The Little Library of Calcutta

The enduring importance of a childhood library.

[Note: This column originally appears in the December 2016 issue of Choice.]
Doctor, firefighter, astronaut, princess, knight, cop, robber, cowboy, Indian (not my kind)—these are the familiar characters of childhood pretend play. Look online and you will find many companies selling costumes and props for these roles. And not just for Halloween. Yet, have you ever seen a librarian costume? What about a library patron costume?

Without ever stepping into a single library—big or tiny, public or private—a small group of Bengali children decided to set up a library nearly forty years ago. I was a member of that group. Our short-lived library existed in the Calcutta of the 1970s. For us middle-class Bengali children that era was no less cosmopolitan than our present time. There was no CocaCola, McDonald’s, malls, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, multiple satellite television channels, or access to the latest books sold in America or Europe through a vendor named after a mighty river we studied in geography class. Yet, our reading habits were far from parochial. Most of us read in two languages (and many even in three). We had access to the world through multiple writing systems, with an expansive set of idioms and accents.

We read Phantom and Archie comics, Nancy DrewHardy Boys, and Agatha Christie. We devoured everything the controversial British children’s author Enid Blyton ever wrote, largely ignorant of her shabby reputation in her native country. We read Bengali books with great gusto as well. Raj Kahini (Royal Tales) by Abanindranath Tagore, brother of Rabindranath, took us on a quasi-historical journey through Rajasthan. Aam Antir Bhepu by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (translated into the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray) made us weep when the young Apu, seated in a train carriage, sped away from his ancestral village, while his dead sister, Durga, pleaded not to be left behind. Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon), written by the same author, took us to Uganda in search of diamonds. We had our own homegrown Sherlock Holmes in the detective stories of Byomkesh, Feluda, and Professor Shonku. We collected Amar Chitra Katha comics, modeled loosely on the “Classics Illustrated” series published in the United States between the 1940s and the 1970s. Herge’s Tintin comics were very popular—in both English and Bengali—but high prices kept them out of the reach of children whose families lived under straitened circumstances. The lucky boy or girl who had a few Tintins lying around at home was cajoled regularly by other children to share those coveted comics. You should hear Captain Haddock swear, Bianca Castafiore sing, and Snowy bark in Bengali. We knew that English cows moo and English dogs woof and English guns go bang bang. But Bengali cows say hamba and Bengali dogs say bhou bhou and Bengali guns go gurum gurum. And what does the thunder say? It depends on which language you can read.

Our flat was situated on Dover Lane in South Calcutta. Television came to India in the mid-70s, and only a few households owned a set. Radio was more common. On Sundays, we listened to popular radio dramas and quizzes sponsored by Bournvita, a brand of chocolate malt drink manufactured by Cadbury. The news in Bengali and English, and Hindi film music programs, were the background score to our daily lives. During test match season, cricket commentary on radio could be heard in every home, at every corner shop.

Books were a source of popular entertainment, borrowed and loaned with ferocious calculation amongst classmates and neighbors. I do not know who came up with the idea of creating our own children’s library. We named it after the most famous poet of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore. Everything in Calcutta seemed to be named after him, and we could not imagine a more prestigious literary name for our venture. The library was housed in my neighbor’s flat, in a small cubby underneath a giant wooden table that served variously as homework station, dinner table, ironing table, and play area. I believe there were no more than half a dozen members of this private library. I remember a few—a brother and a sister who lived across the street from me, and girl who lived in a nearby neighborhood. The boy appointed himself the librarian first. It was to be a rotating role. If we knew the phrase then, we would have said our first librarian was primus inter pares. Reference, circulation, shelving, preservation, acquisition—all departments were under his jurisdiction.

Each of us had to put a few books from our paltry personal collection into that cubby. When resources are tight, even children know it is good to have a consortium. Just as all children feel a thrill when they take on such serious adult responsibilities as putting out fires, catching criminals, waging war, performing surgery, winning the West, or subverting the law, we were thrilled to be members of the little library of Dover Lane. Using a library was serious adult business after all. This is how, I imagine, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth must have felt when they were conducting Pickwick Club business in the March family attic.

