Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 19, january 16-31, 2010
A collection well past its prime
(By Viyaysree Venkatraman)

When a recent issue of the New Yorker carried a short story by Salman Rushdie, I dived directly into the fiction pages. The plot set in Chennai featured that real-life tsunami that carried away fishermen and boys who had gathered to play cricket at the beach that fateful dawn, six years ago. Reading this fictional account in my current home in the U.S., I wept over the tragedy for the very first time. The story read like an extract from a larger work. I plan to request for the upcoming title through our public library network. When the novel arrives, a few months from now, the hardcover will be waiting for me at a local branch.

In my childhood, when the city was called Madras, I borrowed books from a rental store which went by the title of ‘library’. Its cobalt-blue bookshelves ran from floor to ceiling but no new books sat on those brightly-painted wooden ledges. What was on offer was, at times, beyond dog-eared. That the pages of cheap print held together at all was a testimony to the bookbinder’s skill. Our school library kept classics and encyclopaedias locked up like precious jewels, so those books existed in name only. Providing children easy access to fiction was not a pressing concern for a State-run library, so that too was just another rumoured resource. Individual families had to decide if literature of any sort was worth spending money on; my parents subscribed to The Hindu. And that was it, period, end of story.

In the 1980s, reading for pleasure was an alien concept to many middle class parents in my neighbourhood. Watching children pore over textbooks delighted them. But “storybooks” or works of fiction, in any language, were a different matter. Whether the book was a graphic novel or a Shakespearean classic, all extracurricular reading was considered superfluous. Without musty establishments like the one I belonged to, their tacit ban on fiction might have worked. If reading is an addiction, how could schoolchildren without pocket money possibly support this habit on their own?

Quite simply, we were fortunate to have that paperback rental in our locality. An MBA will tell you that this store, which charged a few paise as reading fee, is an example of a high-volume business with a minuscule profit margin. In Sixth Class, if you had asked me who the owner of the place was, I would’ve pointed to someone who looked like a college lecturer, but he was only a senior employee. The wiry, unshaven man behind the cash register was the sole proprietor. Barefoot, dressed in a shirt and veshti, he ably oversaw operations and chatted with customers in his bar code-less world.  In all the years I went to the place – from Class 6-12 – I never once heard him discuss a book.

Buying assorted paperwaste – used notebooks, cardboard boxes, etc. – and selling the material to pulp mills had been this small businessman’s original trade. In the absence of formal book donation programmes, Chennai’s wealthy book-buyers still discard reading material, by the kilo, with old newspapers. Despite a lack of formal education, this wastepaper dealer figured that the books and magazines were more than just used paper and began setting them aside. Customers, avid readers who could not afford to buy novels, rented titles from this growing pile. The chance inventory clamoured for a new home. Past the stores that sold bridal sarees, the entrepreneur found the ideal spot for his new business.

And so our neighbourhood got its ‘lending library’. The first middle-schoolers, who ventured to the storefront had indulgent, book-loving relatives (mostly non-parents) accompanying them. Others like me moved in small packs. The staff had instructions to shoo away lingerers who could not put down the membership deposit after repeated visits. Because there was no reading room, we squatted right by the bookshelves to sample the fare. We found the comic books to our taste and saved up the sum. Soon enough, we were borrowing books just like the grown-ups. If we chose well, we could circulate our picks among trustworthy friends to maximise returns.

Anything by Enid Blyton was a safe bet. From her adventures of British children we went to American teen detective fiction. Typically, gender or personal preference divided us into two camps at that point. You really couldn’t hope to exchange a Nancy Drew for a volume of Hardy Boys. How disappointing to find out later that both were churned out by a factory of ghost writers! Then the intelligent, spine-chilling series Three Investigators, with cameos by Alfred Hitchcock in every epilogue, commanded a crossover audience. Mostly, we subsisted on run-of-the-mill fare. Still, by the time we finished high school, we were compulsive, if indiscriminate, readers. College, and further studies, took each of us to a different neighbourhood or town.

 Back home in Chennai on a visit, I went searching for a bit of that old life. On a busy commercial street, I strolled past the multistoried saree shops, all airconditioned now, with attractive window displays. My feet took me to the library with cobalt-blue shelves. The proprietor was still behind the counter. He had aged but lightly. Behind the broad-rimmed glasses, I saw no flicker of recognition. My own appearance must have changed considerably, along with my circumstances. Hesitantly, I began to browse. Then I remembered. I had never claimed my one-time membership fee of ten rupees. Technically, I still belonged there.

Truth is I have been away for a while. Maybe not long enough, because after a decade-and-a-half in America I am still astounded by the generosity of its many libraries. Giving people access to books, for free – what a concept! Of course, it would be unfair to compare my former treasure trove to any library in the place I now call home. Yet, unlike the rich uncle, who shuddered theatrically on watching me read a severely used book, I chose to marvel at this collection as an example of extreme recycling. In its heyday, this place served an assortment of people: men and women, young and old, Tamil and English readers.

“Any particular title you want, Madam?” asked a voice. It was the owner, with whom I’d haggled over the rental of a book many a time. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Manohar Malgaonkar’s The Devil’s Wind and asked for other books by that author of princely sagas. “But this is his best book, Madam,” the man declared indignantly. No literature major who had done a dissertation on this topic could have sounded more convincing. English titles by Indian authors used to be housed upstairs. Instinctively, I turn my head towards the flight of stairs. “Upstairs, all sold Madam,” he said woefully. This could well be the only Malgaonkar he had left.

Once, we accessed that wing unconnected to the main entrance through a tricky staircase. Stray cats took shelter from the relentless sun, right by the landing. Urchin-like boys shadowed us to make sure we didn’t make off with books without stopping at the front desk. Past the tailors’ stores, they followed us as if they had just remembered an important errand in the bazaar below. Occasionally, they did catch a pilferer. “A person, who goes to school, should know better than to steal,” the owner would tell the offender. Or they should be able to plan raids better, I would think.

 The owner’s educated sons will not inherit the business – they have office jobs. So, unlike the competition, he hasn’t computerised operations or expanded services. “Nobody reads, Madam,” he said with a shrug. Which may be true, but surely the spirited entrepreneur could have put up more of a fight. Then again, the age of electronic readers is almost upon us. Selling the paperbacks may have been a smart move, really. Why does he bother to run the place at all? Just then a patron wanders in to ask for the latest issue of a Tamil magazine. It is checked out; the alternatives don’t interest her. Setting down her grocery bags, she began chatting with the owner about this and that. Moving to the topic of grown children, they bemoaned the habits of this generation at some length.

Dusk was falling fast. In this newly-prosperous city, where people presumably bought the books they want to read, traffic gets impossibly chaotic during rush hour. I should be leaving, but near the exit, I see a shelf marked “Unknown Bestsellers.” The phrase, at once absurd and ambitious, made me linger. If you discount its strangeness, don’t editors of literary magazines try to do the same thing – acquaint readers with undiscovered talent? So how did the owner make the call, I wondered. He was deeply engrossed in conversation. I would have to wait a while to find out.

Outside, the honks were getting louder. The crush of evening shoppers would descend on the avenue any minute now. The thought filled me with panic. In that instant, my curiosity about the quirky book category all but vanished. Hailing a passing auto-rickshaw, I gratefully lowered myself into the seat and headed home.


In this issue

Will bigger be better?
Road-widening no answer for increasing traffic
When the RK Math put down Madras roots
A collection well past its prime
Historic Residences of Chennai - 34
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


Back to current issue...