Booked for life!

The Bodleian Library, Oxford

I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card. Laura Bush.

The library card: Laura Bush, former first lady of the United States of America hit the nail on the head in assigning to this precious ticket such a generous accolade. Madam Bush’s claim to fame was not merely as the better half of George W. Bush (few would argue with that), but in her own right, she was widely regarded as an author, librarian and memoirist. Enough to be getting along with, I should think. When I came across this quote, quite by chance, it set me thinking about my college years in Calcutta. My wallet, if I did possess one, contained pocket money of around Rs.20/- in notes and coins, my college identity card and, you guessed it, my British Council and U.S.I.S. (United States Information Service) library membership cards. I had not the faintest what a credit or debit card even looked like, if at all they existed in the early 70s. I did have a driving licence, a bulky, little red booklet which permanently nestled in my dad’s car glove compartment. Having crossed 18, I got to zip around in the legendary Ambassador about twice a month, not without the family driver usually in tow. Failing which, transport meant Calcutta’s smoke-belching buses, its sedentary trams and brisk perambulation, if the distances were not forbidding. In sum, the two library cards, liberally date-stamped, were my sole prized possessions (if two cards can be characterised as ‘sole’).

In hot and steamy Calcutta, during the late 60s and 70s, with power cuts all day long being the norm, the library was a cool and cloistered haven to spend pleasurable hours in. For one thing, the air-conditioning ran even during what was laughably referred to as ‘load shedding,’ thanks to these foreign-funded   establishments being able to afford back-up generators. That alone was worth the price of the membership card. Our college too had a well-stocked library on the premises, but to move to the library in the same building complex where you had just spent five stultifying hours was not a pleasing prospect. You wanted to get the academic fug out of your system once the closing bell rang.

The British Council, being located in tony Theatre Road, later renamed quite appropriately to Shakespeare Sarani, was a mere ten minutes stroll from my college in nearby, swinging Park Street. The Council may not have been quite The Bodleian Library of legend, but good enough for us students. Wasting no time, off I would trudge to BC, as we fondly nicknamed the best library in town. Walking into the precincts of the library with the ‘whoosh’ of the air-conditioning washing all over you, was nothing short of ecstasy. Once inside, you took things as they came. No unseemly rush. Studious looking bookworms were bent over their tomes, some making feverish notes. Others would be strolling along the book racks, randomly picking up a book, putting it back and walking on to the next corridor of shelves. There were usually two or three librarians on duty, located in the well of the library, busily date stamping books being borrowed or being returned. If you were late in returning a book, even after the grant of an extra week’s extension, a small fine had to be paid, which the librarian accepted somewhat apologetically, as if to say, ‘Sorry, I understand you were down with chicken pox, but those are the rules. The due date is sacrosanct.’

Speaking of the librarians on duty, invariably there would be an attractive lady doing the honours along with a couple of earnest looking gentlemen. The younger male visitors to the library would invariably try and make a beeline for the fetching lady librarian, often repeatedly going back to her to ask silly questions.

‘Excuse me Madam, but where would I find Kingsley Amis?’ That’s about as silly as it gets in a library.

‘Did you try the A to D Section?’

‘Ah thanks, I was looking at the K section. You know, Kingsley.’

‘Books are stacked as per the author’s surname and not first name,’ she replies tartly. ‘You’ve been a member long enough.’

The poor sap is not sure if he should be blushing at the unmistakable ticking off or be happy that she remembers him to be a long-time member. He is not finished, however. Glutton for punishment.

‘And what if I am looking for a book title, and not sure of the author’s name? Say, The Code of the Woosters. Do I go to C and hunt for Code of the Woosters, The or should I go to T looking for The Code of the W? Sorry to bother with you all these silly, but necessary questions.’

‘Not at all. I have all day and nothing better to do than to answer all your silly questions. You said that. There’s only another twenty people standing patiently behind you in the queue. Tell you what, go to the W section and look for Wodehouse P.G. You’ll find it there, unless it’s out. I take it you have heard of that author, since you seem to know the book title. And further, I could also recommend, if you visit the C section, The Body in the Library by Christie, Agatha.’

The young visitor couldn’t put a finger on it, but felt she sounded quite threatening. There was an edge to her voice and she spoke through clenched teeth. He took the hint seeing as she was getting quite shirty, and responded calmly.

‘Thanks a lot. I shall visit the W section and look for Wodehouse and not Wooster. I shall give The Body in the Library a wide berth. Be ready with your date stamping machine, miss. And if you are not a miss, do forgive me.’ He was now blabbering. He could have added, a la Tony Hancock, ‘I suppose Lolita is still out,’ but thought better of it.

I guess the point I am attempting to make is that the library was not just a quiet, comfortable place to browse, borrow and return books but was also an excellent forum for enlightening exchanges like the one I just narrated. The Council recruited librarians who were more than just mechanical dispensers of books. They were lively personalities who had something about them. Lest we forget, young boys and girls often met surreptitiously in the library, pretentiously pretending to be reading The Catcher in the Rye or The Lord of the Flies, books that were not only in vogue, but calculated to impress the hell out of your girl or boy friend, as the case may be. From there to popping round the corner for a cup of cheap tea and a puff of Charms was but a simple step.

Another section in the library that many of us made a beeline for was the newspaper section. All the main English newspapers from London were filed in long, wooden slats for us to be able to read in comfort. They were back issues, of course, but it was always a pleasure to read The Guardian or The Times, particularly the Sports pages and some Opinion columns. The Sunday editions were so thick you had to lift them carefully if you suffered from a bad back. Excellent reportage and incisive insights. Mind you, what Margaret Thatcher thought of the Labour Party was of scant concern to me, but it was great fun reading her quotes. ‘The lady’s not for turning,’ being one of her memorable one-liners.

Later on, BC added a selection of long-playing records at a nominal additional charge. Not The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, not on your nelly! However, audio recordings of plays by G.B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde and their ilk were made available. I do fondly recall borrowing Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest with a superb cast headed by the likes of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, playing it at home on our Grundig radiogram till the grooves almost ran out. Nowadays all this and much more are freely available at the tap of a key on YouTube. The pleasure of obtaining something rare one experienced in the days when YouTube was not even remotely visualised, can only be experienced wearing the proverbial rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

I mentioned the U.S.I.S earlier in this piece. The American library was not my favourite destination of choice. Unlike the British Council, it was located in a very busy and crowded area of Calcutta. Every area in Calcutta was crowded and this one even more so. Nevertheless, they had an outstanding collection of records of American jazz and popular musicals. So once a month or so, I would set out to the U.S.I.S and go home with an armful of Broadway musicals like West Side Story or Camelot and some rare vinyl records of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Once in a way, the U.S.I.S also organised film shows of rare classics featuring the likes of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca. The small auditorium was invariably packed to the rafters.

I do not know when I last visited a library. Do today’s young generation even know what the inside of a library looks like? I have wondered about that. As one wise man recently said, ‘Many authors are selling books by the truckloads, but most well-furnished households have books on their shelves which have not even been opened, leave alone read. The expression ‘well-thumbed’ book has ceased to hold any meaning. I mentioned Tony Hancock a little earlier in this column. To those who are unaware, go to YouTube and punch in ‘Tony Hancock – The Missing Page.’ If you do not laugh your guts out, you are not a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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9 Comments

  1. brings back memories of my own. favorite one is of a hole-in-the-wall USIS in Jabalpur, which my father discovered on one of his explorations of the city. He discovered Isaac Asimov’s books on science. The librarian was partial to my father, who was the only patron who asked for specific titles that had to be ordered from the Delhi or elsewhere. Together, my dad and I learnt about the double helix and the big bang.
    Thanks Suresh for sharing your memories.

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  2. Loved it. I don’t think there are many good libraries left in Bangalore. Even the British library closed down during the first wave of the pandemic.

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  3. It’s wonderful to have you writing about happier times in Calcutta, despite the “load-shedding”. BC and USIS certainly reignite some happy memories. Nice one, Suresh.

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  4. Thanks for your piece on Libraries. We built the American Library in Hyderabad which at the time was the largest in Asia. It too had to close down due to Budgets being cut. As the Director pointed out , the cost of making one nuclear bomb is equal to all the American libraries in the world!

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