The Public Library

The Public Library


Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
“And Yet the Books,” Czeslaw Milosz.

My husband and I had just moved to Setauket, Long Island, in 1985, where we hardly knew a soul except a couple of people from his department at Stony Brook University. We decided that besides watching television, we needed to have access to books and magazines for entertainment, and therefore became members of the local public library. When we drove into the driveway of Emma Clark Library we were entranced: The red brick colonial structure was shaded by maple and oak, the windows reflecting the evening sky, verdant foliage framing the grounds; it looked like a picture postcard. We parked in the lot and walked up the broad steps leading to the front door. The well-lighted central space bordered with shelves of books, opening into a separate magazine room with plush couches, a flight of stairs snaking up to the stacks in the mezzanine, the children’s library downstairs, the music library next door, and tiny carrels for quiet study in the basement, welcomed me to a home away from home.  This Setauket library, my American Dream, helped me through my transitions: my separation from India; the birth of my children; their maturing process; my first book; and the death of my father.

Three years earlier I had immigrated to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. I had felt exposed, my skin, my clothes, my speech branding me as a girl from elsewhere. With winter arrived the Heimweh or homesickness I was reading about in my course on German Romantic literature; it grew like a big tumor in the middle of my chest. I hid in my apartment, a pile of books next to my bed. 

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My first public library experience had been in Calcutta in 1971. My brothers and I were cooped up at home during the long summer months. We had exhausted every game of cards we knew, monopoly, snakes and ladders, hop scotch, and tag. Television had not yet entered our lives. Soon we were annoying each other, and our mother was so fed up with us, she took us on an expedition to a public library, known as a lending library, located in one of the shuttered shops on the road leading through the throngs of the vegetable market. Inside this dank and dreary space a sliver of evening lighted up only the shelves closest to the door. I picked up mystery novels by Enid Blyton, which were lined up next to trashy novels in English, Hindi, and Bengali, while my brothers picked up Hardy Boys and Phantom comics. My mother paid 25 paisa for each and I felt thrilled to be walking home with books which I later read sitting on the floor, my back resting against the bed frame. My mother must have felt relieved that the books would keep us quiet for a few days. We learned not to read them quickly, because then we would not be able to go back to the library so soon to replenish our stock. We had to conserve money and extend our enjoyment of the books, a trick we soon mastered.  Even if the tension was building up when one of the boys in the novel was almost at the point of facing the criminal, we had to slow down and digest our hero’s smallest movement, the tiniest detail of the setting, the taste of the chocolate that he bit into to calm his nerves.

That year the Naxalite revolution spread in and around Calcutta, and it was too dangerous for schools to be open, so they remained closed for 6 months. The Naxals, influenced by Mao Zedung’s ideology, were from a village in West Bengal called Naxalbari, where the landless peasants revolted for redistribution of land. The movement spread to urban areas and students joined the movement embracing its ideology of fighting against people in authority, ranging from businessmen to professors. As the revolts were spontaneous, unexpected and bloody, fear was rampant around Calcutta, and routine life as people had experienced so far came to a standstill. 

School authorities did not want their schools to burn and for children to die, so they took the next best step and sent the children home for a really long holiday. We were homebound.  Since it was not advisable for us to be on the streets after dark, our games of cricket and kabaddi in the compounds or on the empty streets were only in the evenings for a couple of hours before curfew, as the afternoons were too hot.  It was the lending library that saved our mother from frayed nerves and us from near-suicidal ennui. My mother did not complain that she had to pay so much for every book we took out, probably because the cost was well worth the quiet she desired! Moreover, since she loved to read, she too borrowed magazines in Tamil, like Kumudam, Ananda Vikatan, and Kalki to browse through in the afternoons after her work in the kitchen was done. The newspapers were filled with terrible news of people being killed on the streets, of university teachers being terrorized by students, of bosses being threatened by their employees. Robberies were becoming normal. Although I did not read the articles, I saw the pictures in the newspapers and heard my parents speak about these incidents with horror.