In our impoverished nation, during the era before economic liberalization, our library transported us to the Aravalli Hills, to the Richtersveld, to Riverdale High School, to English boarding schools in Cornwall, to Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. Because I write this in 2016, from my home in the United States, I have used words like “impoverished” and “economic liberalization.” In truth, we were not old enough to know we lived in a poor country, and none of us had ever left India. We were not particularly aware of the Emergency other than the political graffiti we read on walls and the stray comments we picked up when eavesdropping on adult conversations. It is only after four decades have passed, after the members of the club have scattered over the globe, after we have had the advantage of reading many books housed in some of the most famous library collections in the world that I can write of those years as the Time Before Economic Liberalization, the Time When Capital Was in Flight, the Time Before Globalization, the Time of Emergency. I might as well call it the Time of Cholera.

We were not naïve readers though. The young patrons of the little library knew that books were sacred and paper was precious. Each of us had spent time in our grandparents’ homes where a small shelf of dusty books (usually in Bengali) bore witness to the childhood of our parents. These moth-eaten books from the 1940s and ’50s known as pujabarshikis—fiction anthologies published each autumn in time for the festival of Durga Puja—were carefully preserved by our grandparents for decades, and devoured by us grandkids during hot afternoons when no one dared venture outside.

Books were rarely thrown away. They belonged to the realm of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and music. In the early spring, when Saraswati Puja—the special day for worshipping the goddess—appeared on the Hindu calendar, young students were unmatched in their devotion. All of us, wearing yellow-hued outfits, would lay our books at the goddess’s feet and repeat the mantra chanted by the priest. To this day, the only Sanskrit mantra I know is the one we offer to Saraswati, the divine one who carries a pustak, or book, in her hand. Orange and yellow marigolds are the traditional floral offerings for Saraswati. We would collect the flowers, blessed by the goddess, and press them between the pages of our books. If one was falling behind in a particular subject at school, the relevant textbook would be liberally stuffed with marigold petals. Years later, pressed, pale orange marigold petals occasionally flutter out of my few remaining childhood books, their enchantment intact.

I never let those marigold petals fall to the ground if I can help it. I rush to catch them mid-flight before my feet defile them. The goddess of knowledge has a vast domain. Her flowers are enchanted, as are all books and all printed paper. The members of the little library of Dover Lane would never let a book touch their feet or fall on the ground. If such an inauspicious accident happened, we would immediately touch the book to our lips and our forehead. The written word cannot be disrespected, for it might anger the goddess of knowledge. Since childhood we had been taught that we could not risk Saraswati’s departure from our lives.

Paper was valued for another reason. It had monetary value. We did not recycle because we were environmentally conscious. We recycled because it had direct economic benefits. The Bengali version of rag-and-bone men were regular visitors to middle-class homes looking to buy old glass bottles, newspapers, books, writing pads, and torn saris. We watched money exchange hands every month when old newspaper stacks, notebooks that could no longer be reused, and empty glass bottles were taken away by these rag-and-bone men. Simply putting these items in a recycling bin would have been unthinkable. Besides, the city provided us no such bins in those days.

The cubby that held our library collection was a repository of the sacred and the valuable. Every member of the library instinctively knew this. We knew that if our collection was to grow, we would need new members (who would donate a few precious books of their own). We made plans for occasionally acquiring a comic or a cheap paperback with the library’s own funds. The librarian knew exactly how to raise these funds. The books would go out on loan for very short periods of time, and late fees would be collected ruthlessly.

Our republic promised riches—expensive Tintin comics, hard-to-find Nancy Drews, and Bengali detective fiction. Membership had a price. I was the first one to be fined. It was a hefty fine for me—a young girl without any money of her own. The librarian set the late fee rate at around five or ten paisas per day. According to today’s exchange rate, ten paisas are equivalent to .00149130 US dollars.

The librarian grew up to be a successful restaurateur. The girl who lived in a nearby neighborhood is a writer and actress. I have never forgotten the value of paper or the smell of those pressed marigold petals. I instinctively kiss books or printed paper that has accidentally fallen to the ground or touched my feet. I am ever mindful of library due dates.

“Guest of Choice” is an editorial initiative offering original contributions by librarians, academics, and public intellectuals who have something of interest to say to our core audience. The views or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Choice, ACRL, or the American Library Association. Interested in contributing a column? Contact Choice editorial director Bill Mickey.