Shelf Lives : Recollections on Libraries

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”, said the writer Jorge Luis Borges. And paradise is only one of the many things a library is for the reader. For the tired, the library is a hiding place; for the eager, it is a finding place. At times, it is simultaneously no place and all place. It is a shape-shifter. The moment you enter and stare at the shelves, the walls collapse, so do time and space; no more limits, only possibilities. There are few joys in life that can match the delight of returning from the library with a heap of books in the bag. The delight of new beginnings… 

For every reader, there is always a library where it all began, one that felt like home, or one that was so intimidating that running away was the only option, or one that made all earlier libraries seem pale in comparison.

Four such vignettes...




He was two years senior to me. The dada in the neighbouring house. He took me to the para library. I was in the sixth standard. That time the library was on this side of the big playground. Later it shifted to a bigger room on the other side. Library didi, with her back bit bent as she moved from shelf to shelf and her saree anchol taken up to cover her shoulder, was always clad in quiet of twilight. Later as I grew up I started associating that calm with unmarried women. They never shout like mothers and all other married aunts. Sad ones. Never got a man!

‘No books during exams’, she warned me on the first day. The neighbouring dada and I came walking back home holding hands. Our other hands held books borrowed from the library. All library books were hardbound in the same way. The covers would not show the names. The name of the book would hover like a secret deep inside my heart.

The beginning of all things | Artwork: Suman Mukherjee

Library didi knew everyone. The very old (so it would seem to me) dida who would come limping with her little servant girl carrying the bag of books. The bearded kaku in pyjama and fatua who would talk to didi about vote and MPs and political campaigns, ‘come to our michhil tonight didi. Educated women like you must step up!’ Didi would give her coy smile, ‘Ashte to icche kore! But have to be back home and feed father’. Didi’s mother died . There was one woman, ‘very mod (never wore a saree, always salwar), who would always borrow Bengali translations of English classics, from Dickens to Christie. ‘she is an English teacher’, Didi told me.There were young boys too. Always under threat from didi, ‘Read something other than comics sometimes. Then you’ll learn something’. My neighbouring dada had stopped reading. I had got used to his absence on my way to and from the library.

The library was my hiding place too. Ma would push me to go and play with the neighbouring boys in the afternoon after I was back from school. I would run to the library and hide there. I would read the borrowed book fast so that I could go to the library again next evening.  Big books were such bothers! I couldn’t finish them in one day. Then next afternoon I had to hide behind our buildings in a shady place being bitten by mosquitos. Anything to escape the ordeal of men’s company, being teased or touched, dumbass or ass to them.

There was a guy. With hairy hands, a mischievous smile on his face and slight squint in his left eye. He told me one day, ‘there’s a place behind the library you visit. Tomorrow evening, wait for me outside the library’. I waited next day. I was getting to know that giving in to a man is agreeing to wait. We would always make out  in the deserted clubroom behind the library. Once I asked him,’What if someone comes?’ He replied, ‘I’ll run away’. Long after he ran away one day I was in the library and he was suddenly there. Not to borrow books of course. He never read. He kept looking at me for some time. I smiled. He didn’t smile back. He left. Library didi asked me, ‘Tomar chena?’ I nodded. He had that look on his face. A look I’d see again and again and again on a man’s face. And I have never known what it means. It is guilt and rage and longing and helplessness- all that make a man a man.

pAs I leapt from high school to college to university, more libraries entered my life. I do not know when I stopped going to and borrowing books from that para library. Much later once when I was in university I visited the library once. Library didi was seated on her chair, with her back bit bent and white hairs topping the calm face now somehow sad and resigned. That evening after she had locked the library we two walked to the bus stand. We talked a lot. Library didi would retire from the job in one year. ‘they may shut down the library… so I got to hear’. Didi got into a bus. Her father had died. ‘So you are living alone then?’ I asked. ‘Yes. Bhai asked me to shift with them selling father’s house. Bhai and his wife and two kids. They live at Barrackpur. But I didn’t.’ Then she smiled, dragged the saree anchol to cover her shoulder neatly, and added, ‘But not alone Tanmoy. We always have books, tai na?’…

— Tanmoy Biswas



One thing I often ponder over- why am I still a member of this library? It hardly serves anything apart from British books. It doesn’t have a huge stock of rare books either and the authority has a very bad habit of selling good books every year. So as a reader what am I left with after spending a pretty good amount of money for the annual subscription? There is no convincing answer.