While the world outside was falling apart, my brothers and I sat on the cool mosaic floor of our bedroom and read our novels over and over again, and dreamed of our next trip to the lending library.  

There was a library in school, but I had never laid eyes on it, not even when classes resumed after our lengthy break. Our teacher would bring a stack of books and distribute them to us. We were not invited to choose the books we wanted. And I never thought to ask if I could please pick a book. I took the book offered by the teacher as if it was a special gift and read it even if it was not particularly interesting and I did not remember any of it a few months later.  Turning the pages, hearing their rustle, seeing the printed words, and smelling the paper’s musty smell were all part of the experience of reading non-academic tomes. New worlds opened up magically; I could enter them, meet characters and communicate with them.

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A year later we moved to Madras (presently renamed Chennai), where we begged our mother to find a lending library. She did. But now something strange and wonderful happened. My dad discovered The British Council Library through a friend and he soon took us there. We walked from the bustling thoroughfare of the main road into the capacious space of the library with its polished mosaic floors, gleaming counters and solid wooden shelves, lines of them disappearing into the distance. My dad’s friend guided us to the literature shelves where we found beautifully bound books with crisp white pages, a far cry from the yellowed and torn pages in the little hole-in-the-wall lending library in Calcutta. We mostly found adults browsing the shelves or reading at the wide tables.  The silence was as clean as the walls and floors, broken occasionally by voices of the librarians. Tall, majestic women in saris handled the books, stamping them with due dates. They spoke English in British accents. And I felt I had entered the elite provinces of Indian society. 

I was so proud to have a library card and was told I could choose a bunch of books and keep them for three weeks.  My brothers and I were loath to leave the BC, but we knew that this was a place we would visit again and again with our father.  Television had still not entered our home and so besides playing gili-danda, kabaddi, and cricket on the street, reading the books we got from BC was our favorite pastime. I added to my empire of knowledge: from Shakespeare to the Brontes.

When our family moved to Bombay (presently renamed Mumbai), it was only natural to find the British Council branch there.  I was thrilled it was only a 15-minute bus ride away. I also discovered a library in Max Muller Bhavan, which was right by my neighborhood, a contrast to the Gothic gloom of the Bombay University library where I would spend many hours of my M.A. studying for my exams. The entire theme of Bombay University library, built in 1857, was brown—ceilings, walls, floors, desks, counters. The books would be fetched for us from the stacks located in the mysterious recesses of this enormous Victorian building. I loved escaping from this gloom to the transparent white light of Max Muller Bhavan library where I would pore over Heine and Goethe.  My stressed nerves relaxed as I sat back and read the German newspapers piecing together the news with my rudimentary knowledge of German.

Looking back at the aura of the British Council, the Bombay University library, USIS (United States Information Service) library, and Max Muller Bhavan, that captivated, seduced, as well as nurtured me, I had no knowledge in me about these libraries as vestiges of European colonization of India.  They sat there, rich and luxurious, bursting with European knowledge in the humanities and the sciences, in the middle of third world metropolises, welcoming young people like me eager to eat greedily of the world, the one they knew and the one they did not know, the familiar and the strange, the near and the far; people like me were filled with the desire to enter the portals of the elite and the erudite. At that time, I was not aware that the Indians with their British accents in the British Council were the only Indians in the library, except for the readers; Indian authors, except perhaps for R.K. Narayan and Rabindranath Tagore, barely graced those multiple shelves. There may have been others but these books were not apparent to me. The USIS mainly carried American, mostly white, authors; and Max Muller Bhavan library only carried German authors, since it was established in India to promote German literature. 

I reminisce about that lending library in Calcutta mother took us to in 1971. It is perhaps the symbol of a reading space that did not have the luxury of the British Council, but it was accessible to any passerby regardless of how they looked or how they were dressed. The big iron gates and the tall walls of BC did not welcome the poor, whereas, in this hole-in-the-wall library in Calcutta, the passerby could smoke his bidi and leaf through the magazines and the comics. The vegetable vendor could pick up Bengali novels to read at night after her meal.  Indigenous literary production mostly ended up in these lending libraries, a wealth only waiting for postcolonial scholars to uncover as Indians became conscious about our own decolonization process.  For some of us, this act of decolonization is probably just beginning, after a multitude of other seductions both in India and in the industrialized West. After the 1960s, public libraries began springing up in major Indian cities, but they still continue to be miniscule in ratio compared to the population. 

