A piece of ‘misery memoir’ on my teenage library, evoked by a P.P Ramachandran poem Chellam
Last week I conjured up one of the most treasured memories from my early teens, courtesy of a small poem, posted on its author’s Facebook page. The poem, previously published in a magazine, was beautifully crafted and elegantly rendered in five rhythmic quatrains, having employed the metaphor of chewing areca nut and betel for reading. But it was something beyond these purely poetic elements that drew my attention and made me stuck in a time warp for a while. The place which was instrumental in writing this poem was a 76-year old village library, which nurtured the bibliophile in me, kindling the initial fire of literature against many odds (long before Kindle Fire made inroads into our reading habits).
In mid 90s, I used to sneak an escapade to the library from my seminary hostel, down a meandering narrow alley and crossing a paddy field, hiding books behind my clothes. We children were not permitted to go outside the campus alone, let alone visiting library and hiring ‘filthy’ novels to read. Our world of letters were then restricted to a couple of newspapers, pages of which were pounced upon in the evening by roughly fifty students from all angles, before a compromise was reached that one should read it at the top of his voice so that everybody could hear. Having just dropped out another seminary where we had more to read than to eat, I was struggling to cope with the situation in the new place where food was aplenty but books had been tantalizingly out of reach.
One day I found myself braving to the chamber of the principal, a very pious and traditional scholar who was well-versed in classical Islamic texts and famous for his proficiency in old-school dialectics and syllogism, seeking his permission for taking membership in the library and visiting there at least once in a week. Surprised to see one of his youngest disciples disturbing his siesta with such a weird request, he looked at me quizzically for a while and then started grilling me about the nature of the library, the kind of books I was going to hire, their contribution towards improving my knowledge from a strict utilitarian point of view, and whether it would mess up my tight schedule strictly divided into a few hours in the seminary in early morning and late in the evening and day-long classes in a secondary school inside the campus. (I was one of the privileged two who could attend the school while simultaneously studying in the seminary, as most of the other students were above the school age).
I managed to put across some feeble arguments to persuade the principal and even promised that I would get my hands off ‘dirty’ novels and stories. But the pragmatic principal pulled out a syllogistic rabbit out of his turban to silence me. He tried to convince me that even though he had no qualms about trusting me, if he extended a green signal to me it might open the floodgate, with more of his older students rushing to the library to read ‘immoral’ books and publications.
I came out of his room a nervous wreck, but still struggling to believe myself that I was not actually denied permission. My profane self prevailed over my rather pious one by arguing that the principal actually trusted me and wanted to allow me to join the library but he stayed away from giving a blanket permission, because he was afraid of his grownup students playing the spoilsport. Eventually I reached the conclusion that I could join the library because the principal had not found any harm in that, but I should keep it as a secret from others because he did not want them to take advantage of the situation to read ‘filthy’ novels.
The next weekend when most of my colleagues were busy in the playground, I crept stealthily down the narrow road to the library. An elderly librarian, clad in white, welcomed me to the enchanting world of books. The library had old book racks teeming with bound volumes, reeking of roach pills. This peculiar smell wafted across the books, blending itself with the plot and spicing up each word and character you read. The lengthy phrases and new words I used to jot down in a note book and by-hearted then, still have that nostalgic whiff of cockroach tablets used in the library.
Inside the library, I searched for books with a frantic fervor. There were hardly two hours for walking more than two kilometers to and fro, quickly deciding on the two books that one can hire at a time and glancing through a plethora of magazines. In addition, I had to read the books stealthily, hiding them inside lengthy school text books, fearing censorship from teachers and even the students in the seminary. However in the school I released the books from the suffocating shackles, letting them a free ride on the desk and tables, because a few of my school teachers occasionally visited the library and one of them used to hire books from there.
I had also to play various tricks on my seminary colleagues whenever I wanted to visit the library after exhausting the books. Sometimes, I waited without a book for weeks till the next holidays came in. The librarian squinted into each book you returned to ensure they came back safely, without wear and tear damage, but kindly waived your fines as an incentive to read more.
But somehow I overcame this fear psychosis gradually, and started to read at least some of the titles overtly and spend more time inside the library. But to my utter surprise, the curiosity of very few of my senior seminary colleagues had grown beyond the cover page of the books I read. Later I was emboldened to brandish some of the titles I read to impress upon others, with a hint of smugness which I took years to cure completely.
However, towards my final year in that seminary, a small library opened at our school, a couple of shelves with a motley collection of books that otherwise served as a wall to separate school and administrative offices. I immediately established a close rapport with the new teacher-cum librarian who allowed me to take home as many books as I wished. The school library brought us a lot of new titles in paperbacks and hardbacks, and during that period my enthusiasm for the village library somewhat waned; but still I read books in the seminary with utmost caution.
My last days in that seminary were fraught with a lot of uncertainties surrounding my appearance for secondary school public examination as a private candidate, followed by the hustle and bustle of exams. Therefore the last two books I hired from the village library stayed with me for an unprecedentedly long time. And in the meantime I had, post-school, moved for higher studies to a new seminary where books were no longer reduced to a pariah existence, but on the contrary, enjoyed a peaceful and harmonious coexistence with all sorts of theological texts; where literature enjoyed a free ride and one would never starve of books; the principal was a classicist and purist who so ardently admired a famous literary columnist and devoured much of his writings appeared in a weekly magazine; we had a bohemian postmodernist teacher who switched at ease between literature, philosophy, politics, theology and what not, always wearing a sarcastic smile on his face; and a neo-Marxist English teacher who, out of a sudden impulse, would leave the textbook aside on the table and send you on a wild goose chase on the conflict between religion and science, and would never mince words on criticizing clergy and priesthood, a career his students opted to pursue, but not necessarily out of their own volition.
After a long while, when I visited the old village library to give back the two books that still lingered with me (growing more as a liability than an asset on account of the hefty fines they accumulated over a long period of time), the elderly librarian was not there to inspect the books and straighten the dog-eared pages and even to offer me an exemption from the fine. A young chap who introduced himself as the new librarian curtly asked me to pay all the fines due to the library. I obeyed him nonchalantly; but assuming that my acquaintance with the old librarian would in some way come in for my rescue, I inquired his whereabouts. The new librarian replied coldly, “Dad is not well, and too weak to walk all the way to here.”
The fine had made a huge dent in my already meagre purse strings. Years later, when I came across A. K. Ramanujan’s beautiful poetic imagery about ‘unread library books, usually mature in two weeks, laying a row of little eggs in the ledgers for fines’, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu.