Bangalore's library lessons

When the editor of Bangalore Blue (a nostalgic anthology of our city) invited me to write on some aspect of old Bangalore, I straightaway thought of the old circulating libraries that once dotted our landscape. My parents moved from Madras to Bangalore in 1960. My mother didn’t like the hot weather and my father looked forward to going to office wearing a tie — something you couldn’t accomplish easily in Madras. 

When we lived in Journalist’s Colony, just behind Sivaji Talkies, I was a child. So most things about the place are a blur now. What I mostly remember is being bundled up on Friday nights to see second shows of Tamil movies, balancing precariously on a Lambretta. We moved to Wilson Garden in 1965, to a house on 7th cross. On the top of 7th cross was a private circulating library called Dhanalakshmi Lending Library, and I was given some extra pocket money to get a membership and pay for reading charges.

It was, like most circulating libraries then, tiny. A single room crammed with bookshelves. As you entered, on the left was the owner-cum-librarian’s desk where Mr Anand sat, a pleasant, likeable man who was always smiling. In the evenings, the library swarmed with his friends, a bunch of very likeable fellows whom I looked up to and admired. 

Often, long after I had finished picking the comic I wanted to borrow, I would linger inside listening to their conversation. There wasn’t even standing space for them inside the library, so they hung out on the pavement just outside the doorstep of the library, smoking and drinking tea. They were affectionate to all the children who frequented the library; and one of them was to do something for me that fast-tracked my reading privileges there. On my five-rupee deposit, I was allowed to borrow only comics. And that too, only one at a time.

Sunday afternoons from those times stand out sharply: the library was open for only half day, until about 2 pm. After which I would find myself at a loose end, not wanting to dash off home. I would roam the streets and crosses of Wilson Garden in the mild Bangalore sun, passing barber shops from where I could always hear the melancholic twang of Vividh Bharati from a radio. It felt like the whole city was napping and I was the only one awake.

It was one late Sunday morning that an unexpected thing happened to me at the library, galvanising and transforming my reading possibilities in a moment. That morning I found that I had, after all, read and reread all the comics in the library. For the first time, I was about to go away without borrowing anything. On that Sunday, it wasn’t the owner who was behind the librarian’s desk but his friend, minding the shop for him.

I forget his name now, but he stopped me as I was leaving, surprised that I was going without taking a comic. I told him I was done with all of them. “Then take a novel,” he said, looking a little puzzled that I hadn’t picked one already. I was about to argue that I only had a deposit for comics and that, as a fifth standard kid, I wasn’t allowed to take adult books, but something told me to shut up and just take him up on his offer. “What should I take?” I asked as if that was my problem. “Have you read Chase?” he asked. I confessed to seeing several rows of his books, but only the spines, not the covers. He plucked from the shelf the title nearest to him. A Coffin from Hong Kong. He opened to my membership page in that folio-sized ledger book all lending libraries used those days, and jotted down the title of the book and the date of issuance.

I was sure he was now going to discover I was forbidden to take a James Hadley Chase home with me, that it contravened the library’s lending rules. Instead, he shut the book with a definitive thud, saying, “Here, take, enjoy,” and handed the risqué-looking paperback to me. I couldn’t somehow leave without mentioning the deposit issue. And as I stood there dithering, mumbling something about the deposit, he dismissively said, “I know, I say. So what? I’ll tell Anand. How can you say you don’t have anything to read when you haven’t read any Chase? After you read this, you will only want his novels.” I clutched the book and ran before he could change his mind or come to his senses. 

I realised one library couldn’t contain me and it became a mania with me to join as many libraries as possible. By this time my parents had once again moved, this time to Cantonment. And though I now had access to the British Library (where most of my friends hung out, repairing to Koshys or K C Das right after), the Max Mueller Bhavan Library and the State Central Library, I chose to frequent private circulating libraries because I hankered after paperbacks. I remember a funny little library inside Johnson Market! A rather shady man called Gulabi ran it, but it was so close to my school that I could dash there during lunch break and browse to my heart’s content.

On top of Brigade Road, a rather supercilious Anglo-Indian named Lancy ran a library; he made a real fuss about lending the latest bestsellers, making members wait for them, all the while brandishing the books right in front of our faces, saying he couldn’t put them into circulation until he had wrapped the covers with polythene and let the gum dry. Then, it depended on his mood, or on how much he liked or disliked you: he would pretend the book wasn’t quite ready to go out yet, or that it had been borrowed, while all the time it would be just under his desk.

The library that endeared itself to so many Bangalore bibliophiles in the 70s and 80s was Mecca Circulating, in that little lane just off Commercial Street. (And much later, the one his son Fareed ran in Cox Town). A real Mecca for readers in Bangalore. It was Mr M, the owner, a real gentleman, who made all the difference. He was extremely polite — some would say to the point of being obsequious. But as mildly annoying as it was on some days, I would any day have that than the frosty, suspicious nature of most library owners in Bangalore those days, following you around as you browsed, sniffing behind you as though to catch you at something. Mr M was tall, in his sixties, with a stained white beard and a lit cigarette perpetually dangling from a corner of his mouth. Through a haze of smoke, he addressed everyone as Mr or Miss, even if you were only a teenager just out of school.

“Hello, Mr Sebastian!” he would exclaim the moment I stepped into that narrow shop, a real hole in the wall if there was one. His table was at the far end of the room, and he was always seen busying himself with pasting protective plastic wrappers for his books. And the greeting would immediately be followed by (just as loudly): “ How are you, Mr Sebastian!” “Fine, fine, sir,” was what most of us shot back, trying to quickly turn to the bookshelves to avoid further pleasantries. But no one got away that easily. 

“Good of you to drop by, Mr Sebastian.” 

“Thanks, Mr M.” 

“How is college, Mr Sebastian? 

“Good, good, Mr M. And how’s business?” “By your grace, very good, Mr Sebastian.” 

“Oh, that’s good.” “All your kindness only, Mr Sebastian, all your goodness.”

After this, no member found the nonchalance to leave without borrowing a few books and settling some (in several cases, many) library dues.

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