‘The shelves that serve stories’: Scenes from the BCL book sale | photo: Siddhartha Dey

But you know what, sometimes the utility belies the worth. I go there almost every alternate week. Why? Because a lot of memories are associated with this place. When I was only stepping into the world of academics at a very young age, this was the library that used to guide me in every semester — with the brilliant opportunity to browse through the shelves that come up with a few renowned books (as a young student what else do you need if a library itself chooses for you what you need?). I remember those hectic Major/ Honours  class schedules amidst which you don’t only need to read but breathe as well. Neither the National Library, nor the library at Golpark gives you the chance to do so with their intimidatingly serious readers and strict rules. But when it comes to the BCL — it is a big ‘yes’, because it is hardly a library but a homely place with some fellow readers to hang out with. You can get a Cappuccino, read and of course meet someone very interesting on the other side of the table. Who knows, you might learn about a weakness, a love affair or a heartbreak? Trust me, the shelves know it all, they serve you the stories.

— Arkoprobho Biswas



 No other person guards his treasures with fiercer passion as all librarians do. A terrible ‘book-sickness’ lies over them. I have seen it in their eyes. It is a jealous love that defines them. My days in Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission (where I studied from class 5 to B.A. Honours) had seen one such exemplary figure of a librarian who brooded over a vast treasure of books in the Central Library.

‘The daydreams spun around the library at Narendrapur’ | photo: Siddhartha Dey

Hostel life was untouched by any modern gadgets. Books were one of the few means of escaping the daily drudgery. However, the librarian’s inviolable guardianship over the coveted treasure was a constant trouble for us. Instead of fairies and damsels, our daydreams were spun around the innermost chambers of the library with books stacked from floor to the roof. These chambers lay hidden behind a small door we could not pass. The watchful librarian always denied us the passage with reproachful words. Unable to desist myself anymore, I once engaged in a verbal battle with him. (You take risks for the things you love!) Such audacity was uncalled for from a little boy. Call it chance or what, he was amused at my bravura. And lo, he led me into the chambers that harboured long-cherished secrets and set me free. To be honest, standing amidst an ocean of books I felt at sea breathing the rusty air of sweaty pages and listening to their whispers that welcomed a stranger in strange tongues, slowly I melted down on the library floor.

— Suman Mukherjee



My imagination has always promised something heavenly at the end of long winding stairs. From famous photographs to groundbreaking artistry, the spiralling staircase hardly fails to impress. So, early in October last year, when I scanned my card and passed through the electronic checkpoint to walk those marbled steps to the Main Library in the Wilkins Building, I expected something beyond expectation. I dare say I was not disappointed, for on either side of my transfixed statue of a persona laid long corridors stacked with books and I could barely decide which way to go first. To follow up, the library officials mentioned that the postgraduate students were allowed to borrow 15 books at a time, and renew them as many times as they wished except for certain circumstances!

‘The long winding stairs of the UCL library’ | photo: Shouvik Banerjee

Thereafter, I have haunted the library like a ghost, and fellow students have whispered on my uncanny knack for glancing through titles — bound and torn, coloured and withered — just for the sheer fun of doing so. Little do they know of this joy for a student from our part of the world, where libraries can only present you with those titles which least live up to your necessities or welcome you with stern faces of cold rejection. Except for the BCL and the American Library perhaps, no other major library in Kolkata allows for a free stroll among the books. Having said that, these two libraries are not even half as well-stocked as the one I regularly go to now. Please be envious, dear readers! The library at UCL lets you have free computer access, has separate spaces for studying, separate room for watching DVDs issued by the library, let alone the extremely helpful library aides and the equally updated online services. The online service is really the best part, with its advanced search option making it almost a second cousin to Google, and which keeps you at the threshold of almost any online periodical or journal or magazine or whatever you are looking for. Even if that is not enough, the database has the likes of BoB National which can get you any show telecasted on BBC. So, you see, the winding steps upward, stairway to heaven. I told you.

— Shouvik Banerjee

Title Photograph (Inside the Library of University College London) by Shouvik Banerjee
Next Post: 11th April


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