activity room discovering the quiet pleasures of cutting and folding paper, coloring and staining, and making things with other children under an adult’s affectionate and artistic direction. It was not all indoor fun, there were summer camps that Advay recalls: ‘we even went on a field trip into the city once’. But suddenly, as if to pre-empt an anticipated interpretive expansion of his account he hastens to add: but look it is basically a library!

No, you don’t, my son.

Our experience with Bookworm is a glimpse into the possibilities of a library, the possibilities of world-building. Try naming places in any Indian city that children genuinely feel belong to them. My wife, Malini observes that Bookworm’s practised philosophy is simple: anyone who crosses its threshold, child or grown-up, is made to feel special. Before they know it, they happily become part of the bigger project in small and big ways. Advay took his time – or so it seemed to us – to really get into books. But Malini remembers him sitting entranced watching a puppet show based on a book for little kids and participating actively in a play, based on a reading for older children. By offering a warm and lively environment where things were always happening – but in which books remained the main event – Bookworm certainly eased him into a ‘booklove’ that finally matured only three years after he first stepped into the library.

As much a place for children, Bookworm showed us that a library can also become a place and vantage from which to think about and act for children – and for children to act in and through too, maybe – as people who matter now, and not just in the future (as the proverbial ‘good citizens’). Strangely though, something Advay says makes me think that Bookworm may even be active in shaping various senses of citizenship and socialisation among its many young (and old) snehis. It has been difficult to get him to say much about Bookworm, as if he fears spoiling a good thing by thinking too much about it. But, when I ask him, as a desperate effort, for lessons from the Bookworm experience, he says, ‘If the library is good, children associate reading with fun – theory! [laughs] – and then they come back for more. They will take the people seriously too, maybe…’ I know exactly what he doesn’t fully say. Among the many things we took back from Bookworm were what we thought were great mantras: ‘use your words, please’, ‘indoor voice, please’ or ‘why don’t you draw on this paper’ when a child was planning to scribble on a wall. Bookworm’s grown-ups deployed these with great success in teaching children to have a rocking time, yet handle books and things with care, clean up after they were done, resolve their disagreements without getting physical.

Bookworm is actually as much for grown-ups as it is for children. I am as convinced of this, as I am of the belief that children’s books are secretly meant for adults: I could never get enough of the imaginative stories, artwork and design of so many books I would leaf through, purportedly to help Advay (who would sort of shrug and move on to look for Thomas the something Engine). Malini spent many hours at home indulging her new-found love of restoring Bookworm’s incredible stock of ‘lift the flap’ books that were not in circulation due to small missing pieces. And on the balcony of the St. Inez flat, I remember (still unfulfilled) promises to myself to borrow from two shelves with a wonderful collection for grown-ups, once I was ‘free’. Equally, it was the friendships, and conversations that were sustained and developed in Bookworm that I am thinking of. Above all, Bookworm remains an inspiration to keep the faith in personal projects and, Malini points out, the possibility of making the impossible happen over and over again!

It is going on seven years since we physically left the little state of Bookworm, but Bookworm still comes to us through a fitfully periodic box of thirty books carefully chosen (okay, curated) for Advay. The box is inevitably delayed in return, and we make pious promises to ourselves not to let the fines add up to a ‘seriouser’ and seriouser’ figure. We fail. But we remain friends for good, and keep looking forward to more.

A library’s community doesn’t just extend to people. There are people, who you never talk to, but you share an intimate bond with, of a book connecting you. In the library is a safety net interwoven with ink and dog-eared pages of books.  The net is enmeshed with memory, talk, silence and shared reading, making it the most precious of bonds.

Aastha, 17 years, 2017

Photographs from ‘Nostalgia’ series by Reshma Pritam Singh

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