I hold a special place in my heart for that dank, dark, smelly lending library in Calcutta that saved my family during the Naxalite rebellion. It symbolized life, while death, despair, and uncertainty reigned outside its decaying walls. Similarly Bombay University Library, although a Victorian relic, opened its doors to students across class and caste spectrum; it was more egalitarian when it came to listening to student concerns; it encouraged critical thinking among its students, more so than any institution outside its walls.

It is hard to see the connection between the colonizer’s stamp of superiority on knowledge production and the colonizer opening up beautiful spaces for the educated youth to enter and become seduced by “superior” knowledge offered in shiny, bound volumes. As a young woman in India, I was not conscious of this connection, and now years later, I realize that each of these reading spaces was enticing—from the mysterious little lending library in Calcutta to the clean and well-lighted place of the British Council and the American library. And today, although I am conscious of this jagged connection between knowledge production and the seduction of ambience surrounding the housing of knowledge, I continue to be in awe of pretty little libraries sitting like diamonds in the poorest areas. Libraries do not care if they appear anachronistic in decrepit neighborhoods. 

The public library in the U.S. is a sign of prosperity. It represents the first world that declares its economic and intellectual superiority. In some places it accentuates the depravity around it, though it wants to make a statement about democracy.  Yet, whatever the complex controversies, the public library articulates the possibilities that humans have for personal growth. Once within its premises, you can leave your many identities at the door and enter the democracy of the mind and the heart. Witness the multitudes of bildungsroman that have scenes of the young boy or girl getting his or her first library card and becoming enchanted with the world of words.

The materials are now various, responsive to every taste. The colonial narratives that were upheld in the past have given way to multiple dialogues which spell freedom and are a testimony to diverse perspectives and legitimating different ways of life; the lay person has found a voice; popular culture, whether in music or film, has found its worth among its shelves. While democracy could be whittled away outside the walls of libraries--groups oppressed because of race or religion, or violence erupting as a way to end violence resulting in enmeshing a country in its juggernaut--within the public library, women, men, and children, walk or sit or stand absorbed in the act of reading or writing or viewing. The silence is calming to the minds that come from the raging life outside.  Libraries are literally holy spaces that can hold us in tranquillity for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, and we walk away with materials that will keep us absorbed for a while from the problems of our lives and offer us insights we may not otherwise have. Violence anywhere gains in horror when libraries are burned down, just as much as religious houses are desecrated.

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My children, from the time they were babies, practically grew up in Emma Clark Library in Setauket, Long Island. I went to every mom and tot program, spent many afternoons with them in the children’s section leafing through alphabet books, or playing blocks on the mats, or participating in story-telling sessions. My kids would ask, “Are we going to the liebayree today?” I guess our reading together stretched on the floor of the children’s section helped them finally pronounce “br” as a unified sound! When they were teenagers, going to the library to pick up bags of books, especially in the summer months, was a ritual they looked forward to. Getting tokens, such as candy pink pencils, stickers, and erasers brought them more joy than any expensive toy.

The public library helped me with my many transitions, one of them being my distance from my family and my husband’s family.  It helped me from feeling terribly alone in the United States. It proved a friend to the lonely immigrant. And now after my children have left home to follow their paths, I once again depend upon the public library to offer me succor from feelings of abandonment or lonesomeness. 

