Ode to Libraries

As is probably, by now, evident, the Millennial Matriarchs are bookworms. We grew up with books, and we need books just as much, or more, as we grow older.

The enervating summer afternoons bring back so many memories of the joy of discovering, devouring, savouring, hoarding, exchanging, borrowing, and drowning in books, and more books. And, libraries were the dream destination of summer holidays.

Sharing some eloquent words that describe the power (and perils!) of libraries.

 Don’t Go Into The Library

The library is dangerous–

Don’t go in. If you do

You know what will happen.

It’s like a pet store or a bakery—

Every single time you will come out of there

Holding something in your arms.

Those novels with their big eyes.

And those no-nonsense, all muscle

Greyhounds and Dobermans,

All non-fiction and business,

Cuddly when they are young,

But then the first page is turned.

The doughnut scent of it all, knowledge,

The aroma of coffee being made

In all those books, something for everyone,

The deli offering of civilisation itself.

The library is the book of books,

Its concrete and glass and wood covers

Keeping within them the very big,

Very long story of everything.

The library is dangerous, full

Of answers, if you go inside,

You may not come out

The same person who went in.

Alberto Rios       Contemporary American Chicano poet

–Mamata

 

Of Libraries and Books

We lived in a government colony in Delhi. A library van used to visit every week. Come Friday, without a doubt, the van would be at the end of our street. We would queue up, return our book, get into the van, choose another book, have it stamped and come out. A lot of strategic planning was involved. Like ‘You take this book, I’ll take that one. You finish by Tuesday and we will exchange.’ Or hiding a book you wanted (next-most after the book you took) behind a pile of other books in an obscure stack, in the hope that it would remain hidden till the next week when the van returned.

These vans were run by the Delhi Public Library system. I marvel today at this amazing service. I am not aware of any such today, that too run by any government system.

A second mainstay of our reading was our school library. We had a library period every week, and it was compulsory to borrow a book. Occasional book report requirements were put in to ensure we did read them, though for at least half the class, this wasn’t necessary.  As I recall, the borrowable collection was mainly fiction. (For some reason, our school was paranoid about our bringing ‘non-authorized’ books into the premises. There would be random surprise checks and any such book would be confiscated! Considering how innocent we were and how little access we had to unsavoury reading material, this seems rather excessively zealous. But those were different times!)

And last but not the least, the neighbourhood ‘lending library’. This we were allowed to visit only during the long breaks (summer and winter holidays). And were given a limited budget, which usually stretched to one book and one comic a day. Going to the library also involved a daily outing and a walk of 20 minutes either way. But while this was good exercise for the body, regrettably, it was not great exercise for the mind, as we raced through upwards of 50 M&Bs and 50 Archie comics during a typical summer break—with an occasional Alistair Maclean, Nevil Shute or latest bestseller thrown in. But well, it helped improved our reading speed (because we used to try to finish a book overnight and swap, and try to finish another one a friend had borrowed before it was time to walk to the library).

As we grew older and more independently mobile, it was of course the BCL and the USIS. These were usually fortnightly outings in small groups from college.

How many children or adults are members of libraries today? I know a lot of people read. But it seems everyone just buys each and every book they want to read. But the excitement of reading is also partly in looking for and stumbling upon books in a library; it is yearning to lay your hands on a book, and conniving and strategizing—from reserving it in a library to striking complex deals with friends.

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I don’t want to buy every book I want to read. I have no space. I don’t want to spend that much. And I do want to stumble upon books. Not in a bookshop setting, where books are not arranged as I like them, but in a library-like situation.

As of the last few years, ‘Just Books’ has been my library. I have to admit, since I am a ‘deliver to’ member, I don’t have the pleasure of browsing. But I do browse through their huge online catalogue and put books on the waitlist. There is a little thrill in not knowing which two books will land up at my door in a particular week, out of the 50-60 on the waitlist. It is a low-risk option—I put likely looking books on the list, and if I don’t like it, I just abandon it after the first 30-40 pages. And my shelves are not heaving with the addition of more and more books.

If you don’t know about Just Books, do check it outback (www.justbooks.in). It is a network of about 700 neigbourhood libraries, with a holding over about a million books, in English and most Indian languages. And it has an option of home delivery of books.

Happy reading!

