In the summer of 2012, I met a man I consider to be one of India’s bravest. This man, Madhukar Rao, was not a soldier at our borders or a sportsman aiming for gold. He was an unremarkable, greying librarian in charge of the Hardayal Municipal Library near New Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk. The Hardayal was founded in 1862, and it showed every bit of its age. The building was dilapidated; the insect-ridden books piled messily on shelves. There was no air conditioning, and the nearly deserted 150-year-old reading room was like a furnace in the brutal Delhi summer.
And yet, inside were treasures. A 1676 edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World; a Persian version of the Mahabharata, written by a vizier of Akbar; a Quran produced by Aurangzeb, and 16th century maps of London. The library seemed tiny, but it had over 170,000 books in six languages.
At the time I visited, the staff had not been paid for over six months. The electricity bill was due to be cut off. The funding the library received from the government was now in dispute, and nobody except the librarians themselves seemed to be keen on keeping it going. When I spoke to librarians of other heritage libraries, to do a larger story, they complained that they were expected to turn a profit, as if libraries were corporations. The average member was over 60 years old. The young were not interested in reading for pleasure, they said. All they cared about was passing exams.
I wrote about the Hardayal, and I expected to move on, but the story would not let me go. Over the years, the idea grew in my mind like a seed. Until it became The Librarian, my novel on a librarian battling to save a heritage library in Mumbai. The Hardayal became the Macmillan, but the struggles are similar. In my book, the chief librarian, Shekhar Raghavan, echoes the words of the librarian Madhukar Rao: “Who cares about books in this country?"
What indeed? I grew up visiting libraries. My father, a man of extremely wide reading tastes, was one of those rare Indian parents who thought reading was far more important than marks (my marks reflected that). In the Bangalore of my teens, traffic was sparse and one could easily drive to the other end of the city. “That was the beginning of my great love affair with the Macmillan," writes my heroine, the appropriately named Vidya, in The Librarian, mirroring my own passionate love affairs with the many libraries I have visited over the years.
No more. Both my children are readers. And yet, they know nothing of the deep pleasures of a library. The nearest good library is an hour or more away in choking traffic, if we are lucky. And many libraries have now been taken over by coaching materials, or so run down and outdated that they are deeply unattractive to young people. Until recently, the massive Karnataka State Central Library in Bangalore did not even have a catalogue. Who visits the Asiatic in Mumbai anymore, or the David Sassoon, except once a year for literary festivals?
“Why not just Kindle it or go to Just Books?" ask many young and, of course, privileged, people. Because libraries aren’t just about getting books as quickly as possible. They are about recognizing that access to books—the most life changing of resources—should be available to everybody, especially those who can’t afford Kindles and Just Books.
This debate recently played out on Twitter. British author Cressida Cowell, the writer of the much-loved How to Train Your Dragon books, asked, “Public libraries are closing. How are children from low income families to become readers for pleasure?" American journalist Andre Walker tweeted in response, “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools."
Walker was met with a storm of dissent, from librarians and lovers of libraries, who pointed out that libraries don’t just provide books. They serve as a gathering place for the community, a haven for the poor and homeless, a space for latchkey kids, a resource for job-seekers and a provider of everything from cheap access to the internet to English learning services. As librarian Alex Halpern tweeted, “Libraries are one of the last government spaces trusted by marginalised people."
Indian libraries could perform similar functions; they have in the past. Vidya sees the Macmillan as a refuge, an escape from her non-reading family. But there’s a reason my book is set over a decade ago. Libraries have become curiosities, not public utilities. It’s a vicious circle; the young don’t go to libraries because they see no value, and without members or government support, the libraries have no funds to provide value.
There is occasionally some good news. The Hardayal has recently secured some funding, though it may not be nearly enough. After years of neglect, the Karnataka State Library is embarking on digitization. The wonderful Community Library Project in Delhi and Gurgaon is trying to popularize free libraries offering access to all.
But libraries are still very low on our list of national priorities. Who does go to libraries? We need to fix it so that everyone—from the old to the young—may want to.
Kavitha Rao is the author of The Librarian (Rs299, pp. 288), published by Kitaab Publications and available here.
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Extract from The Librarian
It was raining when Mrs Sen, the assistant librarian, went missing; that sudden, hurtling, blood-warm rain that is unique to Bombay. The frantic drops pelted down on us, like silvery spears flung to the ground. In years to come, I could almost believe that she had simply gotten lost, and that she would find her way back eventually. When I sat at my desk, I could hear the familiar clink of her tiffin box, that cheery voice; her faint rheumatic groans as she shuffled between the shelves, that subtle aroma of Cuticura powder and Boroline. The ruffling sound as she went through our old-fashioned index card system to find a book; the barely heard scratch of her prized Sheaffer pen on pristine handmade paper.
But she never did come back.
To understand how I got here, I must start at the beginning. I first walked into the Macmillan Society library at the age of ten. From the minute I walked in, I was seduced, enthralled, spirited away.
The library was built in a style that I would later recognise as Victorian Gothic, but as a child, simply thought of as awe-inspiring. The building was all soaring columns, arching porticos, and leering gargoyles, yet so delicately built that it looked like a sugary wedding cake that would dissolve with the next rain. It was topped with pointy turrets and spires, like the castle in Sleeping Beauty. It stood at the top of a sweeping flight of stairs.
A few years later, when I read Gone with the Wind, I thought that this must be how Tara looked. And I understood the deep, obsessive, deranged love that Scarlett O’ Hara had for Tara. I loved the Macmillan too, equally obsessively. I would come to regret that love. I would wish that I had loved a man, or money, or my family; anything rather than a building.
I crossed paths with the Macmillan only by random chance; the kind of good luck that happens only once or twice in a lifetime. I might so easily have gone elsewhere, to the British Council or another posher, more modern library. I was a lonely child like most only children, doubly lonely because my conservative Gujarati parents could not understand my passion for books. I had been born after they had been married 15 years, and my first real memories are of being crushed by the heavy weight of their expectations. My father was a substantial, domineering man who lived up to his imposing name, Mansukhbhai Dhanwantlal Patel. He worked in the family diamond business, like his father and grandfather before him. My mother, Sejal, was a housewife, who had a second and flourishing career as a chronic hypochondriac and TV addict. We lived in Walkeshwar, in an enviable seaview flat too big for the three of us, chock-full of marble, chandeliers, red velvet and gold-plated “showpieces", as my mother called them. Our family was arrayed around us, layer upon suffocating layer of chachis, mamas and buas.
My parents named me Vidya, because they liked the idea of knowledge, but in its proper place. Knowledge was about reading textbooks, guides, religious books, and newspapers. Not for reading novels, or “story books", as they were called in my house. Story books were at best, a waste of precious time, and at worst, vaguely immoral and possibly corrupting. In their world, fiction was for small children. Once you were past ten, the only books you should be reading were your textbooks and the guides for cracking competitive exams. TV, of course, was fine. It was normal. It was what everybody did.