So it was with shock I received the news in 2002 that the public libraries were under surveillance and were forced to share with FBI agents the names of its patrons and the materials they borrowed as well as their internet search records.  This government policy was a direct result of the Patriot Act, “Section 215, which is commonly nicknamed the ‘library records provision,’ because it called on librarians to hand over patron reading and computer records when requested by law enforcement under a Section 215 request. The law further paired government requests for information with a gag order, so if librarians were asked to hand over patron data, they legally weren’t allowed to alert anyone” (Glaser, Slate, 2015). How could this haven of freedom that manifested its quintessential Americanness become its opposite? Librarians across the country protested, but many had to give in.  Would my checking out books on Islam make me a terrorist? Should I now throw in a book on civics or one on the triumphs of Reagan among the pile I was checking out? Choosing books to prove my patriotism was like planting the American flag on my front lawn! The irony is that the library is the one place where we find dissenting voices in the American tradition, from the first colonists to the present. It can become problematic for the truly paranoid—do they pick up a book on the Boston Tea Party because it is the voice of dissent against the then English establishment, or would that be seen as unpatriotic because it is a far cry from our current Tea Party folk who are conservative and want to return to the old ways when half the people in this country were not seen as American or received the vote? Will the library have to take steps to only hold some books and discard the ones that will be seen as dangerous? How does one even begin to make these choices? 

If indeed the library does ban books from its shelves, would I have to resort to shop for books on Mumbai’s pavement “libraries?” In the late 70s and early 80s, I had spent a good amount of time browsing the “shelves” i.e. the pavements where booksellers sat with rows and rows of books spread out in front of them. They knew the titles they had in their collection although they may not have read a single one of them.  This was the place to get banned books, my friends informed me. As teenagers, we were intrigued by everything that was forbidden to us, banned books among them. I learned in 1980 that D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in India. My classmates opined, “No problem. You can find a copy at the pavement booksellers.” Just as my wise classmates predicted, I found a copy there for just a couple of rupees and read it right through and was truly disappointed that it was devoid of anything bordering on pornographic. Couldn’t the Indian censor board read? It was only years later I realized that the British had banned Lawrence’s book because it had transgressed the class law—Lady Chatterley had transgressed by her union with the gardener who belonged to the lower economic strata.  So it only seemed apt that the book be sold by a struggling bookseller on the Mumbai pavement who didn’t much care about either Lawrence or Lady Chatterley. Perhaps he may have found some camaraderie with the gardener, for, like him, he probably fantasized about romance with upper class females, the stuff of Bollywood movies.

It is a worthwhile sight—people standing beside these pavement stores reading a variety of books in English, Hindi, or Marathi, and in the end buying one or none.  Visiting Mumbai only a couple of years ago, I saw that this had not changed. The scene from the early 80s persists today—the publication of more novels as a result of an increase in publishers has resulted in more business for the pavement booksellers. Also the lack of public libraries makes these pavement booksellers take their place. That the price is a fraction of what books cost at the big bookstores now being built in the mega malls in almost every Indian city makes these pavement stores accessible to the middle and lower middle classes of India.

I find a vestige of this pavement book vending culture in New York City and suddenly feel at home lolling beside a rickety stand of books and browsing. The flashbacks I have of my family’s experience in the 1970s in Calcutta is more resonant today with the increasing surveillance of our thoughts in a digitized world, as well as the risk of losing our democratic ideals, whether in the United States or in India, the banning of books and, in some instances, the threats leveled at writers. Censorship has always been present in democratic societies and totalitarian regimes. Banned books in the U.S., such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird survived censorship and are now solidly ensconced in the literary landscape. Similarly, in India, books that continue to be banned somehow make it into the hands of the public. The pavement booksellers are more in touch with our democratic ideals and manage to stock banned books and the titles of indigenous authors. It is worth noting that libraries are the only places that survive repression of thought and non-violently fight against surveillance and censorship. Only the public library can bring to us critical thinking in this age of global surveillance and propaganda. It is the one place where we can read about the real lives of people, find factual evidence in literary production, test our hunches with those that writers have put into words. We can still hold onto the art of carefully constructed articulation of one’s authentic self, not fall prey to sound bites on television and other social media. 

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As Czeslaw Milosz writes,

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights. 

Milosz, writing in the last century and witnessing the ravages of Nazi occupation and the violence of the Great Wars, knew that only the words would remain after the bodies have been burned. The words bear witness; they stand as sentinels to all what is noble about the human being; words are the harbingers of freedom and creativity. Shelves of books are witness to human dreams, of imaginations taking flight, free from the bars of prison cells and ghettos.

