Takeaway

Looking for cover

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on August 24, 2018

Time up: Reading rooms and public libraries were some of the first spaces to be eaten up by development projects in housing and retail sectors   -  THE HINDU/ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The quiet, easy friendliness of public libraries transcends barriers of language and identity

La Bibliothèque de Genève (The Public Library, Geneva) sits in one corner of the University grounds in the centre of the city at Bastion. The structure’s neat build and Renaissance style impose an air of grandiose to the frenzy of human activity that surrounds it. There are mothers strolling with their infants in prams, cyclists zipping past solitary joggers and students who huddle in groups and break out in laughter now and then. On a summer’s day, the sun adds a flagrant hue to everything it touches — window panes, young leaves, human eyes that strain and veer to look past its blinding warmth. I started frequenting the Bibliothèque about two years ago as I jittered and jangled around the city as a newly arrived expat, looking for work and trying to speak a language that I had little knowledge of outside of a few subtitled avant-garde productions I’d watched. Finally, I did what I always do when I’m nervous — abandon the chaotic world for the one that’s sustained with books and reading.

The cross-continental move from Delhi to Geneva had left me disoriented as I negotiated my way through not just a perfectly cloistered job market in a foreign country but also an inscrutable language. Grocers stared back at me in disapproval if I tried to communicate in English and not the officially recognised French. If my query in English was tolerated with a tight zip of the lip, the answer to my question was volleyed back in French, fast and incomprehensible. I arrived at the library looking for a patch of hospitality and found an enormous banyan willing to offer shelter to anyone who needed it.

Growing up, books played a decisive role in keeping me indoors during Kolkata’s blazing summers. When the elders in the house noticed that I was spending too much time curled up with a book on a sofa as a pre-teen to be considered healthy, they would nudge me to step out for an errand that was a mere front to get me to walk. I would step out and wander off to the small, dingy reading room that the local club maintained, housing mostly Bengali periodicals and comics such as Tenida, Bantul the Great, Shuktara, a few novels and, very rarely and incongruously, a couple of well-thumbed Hardy Boys. The scattered chairs and tables were occupied by retired men dealing cards and despairing about the days ahead. As the future made its way to the present, the reading room was swiftly demolished to make more space for the unemployed local youth to indulge in carrom, cards, “party-politics” and organising the Durga Puja.

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As I grew older, although my interactions with books became more intimate, my contact with libraries diminished progressively. At college and university, reading rooms and libraries were well-stocked enough to not necessitate a separate library membership. As the years rolled on, and I changed jobs and cities, the thought of libraries as cherished spaces vanished from my vocabulary, even though I kept up with my readings and bookstore visits. Sometimes, on an uneventful weekend, I would wonder about taking a library membership but the logistics often involved taking a detour from my usual commute, and I would let the thought sink into the subconscious.

So when, after a gap of several years of being inside a library, I stepped inside the Bibliothèque, I felt that I’d found a safe and nurturing space. A space where all the other non-negotiable demands of my new life — such as speaking French — were not mandatory. They weren’t hostile to those speaking English. The exchange of information is swiftly conducted with little verbal exchange, a quick nod and a polite merci. And the high ceilings and tall windows allowed a spot for me and all those who came to its doors to pursue their solitary goals undisturbed.

When in this digitised era I started frequenting the Bibliothèque, I began appreciating and learning all over again the power that communities hold. A community of readers — heads buried in books, periodicals or laptops, seated next to each other, working away, lost to the world — brought me back from the pits of hopelessness and isolation. The smell of books, the sound of stealthy footsteps, the quiet, rhythmic tapping of keyboards, and guarded whispers returned me to the familiarity of habit, of work, and of company — all of which I’d lost in the turmoil of settling into a new home in an unknown country.

In a league of its own: La Bibliothèque de Genève (The Public Library, Geneva), in the centre of the city at Bastion   -  DEBASHREE MAJUMDAR

 

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The most remarkable thing about public libraries is that they function as democratic spaces. These are of, and for the people, and usually do not demand that visitors become paying members. Of course, if you want to borrow books then you can sign up for a borrowing card for a princely sum of 10 CHF (about ₹700) per year. Such non-discriminatory and non-commercial spaces are rare to come by today. In the mornings, the library teems with students, scholars, readers, writers; and on cold and rainy days, several rough sleepers. In the climate of rising intolerance, these libraries are filling in the gap of generosity and inclusion. It’s a heartening sight for an outsider to be unquestioningly accepted and given access to all that is available within the high stone walls of the Bibliothèque.

Like every well-oiled machine, the Bibliothèque, too, has its rhythm. Although readers flit through the rooms day in and day out, there is an imperceptible migration to the lunch room in the adjacent building at 11.45 am. Students step out in the grounds to roll cigarettes, bite into sandwiches and pop open cans of chilled Erdinger bought from the grocery next door. An elderly man appears every day, poring over Le Monde from cover to cover, dressed for business, in chequered tweed, his silver hair covered in a beret during winters. He sports well-maintained linen and canvas shoes in summers. My guess is that routine runs deep — the elderly man might be replacing his former workplace with his visits to the library.

There are many like him. There is the resident “madman”, as he is commonly known. He roams the grounds, dressed in long patched-up robes, sometimes a coat, his hair a long mane of unwashed curls, his eyes, transparent and large, in perpetual shock, as if he still can’t believe what the world has come to. He can be found shouting expletives in French and mouthing threats at unseen enemies. Post noon, this angry old man walks into the library and stations himself in a corner, reading French dailies in loud whispers. No one asks him to keep it low. No one accuses him of disturbing those who may be on to some good. Instead, everyone takes his presence as cue for lunch. And this cycle of events continues through the year, come hail or high summer.

How one experiences a library is often personal, subjective and varied. For some it’s magical, what with all the obscure writers, scandalous memoirs, illustrious records and ancient treasures that one could discover; for others it is a space abundant in peace. For people like me who lack discipline, it’s where one could come and focus on the task at hand, distractions be damned. The fact that there are numerous others who are trying to do what you are intent on achieving brings strength and consolation.

The potency of public libraries as communal, friendly places, apart from being custodians of culture, can hardly be overemphasised. Although libraries continue to disappear at an alarming rate, there are many who walk the extra mile to keep these institutions from falling prey to “business needs”. I, for one, am thankful for these spaces that stand tall, their doors wide open, letting anyone and everyone read, write, work and connect — much like home.

Debashree Majumdar is a freelance writer and editor

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Published on August 24, 2018
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