Sunday, April 1, 2012

Urban Bawl 6: Sniffing Books

An edited version of this piece is the sixth in the series of my Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page.
This is published in the March 30-April 12 2012  (Vol 8 Issue 16) issue of Time Out Mumbai.

Sniffing Books

The news that the final curtain was brought down on the print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica brought back memories of how central its weighty, leather-spined volumes were to libraries. My school library had a set, as did my college, the colleges I taught in and teach in now. The grand old public libraries of the city- the British Council and the American Centre had a set too; the American had Encyclopaedia Americana to boot.  Just as the Britannica was central to these libraries; these libraries were central to our city. Their recent passing into avatars that have left them but a shadow of their former selves has been a matter of great regret. What is a library if you cannot go there; books, if you cannot touch them and there are no pages left to sniff?

You need a library (or two) to bookend your life. You need the comfort of interminable shelving to know that all is right with this world. You need to smell the pages- tangy new ones and musty yellowed ones, the odour of familiarity wafting around while you immersed yourself. Even those corners of the libraries, where it seemed no one ventured (like the dusty shelves with the encyclopaedias), held a special place in your heart. 

All through the eighties and much of the nineties, the BCL and the American were my special vice. I was addicted enough to make weekly visits to these dens of intellectual stimulation. Having a sturdy jhola was as important to my existence then as a smartphone is today. I would walk from VT to the American Centre,  pick up four books; walk to the British Council (eat the best pav-bhaji in town just outside Maker Chambers), issue another four books and lug all eight all the way back to VT- the jhola strap slicing into my shoulder could not erase the smile on my face.

In those cycles of eight, I was to befriend Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Irving, James Michener, Allen Drury, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Tom Wolfe, Art Buchwald, Carl Sagan... where do I stop? It occurs to me that you can discover new authors only in libraries, through chance encounter and serendipity. The lack of lasting liabilities makes for easy friendships. In a bookshop one is much more deliberate and guarded; your wallet governs the spreading of affection to such books and authors that you have not been formally introduced to. Even the smaller lending libraries in the city- Abbas at King's Circle being the most loved, allowed you the illicit pleasure of spending time with those most addictive and prolific of writers- Stephen King, Tom Clancy or Lawrence Sanders. You see, a P G Wodehouse was for buying. Tom Clancy on the other hand was for a good read and return.

We are the sum total of all we read, or have read in our growing years. The passing of libraries have left us bereft and anchorless. They have, and that is some consolation, been replaced by some monster bookstores (like the one in 'You've Got Mail') - Landmark and Crossword. But, ask yourself this: are you more likely to read a book through if you borrowed it from a library or if you bought the book outright? 

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