Turning Pages

Libraries. Ever since I can remember walking, I’ve always been taken to libraries by my parents. Growing up as the younger sibling to a very literarily inclined person and son of parents who supported it very enthusiastically meant going to libraries even before I could read. Also, having always grown up in coastal cities, I can easily say that apart from school and home, libraries and beaches are probably where I have spent the most time. So much so that for each phase of my short life so far, I have associated specific libraries with them.

The first six years of my life were spent in the spick and slick city that is Singapore. Not much remains in my memory from that time except a few distinctive sights and images. We would visit the library often, my brother borrowing a few books to read while I surfed through as a small child. I have since forgotten the name of the library, or where it was located even, but I do recall it being very swanky; a building several stories high, with a glass façade and hardwood floors. I still remember the rows and rows of the iconic “sunflower” iMac G4s on desks for people to work on that also served as directories. Well, it was Singapore.

It was in 2006 that we moved to the suburbs of Sydney, where I would finally be old enough to appreciate reading. The first library that I encountered was my school’s library; quite an impression it has made on me since. The whole library was about the size of two average classrooms put together. It had green carpeted floors, steel shelves that were painted white, large, airy windows that opened up to the playground, several tables, chairs and beanbags that were strewn across the floor in careful abandon, and animals painted on the walls in cheery colours. Lunch hours were long, and we were allowed full access to the library during school time. I would find myself often gobbling my food in a hurry to rush to the library- praying that nobody had borrowed the book I was already half-way through- to continue reading. In a place so new to me where first-graders already had established groups, I naturally didn’t have many friends; the library was my sanctuary and however sappy it may sound, the books were my companions.

The school’s library had a 4-book borrowing limit per week. Considering the rate at which my brother and I devoured books, we found ourselves wanting more. My mother, who greatly encouraged our reading and our borrowing (taking it as a wonderful opportunity to instil both curiosity and thrift), then began to search for libraries in the surrounding suburbs. And that was when we found the Strathfield Council Library.

It was nearly a kilometre and a half away from where we lived, and we would often walk. As a treat, our mother used to drive us there, often clubbing it with a trip to the supermarket, but I much preferred walking. All the pavements were tree-lined and shady, and the various lawns and hedges made the walk worth it. We would sometimes stop at the odd yard-sale too if time permitted. This library was the one that introduced me to the world of flying chairs, civilisations on trees, talking, crime-solving mice, witchcraft and wizardry, and so much more. It was there that I attended my first story-telling session (with chocolate-chip cookies baked by someone from the community), it was there that I heard my first audiobook, where I read out book reviews to a book club and first participated in a book swap. This library had no limits to borrowing as far as I remember. I remember borrowing many, many books, walking back home, impatient and eager to divulge into them.

My stint with that library was unfortunately short-lived. Three years later, when I was nine years old, we moved to Chennai. Another city with great beaches; another city where we would have to search for new libraries. Naturally here too, the first library that I came across was the one in school. It couldn’t be any more different to the school library and its lax rules that I was accustomed to. Gone were the animated backdrops and the cheery atmosphere; I was growing up and the changing surroundings, unfortunately, reflected it. The room was large and airy, with the (mostly academic) books locked in steel almirahs with glass windows. The bean bags had been replaced with large, lacquered hardwood tables and benches, and the chatter of fervid, curious children was replaced by a very scholarly silence, punctured by the odd moving of the benches or the creaking of the fans. One of the many nurses in school occupied a corner of the library which was repurposed as a clinic; make of that what you will.

Though we weren’t allowed to borrow books from it unless we had special permission, in later years, I would come to love the place for what it had to offer- a respite from the chaos that the school was, previous year question papers, and a lot of teacher interactions that I’m very grateful for. However, for a pair of primary school students with an insatiable appetite for stories, it became imperative that we found another library. And that’s when we stumbled upon the lending libraries of Chennai; a concept that was very ironically foreign to us.