–Meena

A Soft Pause

I like the comma! It is perhaps my favourite among the punctuation marks! Many years ago when I started out as an editor, it was a comfort and joy to work with Kiran, my “commarade”, who an equally ardent follower of the comma! Over the many years of copy editing since then, I am finding that the comma is increasingly dispensed with (as are most punctuation marks, as emoticons take over). Most people see no use or value in it, or maybe they haven’t ever paused to think about it!

Ah commas, these often overlooked tiny squiggles that lend order, and often sense, to a sentence. While a full stop ends a sentence, a comma indicates a smaller break–as a soft pause that separates words, clauses, or ideas within a sentence.

Indeed that is what it was always meant to be. The word comma itself comes from Greek word koptein, which means “to cut off.” The comma, as we know it, was introduced by a 15th century Italian printer Aldo Manuzio as a way to separate things.

While word lovers like us value the comma, it takes a master word-crafter like Pico Iyer to eloquently express these sentiments.

“The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respect. It seems just a slip of a thing, a pedant’s tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer’s smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely recalled, as the comma — unless it be breath itself?

(In Praise of the Humble Comma. Essay in Time Magazine 24 June 2001)

So there is the humble comma, and then, as I discovered, there is the Oxford comma! The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: We sell milk, cheese, and icecream. It is known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.

While this may seem not so important to worry about, this little squiggle before an ‘and’ can create hilarity, or confusion. For example if you write ‘I love my parents, Amitabh Bachchan, and Mary Kom’ without that little squiggle before the ‘and’, you may end up, unwittingly,  being the offspring of AB and MK!  

A comma, then, is a matter of care. Care for words, yes, but also, and more important, for what the words imply!

–Mamata

 

 

He Said It!

My day started well. This morning my newspaper informed me that May 5 is being celebrated as World Cartoonists Day! That brought a smile to my face even before I turned to the daily cartoon strips in my newspapers…something I do before I read the headlines. Faced with the continuous ‘breaking news’ of a world gone mad and bad in every which way, the cartoons remind me that, depending on what lens you use to see the world, there can still be something to laugh about!

Quite by coincidence, I recently read the autobiography of R.K. Lakshman, India’s best known cartoonist, illustrator, and tongue-in-cheek commentator on life and times.  Lakshman was an essential part of my growing up and growing older, as it was for at least two generations of Indians. Lakshman’s You Said It! daily cartoon provided a glimpse into the world through the eyes of the silent spectator, the Common Man.

Reading his autobiography The Tunnel of Time provided a peep into  Lakshman—the man himself, as he rambled through memories of places, people and events with humour, wit and yes, some irreverence! Since the time he can remember he wanted to be an artist. “An artist is what I wanted to be…I decided that I would pass my examinations but I never attempted to get high marks….My parents and elders were a great help, for they never took it seriously when one of the sons got pitiably low marks or even failed!”

As the youngest of 6 sons (one of whom was the famous author R.K. Narayan) and 2 daughters Lakshman grew up in a big household; he was left to himself all day, happily spending his time playing or drawing. So much so, that his parents did not realise that it was time that he was sent to school until a visiting uncle noticed him at home when all other children of his age were at school. He was promptly taken to the nearby municipal school—kicking and crying! From where the young Lakshman promptly ran away, and resumed play, until some months later another visitor took him back to the school. And there he stayed; as he says, “I moved year after year, class after class,” all the time filling the margins of his notebooks with sketches and doodles. The same continued through college days until he graduated with a BA degree; and immediately moved to Madras to try and get a job in one of the newspapers while his elders “as usual generously cheered me on my way into the world.”

As we continue to travel through the tunnel of time with the budding and determined cartoonist we learn about attempts and adventures as he makes his way into the world as an aspiring cartoonist, until he eventually became a cartoonist for the Times of India, and there he remained for the next five decades!

For all of us who imagine that a cartoonist just has a Eureka moment and with a few swift strokes produces a cartoon, it was indeed revealing to learn what it really took to put the Common Man on the front page every morning without fail. “I would be at the drawing board in the office exactly at 8.30 in the morning, reading and concentrating on news items, political analyses, editorial commentaries, opinions, spending the time tormenting myself, waiting hopelessly for the muse of satire to oblige me with an idea for next day’s cartoon before the deadline. When the idea did at last dawn, the rest of the work was comparatively easy. It was like shooting a movie—choosing a suitable setting, selecting the characters, compressing the script into a brief caption. By then I would have put in six hours of continuous work. Mentally and physically exhausted I would go home. But the sense of fulfilment and creative satisfaction would be immense.”

