Many mornings I wake up with a Rebeccaesque ‘Last night I dreamt of V.K Library again…’ Sometimes it is the library at its original location, next to The South Indian Bank. I would cross the ‘bridge’ over the shiny zinc roof underneath and enter the tiny book filled room, the one my mother probably took me to even before I learnt to walk, and pick out a Mark and Mandy book. Other times, I would find myself staring helplessly at a wall of Mills and Boons or breathing in the smell of glue and dust in the Book Repair room at the back. Sometimes I would have a happy, contented dream reading a hardcover Nancy Drew and The Whispering Statue.
V.K Circulation library. One of the major influences that shaped my childhood. A long corridor of magical memories.
What had started off as someone’s private collection of books, slowly grew over the years into a full fledged and the only private library in our tiny town. It reached the peak of its glory in the 80s and died a sad death in a makeshift utility room on the roof of a shopping complex. Today, the library, or the building where the library was, is unrecognizable. Torn down and converted into a large generic hall that housed a textile showroom and a hardware store for a while and is now a restaurant. But to me, the place continues to invoke some of the fondest memories of my growing up years.
It was the place where I graduated from Mark and Mandy to Enid Blytons. Where I devoured the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys with aggressive ambition and kept track of the ones I’d read from the list on the back cover. Where Trixie Belden came into my life and put me through a phase where I called my mother Moms. Where I learnt history and mythology from the bound volumes of Amar Chitra Katha. From where my mother would sometimes ask me to close my eyes and pick out a random dumb-read Mills and Boon or ask me to dig out a specific James Herriot or Jim Corbett when she was too lazy to go to the library herself. Where I sneaked out my first Silhouette Romance novel and later Crosswinds-Keepsakes with the boy-girl covers. Where I experimented with books beyond my age, one with a windowed outer cover that showed just the stillettoed foot of the woman on the inside cover. Where as a teenager, I tried to read The Exorcist inspite of my mother’s ban on it. I still haven’t recovered from the disgust. Where I was shooed away when I tried to browse the shelf behind the librarian which, many years later, I learnt housed the dirty books. Where many times, I’ve lost myself in a book and lay sprawled on the floor reading it, until the librarian anna tapped me on my shoulder and chased me out
The place where I spent my entire monthly pocket money on books. ‘Reading’ books cost 7% of the marked price and comics cost 10% of the marked price, per week. We neighbourhood kids tried to get more value for money and designed an elaborate exchange scheme where we agreed to read and exchange the maximum number of books with each other within the week. And as shrewd as we were, it was always a ‘reading’ book for a ‘reading’ book and a comic for a comic. The bound Richie Rich comics that had four slim issues were counted as a single book and could not be exchanged against four slim black and white Mandy-Judy-Bunty-Debbie comics. ‘Unequal’ books could be exchanged only in special cases and own books could not be exchanged against library books. Fights over The Policy have sometimes resulted in a thump on the head with a hardcover or scratched up hands.
I’ve also earned my books. Chitrakka, my neighbour had lovely, long but lice infested hair. I was hired to de-lice her hair every weekend. As gross as it may sound, I got paid 10 paise per louse and 5 paise per nit, the amount which could be redeemed as a book from her membership. She actually took out the membership in my name and gifted it to me when she got married and left. A141. Each time I met a Lice Target, I would run and grab a Mills and Boon for her and a lice earned book of my choice for myself .
When I was 13 the uncle who owned the library offered me a summer job there. It was one of the best summers of my life. He actually owned the video section of the library, but after I had indexed and arranged the video cassettes, I would slowly sneak out to arrange the books. Of course, it took me almost a whole day to arrange just one shelf in between reading. I got paid a princely sum of Rs.200 for the job.
As an adult, I somehow frequented the library lesser and lesser. More books were returned unread because I suddenly found better things to do. When I got back to the reading habit, I had changed. I became more of a buy person than a borrow person. I wanted to read on terms and time that I decided. But by then, the library too had lost its original character.
And then progress happened. Satellite TV happened. The town got richer and needed space for Better Things. The generation that read more gave way to the generation that watched more and later, browsed more. The reading population in town slowly dwindled down and the reading habit died. And along with it, so did V K Circulation Library.
Someday I dream of starting a library in my town again. One where kids could sprawl themselves on the floor and devour books for lunch. Where an entire afternoon could be spent breathing in freshly varnished woody shelves and dusty old print. One where they could learn about The Mughals in Amar Chitra Kathas and remain innocent to the hidden racism in Phantom comics. One which would now have shelves of Harry Potter and Twilight, but would also have old Nancy Drews ,Hardy Boys, Dana Girls and Bobbsey Twins sourced from secondhand shops. Those that would keep children believing that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W Dixon were real persons. A library where the 50 Shades Trilogy would be placed in the shelf behind the strict librarian. A place where I could rediscover my childhood. A place where I could give future generations theirs.