Sunday, November 16, 2008

What are you reading these days?

One of my earliest memories is of a visit to a lending library. We lived in Shimla and I had discovered a circulating library near our home. Since my mother would not let me borrow a comic, I picked up my first copy of Enid Blyton. When we got home, my overbearing uncle thundered: “How can you let the boy read this trash!” Blyton may not be Shakespeare but with her I began my love affair with reading. When my kids were of that age they too found a lending library at Kemps Corner in Mumbai. When our family meets nowadays, we don’t ask, ‘how are you feeling?’ We ask, ‘and what are you reading these days?’

Just as a great city must have a big public park along with lots of small neighbourhood parks, so it must have one big public library and many neighbourhood libraries. Ideally, public libraries should be free, paid by taxes, and managed by the municipality. But this is a distant dream in India where the state has failed to deliver even more basic services like schools and hospitals. So, what do Indians do? Well, we don’t sit around. We start lending libraries in the bazaar, which are a metaphor of India’s middle class as it pulls itself up by its bootstraps. When government schools fail we start private schools in the slums; when public health centres fail, we open cheap health clinics.

Generally lending libraries charge ten percent of the book’s price. Since a new paperback costs Rs 200, one can borrow it for Rs 20, which is cheaper than an ice-cream. Chennai boasts the most lending libraries—129—but Eloor, they say, is the best with 80,000 volumes in a digital catalogue. Now thriving in Bangalore, Kolkata, and Delhi, it started in Kerala, the legendary home of the Reading Room movement. Hundred years ago villagers could not afford a newspaper and so they shared it or read it aloud to others. Thus, reading rooms were born. They made people politically aware, and EMS describes how they helped abolish the princely states of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar and united Kerala. By 1947 every village in Kerala had its reading room from which the communists recruited their cadres.

When I was thirteen, I visited America, where I discovered the neighbourhood public library from where I could borrow books for free. I walked in one day, filled out a form, and I was a member. The library had got started through a philanthropic donation of Andrew Carnegie, the ‘robber baron’ who built America’s steel industry. Between 1900 and 1917, Carnegie founded 3000 neighbourhood public libraries, insisting that the local municipality had to guarantee tax support for running and maintaining them.

In India, we do have some grand public libraries—the National Library in Kolkata, the Royal Asiatic in Bombay, and the splendid Connemara in Chennai. But these are more for scholars. Our most inspired library effort in recent years has been Delnet. The brain child of Dr HK Kaul, Delnet has electronically linked 1350 public libraries in India and a member can access 75 lakh books via an inter-library loan within 2-3 days.

But a neighbourhood library has a social purpose as well. Like a tea or a paan shop it brings people together. Delhi Public Library has a few branches but it insists on your identity verified by an MP/MLA/Gazetted Officer before you can borrow a book. My library in America only wanted an envelope bearing my family’s home address—such as a phone bill—as proof. I was treated as a citizen, not as a subject. Despite television and on-line reading, people will continue to read books for pleasure. Perhaps, one day we too will spawn our Carnegie. Or, as we turn into a middle class nation, we will demand publicly funded libraries. Meanwhile, at least, we have our lending library in the bazaar.

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