R.K. Lakshman shares delightful anecdotes about his travels and his many interesting friends, his close encounters with the powers that be, and the highs and lows of chronicling the facts and foibles of every aspect of social and political life. The Tunnel of Time is a treat of a read.

–Mamata

 

 

WHODUNNIT? THEYDUNNIT!

I love detective stories! From the time I cut my teeth on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven and Fatty and gang, I was hooked on mysteries, and the sleuths who cracked them. As I am sure many other 10-year olds have done, I even attempted, with a cousin, to write The Mystery of the Missing Pillow.

Graduating to the classic Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie I began to enjoy not just the answer to ‘whodunnit?’ but equally the cleverly crafted plots, and distinguishing nuances of the sleuths who cracked the cases, starting with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and Hercules Poirot and Jane Marple, right up to the ‘traditionally built’ Mma Ramotswe. Over the years I have discovered, and delighted in, the quirky characters of the detectives created by writers in many parts of the world. I continue to explore, and discover, new and exciting detective fiction authors and add to my list of favourite detective characters.

On my last visit to the British Library I chanced upon a book called the Detection Collection. It was a collection of short stories by a number of authors I like. What made me curious was reading that the book was first published to celebrate 75 years of the Detection Club, and republished in 2015 to mark 85 years.

Digging deeper, I discovered that The Detection Club comprises the cream of British crime writing talent.  It was founded in 1930/1929/1932 (ambiguity surrounds the exact year) on the cusp of the Golden Age of detective, crime and murder mystery fiction which began in the early 1930s. The club’s first president was GK Chesterton, and since then the mantle of presidency has passed to some of the most significant names in the history of crime fiction including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons and HRF Keating.

The Club in true British club tradition has a Constitution and Rules dating back to 1932. As described by one of its members “It is a private association of writers of Detective Fiction in Great Britain, existing chiefly for the purpose of eating dinners together at suitable intervals and of talking illimitable shop…if there is any serious aim behind the avowedly frivolous organisation of the Detection Club, it is to keep the detective story up to the highest standards that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, claptrap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.”

Besides contributing individual stories to The Detection Collections, the writers have also occasionally come together to create a multi-authored single novel. One of these, published in 1932 was titled The Floating Admiral. Each chapter was written by a different Detection Club member and at the end of the book most of them also offered their solutions to what happened, and who had perpetrated the murder!

Imagine the best writers of detective fiction in Great Britain coming together three times a year—to dine, to exchange ideas, and to plot murders! Theydunnit!

“The detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds.” Philip Guedalla

–Mamata

Bibliophile’s Supermarket

Know the feeling you get when you walk into your favourite store with gift coupons to be spent on whatever takes your fancy! The delicious sense of anticipation, the excitement of browsing the shelves, the difficult decision making…should you get clothes? Something for the house? Toiletries or accessories? You spend a happy time wandering and comparing before you make up your mind. You go home happy with a bag of goodies–an afternoon well spent!

That is just the feeling I get when I go to a library! Faced with an array of books, what could be more fun than to browse? What do I feel like this month—something light and happy? Something thrilling and gripping? Something serious and profound? A favourite familiar author? Best seller or Booker winner? Decisions, decisions!

This wonderful feeling has been a part of my life ever since I fell in love with books. The B.C. Roy Children’s Reading Room, more familiarly known as Shankar’s Children’s Library—a haven through the hot Delhi summer vacations; Grover’s hole-in-the-wall lending library in the neighbourhood market where one graduated from Archie comics to Mills and Boons! The American Centre library where one discovered the classics and the contemporary.

Moving cities, the first thing one looked for was the nearest library. In Nairobi it took the form of the next-door neighbour’s collection of crime and detective fiction which kept the suspense going! In Ahmedabad it was Raju’s circulating library that provided a menu of “time-pass” options. And now the British Library beckons every month. At the rate of 4-5 books a month, I seem to be running out of books to borrow. Panic!

But till then, every day is World Book Day for me!

–Mamata