I am certainly not a Luddite quarreling over Google’s project of digitizing library holdings.  But I worry about losing the tiny hole-in-wall space of a lending library or the expanse of a brick and mortar structure. If public libraries get digitized, would there be a need for the physical structure of libraries, I ask my friends and family.  Everyone I talk to believes that the buildings and their décor have to exist, but with fewer shelves and more cubicles with computers. Since public funds for education and the arts are decreasing and people’s mindsets are changing with the advent of technology and other economic factors straining their lives, libraries in poorer regions are closing, some completely, like Multnomah in Oregon, and some partially, like Southland in Southern California. These public spaces will not disappear, my wise kin predict—at least, not just yet. But the threat of seeing mere skeletons of these denizens of knowledge is imminent in some areas of the United States and in other parts of the world.

With the comforting thought that libraries are currently existing where I live, I gaze at the latest pile of books I have checked out of Emma Clark library.  The feeling of dread, that hollow cave in the pit of my stomach, similar to the Heimweh I experienced long ago in George Washington University, has been planted, though. I want it to disappear, so I can relax about the success of my immigrant quest of finding a shore to beach upon. This concrete shore that rises above divisions. This house of words. This orchestra of silence and thought. This place which testifies to the best about humans.  One can argue that all of this can be preserved in a computer. It’s true that technology can now preserve our words from the ravages of time. But can a computer give us the physical space to find solace with other humans in a place of thought and words, a space that rises above the strife and division that exist in the real world—residential or commercial? 

I find two tendencies happening simultaneously; on one hand more people are reading digitized books and hardly frequent a library; on the other hand, there are people fascinated with the making of books, making the entire product from the paper to its finished form, collating, binding, and printing poems on them, often selling them for a song. And these rare books, just like the banned books, are to be found in precious little library spaces, meant only for the one seeking the noble, the precious, the rare. 

The immigrant or refugee feeling lonely and bereft finds comfort in a place where various judgements about their existence have a brief moratorium. Just like the passerby in the hole-in-the-wall lending library in Calcutta, the bum on the street finds this a temporary home from the freezing winter or the searing summer heat, and a replenishment of the spirit and intellect thrown in as a bonus.

It is only when we experience dearth, do we experience hunger and long for food and drink to whet our appetite. When libraries are demolished, or where none exist, we long to build these havens for they spell the sanctuaries that our spirits long for in the midst of chaos and despair.  During wars, the things that burn, along with buildings and ammunition, are books, libraries, and museums. But the booksellers always come back with a vengeance once the smoke clears and rubble is lifted. Despite every kind of violence, the human imagination always produces ideas and words that find a way to strike against suppression and control. Walls have come down between nations (The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain), even if walls have gone up and we are threatened with more walls. Libraries are brought into prisons, despite controversies. Imagine if we build more libraries rather than prisons and get non-violent offenders to serve time in libraries as a form of community service! This might end the major hurdles we face as a global society to rehabilitation and finding societal change towards lowering structural inequality that leads to crime. 

The hole-in-the wall library, the pavement libraries, the beautiful little house of books will always be the shining light on the hill that will be a beacon for the traveler who is lost, or crossing all kinds of borders, braving all kinds of storms, and weathering everything from brainwashing to starvation and homelessness. At a time when money has become relative because of its tenuousness in the world market, no more can we rely on it to bring happiness. Poets and writers realized this long ago for they wrote not for money but for the sheer love of language and its miracle of replenishing the spirit. My immigrant self holds this dream of entering the portals of a public library very dear for it is the one place that is the locus of my happiness, ensconced in the word and its resonance in the heart. When the refugee, literally and metaphorically, is bereft of language, home, friends, family, and hope, he or she can find in a library a substitute. My fervent prayer is for the lights in this habitation to never go out but to burn brighter by the years. I do not think it is a far stretch to claim that our public libraries are sentinels of peace and justice.

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Exile Poems

Exile Poems