Of public libraries and nostalgia

LEARNING SCHOOL

Rohit Dhankar reminisces about the numerous rural public libraries that shaped the thinking of children thirsting for knowledge

Some years ago small towns had good public libraries.  Picture for representation only.Public Library, Sultana: Imagine a dusty village with a population of about 2000, a marketplace with about 40 shops in all, selling a variety of goods needed by the tough rustic community around it. Also imagine a 14X16 square feet room on the first floor above a cloth shop with nothing but adurrie in the middle. It has books neatly lined against the walls in a single row and also has a few two feet high piles of books, arranged so that one can see the spines and read the titles. This room-with-books was the public library of this dusty village/town. It was managed by the traders, one of whom opens it between 1 pm and 3 pm, which meant closing down his shop at that time, every day.

Add to this scenario, village boys — painfully few — walking six kilometers under a blazing June sun at 44 degree Celsius, with and without umbrellas, starting at noon to reach the library by 1 pm. Once they reach the marketplace, they first drink cool water from a ‘pyau’ under the neem tree in front of the library. Then they climb the short flight of stairs and start looking at the books.

One could issue up to three books at a time. No membership forms or fees; the librarian just wrote one’s name, father’s name and village in a register, and then listed all the books issued.

This was my first acquaintance with a public library. It introduced me to Premchand, Yashpal, Agyay, Bhavani Prasad Mishra, Gulshan Nanda, the Vinod-Hamid series of detective novels, and a lot more from Hindi literature. It also introduced me to Hindi translations of Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, Dostoevsky and many more Russian writers, and to publishers like Pragati Prakashan Moscow, Sasta Sahiyta Mandal, Hind Pocket books, etc.

Today it is a bustling town with hundreds of shops in the marketplace, exceedingly crowded and dirty. There are three temples but no public library; the sun still blazes at 44 degrees in June but there are no village boys walking with or without umbrellas.

Public Library, Bagar

Some of the boys who walked to the Public Library in Sultana reached a higher secondary school in a slightly bigger town nearby called Bagar. This school had a well-maintained library; only one room but full of books in unlocked glass-fronted bookcases. One day I was issuing Jhootha-Sach by Yashpal when the Hindi teacher came, saw the book in the librarian’s hands and me standing next. In his best authoritarian voice he instructed the librarian not to issue the book to me. He opined that I was too young for the book and it was certain to make a communist out of me, which would be dreadful for me and the school. The librarian asked me to choose another book. By the time I returned with another, the Hindi teacher was gone. The librarian informed me in a low voice that there is a public library in the marketplace of Bagar, managed by the same librarian, which had Jhootha-Sach and there he was under no obligation to obey the diktats of school teachers.

That took me to the Public Library, Bagar. A single room with a verandah, it was lined with glass-fronted unlocked bookcases right up to the ceiling. One had to climb a well-made wooden ladder to reach the top shelves. There was a huge table in the middle with chairs around it, for readers. The librarian sat in one corner of the room on a small table. One had to become a member, without paying any fees, and could issue up to two books. This library provided me with my first encounter with Hegel and Marx, but they were much beyond my grasp.

I often pass through Bagar, but had not visited the library until recently. The glass-fronted book-cases in the school library are all locked and the school boasts of a newly constructed Hanuman temple.

Public Library, Laxmangarh

In the first year of B.Sc, I went to a new college in Laxmangarh, and though it had managed good chemistry and physics laboratories, the library was grossly inadequate. My experience in Sultana and Bagar immediately suggested a hunt for a public library and I found it standing right next to the bus stand, a three-room building in the middle of the marketplace.

It was not as well-stocked as Bagar but was good enough for me. I didn’t come across anything strikingly new but it provided reasonable scope to continue the threads I was half-consciously pursuing. Here I made my second attempt at trying to understand a Hindi translation of Marx’s Das Kapital, and failed again. This is where I started following the Hindi weekly Saptahik Hindustan and magazines like Navneet and Kadambari.

Public Library, Churu

Though the Lohia College Library in Churu was the best-managed, most well-stocked and beautiful library I had seen till then, my general orientation led me to the public library there as well.  It had two rooms, rather too small for a library, but welcoming. Not too many books, but a large number of newspapers. It introduced the history of Churu town to me, and that kindled an interest in me in the local history of these Shekhawati towns. I tried to acquaint myself with the local histories of Jhunjhna, Chirawas, Navalgarh and Laxmangarh, but not very successfully. By that time, Churu college library led me to the history of mathematics and reading English novels beginning with Pearl S Buck.

I often question: how come all these small towns in Shekhawati with such low literacy rates then had public libraries with reasonably good literature in them? Was it due to the freedom movement? Was it a result of turmoil in the minds of the local intelligentsia? Was it some kind of hunger for knowledge or understanding? Originated and sustained by what? I suspect the library movement in these towns has almost died down by now. Why?

(The writer is a professor at Azim Premji University.)

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