Initially, we were patrons of the Senthil Lending Library- where I have my best memories – and we would later move on to the Easwari Lending and Murugan Lending Libraries; all branches of the same chain. Senthil Lending Library was (is, but I no longer visit) a small store-like room with a shutter, absolutely overflowing with piles and piles of books on shelves that reached the ceiling. It ought to have been logistically impossible to fit that many books in such a small enclosure, but life is full of magic and mystery (but I’m sure the exceptionally narrow aisles helped). Upfront sat a thin middle-aged man in front of a computer that looked like it was older than me. Ask him where any book is, and he’d be able to locate it for you much faster than the iMacs of the Singaporean library. We went there very often, borrowing Tinkles, novels, car magazines, whatever we wanted. Opposite the library used to be an Ibaco, and a few stores beside it was a parotta place with the best salna I’ve come across in the city. A trip to the library also meant going to either of these places; both if we were lucky, neither if we were in a hurry.

During vacations in particular, since we spent them at our grandparents’ in Erode and Rasipuram, we would borrow stacks of books of varying genres. We would read on the train ride there, while eating, sometimes even whilst watching TV (this was before smartphones and data packs). The sweltering summer months meant that the plastic-wrapped books stuck to our hands and thighs and that the pages inevitably became soaked, but nothing stopped us. Even if I weren’t reading, I would look at the stamps on those sheets at the end of the book and wonder what lives these books had led up until now, where and all they had been, and who and all might have read them; sometimes my stamp was the second or third, sometimes on the second or third sheet.

Sooner than later, I would grow up, grow older. My life was changing fast, and I could do nothing to stop libraries from becoming a victim. I would become so bogged down by schoolwork that I could no longer afford the luxury of time to visit libraries and read books. I would visit the library just for vacations, but that was it; barring the odd visits to lease guide books in the 11th and 12th grades. Libraries soon became places that I had visited in the recent past; places I would look at longingly as we drove by. The transition was slow but painful. Stories of multiple books may lay forgotten, in the depths of my mind somewhere, but the feeling of anticipation, solitude, and contentment before, whilst, and after reading the books still ring large. Memories fade, but emotions linger.

Why- you may ask after reading my rambles-  did I take the effort to pen down all of this? Well, the other day last week, my mother received an e-mail from the Easwari Lending Library conglomerate informing us that it has been quite a long while since we had borrowed a book from them. To be honest, we weren’t planning on going there anytime soon; we no longer read as voraciously as we used to, and Kindles and e-books have since replaced physical books.

However, it did set me thinking about how much life has changed over the years and what it has amounted to. The same boy who looked so forward to going to the library once upon a time now barely gave it a second thought. What used to be among my favourite places to visit was now all but a distant memory. Change is cruel.

Life is forever changing; old makes way for new. In an ideal scenario, both should be able to co-exist, but sooner enough, the former lay forgotten. To be forgotten is a topic of discussion for another day, but the state of being all but a small memory in the corner of one’s brain is forever looming and inevitable. And that is what is scary about life. Changing. The future is scary. What it holds in store for us is scary, and for some of us, it makes much more sense to simply thrive in the present; in the known. Progress, however, is a gentle process; an aware and conscious effort. One is always in the know, mindful of, and familiar with the growth happening in one’s life. None of the uncertainty that is involved in change makes way into progress.  

Change is like a stream or a river; continually moving, gushing. There are fast-paced sections, with daunting and fearsome currents, and slower sections, with wider berths and patient waters. Just standing beside a roaring river is formidable. Lakes, however, are much quieter, much more forgiving. Lakes aren’t stagnant, rather still; they’re forbearing, composed, and tolerant. And most importantly, they’re self-sufficient, thriving ecosystems. Lakes are beautiful too.

Maybe one day I’ll go back to the library with a small child accompanying me, and I’ll introduce them to the beautiful microcosm that opens up to so many other universes. Maybe one day they’ll sit down and write about it too.

Sunil Jagatheesan

I just wanna ride in the sky, In a blue Cadillac

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