Memories of a Circulating Library

When I was 9, my mother enrolled me into a circulating library in Jayanagar 4th Block. It was named Serene, and it was operating out of what was a smallish garage. The librarian, whose name I cannot really recall (I think it was Kumar or some other common Kannadiga name), was thin, silent and didn’t strike me as someone who read himself. It was a living for him.

The library was one of many like it. Bangalore had a lot of these tiny libraries, operated by either old men, enjoying their retirement, or by some random uncle who would hang out there all day, and perhaps break for lunch. The fees, as I remember them, were 60 INR for a month: you were allowed 2 books per day, and if you finished your book early, you could pay 2 INR extra per day for subsequent books.

The road to the library was flanked by trees and tiny houses. Most of the houses are still there today, although I wonder if any of the original residents live there. I walked alone, with my head usually buried in a book. I loved comics, and I’d read and re-read all the comics that Serene had. I walked to the library every single day that summer. I remember reading 2 or 3 books a day, if my mother was feeling annoyed by my talkativeness enough to give me an additional 2 INR.

The library had a huge collection of Archies’ comics, and a respectable collection of Asterix comics. They also had some Popeye, World War and Marvel Comics. There were very few superhero comics in those days. I read and re-read almost all the Archie comics I could find. The books were usually covered in plastic covers, stapled to the books. They would have signs of wear, the sort that comes from folding the cover all the way to the back. I don’t remember if I did that myself sometimes. I think not, because to this day I cannot bear damaging books.

The library was about 1 km from my house in Jayanagar 4th Block, Bangalore. That’s the area I grew up in, and the road leading up to the library is one of my most favourite streets. It was calm, and had a few stray dogs. I remember being scared of the dogs, which is strange since today you couldn’t keep me from petting strays.

I’m certain that the librarian wondered if this child who kept coming had other friends, because I mostly went alone. It wasn’t until a few years later that I convinced my friend Akshay to get a membership. I don’t remember if I ever convinced anyone else to try the place out.

I am curious what I spoke with the librarian, because I didn’t learn to speak Kannada until I went to college. I could understand it in school, but could not speak enough to have a conversation. I spoke English I suppose, and it’s odd because I remember the Librarian speaking kannada.

I remember the first time I tried reaching for one of the “adult” novels, by which I mean novels by Alistair MacLean or Agatha Christie. It was the first time I was not reaching for the comics. I remember looking at a Fredrik Forsyth novel - something to do with the “Dogs of War”, I think - and the librarian was asking me when I got into those.

I also remember picking up White Ninja by Eric van Lustbader and thinking it was something I’d enjoy. I never finished that book. I wonder if I should read it today.

The books I most associate with the library are Asterix, Tintin (I read very little of these since I didn’t know they were continuous), and Archie comics. I remember the antics of Archie Andrews and Jughead Jones with fondness. I especially loved the Halloween stories, which sometimes blended Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo and the Gang, and others. I vaguely remember there being a single copy of Captain America, but I remember reading more comics of the Shield (the Archie comics character), and the associated super heroes.

I remember reading The Four Just Men, which was a novel about vigilante justice. I keep thinking to myself that I should buy a copy of that book for myself, but I never do.

The library had an open entrance, with a shutter - the sort of roll-upwards shutter you’d find at smallish condiment stores, and it had books on 3 walls. As you entered - on your right you’d find a wooden desk where the librarian sat, he had a tray full of A4 sized cards - these were the cards in which he entered who borrowed which book. He sat on a wooden chair, and behind him was a white bookshelf full of magazines. He also proudly featured the latest Archie comic there. Premium books, or the ones that were the most popular, were always on this desk. This was a time where Harry Potter hadn’t yet reached India to much fame.

On the right wall were the comics. These were usually stacked cover-to-cover, so you had to rummage through them to find anything good. I remember he had some books piled on the floor as well. There would be a row of stacked books alongside the wall, and a row in front of that. The rear row usually had some rare gems, dusty and without a cover page at times. These were the old Archie comics, and some others which kids usually loved.

At the centre of the room was a table. You’d find a selection of books on this as well. I remember seeing the Asterix and Tintin comics there first, stacked again, cover to cover. I spent most of my attention here. Oddly, I do not remember running into anyone my age at the library. In retrospect, that’s quite odd, but given my penchant for not being an extroverted child, that seems to fit right in. I’m certain I didn’t see them because I was too busy with the books.

I can’t remember if there were books under the table. Perhaps that’s where the librarian kept the older books, all of them dusty. On the wall at the end, he’d placed the romance novels. I remember that’s where the Mills & Boon novels were. I never really had much curiosity for those, and I don’t remember reading any of them. I do remember picking up a single Danielle Steele novel, mostly because I read her name as Daniel Steel, and that sounded like someone who would be writing the next great action novel. If I’d watched Die Hard back then, I’d have probably thought this was the same writer.

The right wall had the fast movers towards the entrance. That section had the James Hadley Chase, Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Fredrik Forsyth, Eric van Lustbader, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton and others. Towards the right corner were the books no one usually wanted. It had a few classics, some old magazines that I cannot really remember, and books without covers. The bookshelves went up to the roof, but perhaps it seemed that way because I was a child looking up. I wonder about that.

There are no more circulating libraries operating out of garages in Bangalore. I haven’t been to any of the other libraries in years, and while I’ve wanted a British Library membership forever, I don’t think I’d use a library while I can buy my own books - my collection is already large enough for most people to call it a library.

I frequented Serene largely between 1998 and 2001. By the time I started reading Harry Potter, I’d stopped going, and I started asking my parents for my own books. Street-side vendors of used and, unfortunately, pirated books, made it easy to get one’s hands on many books, including Agatha Christie. There were also book sales that sold by the kilogram, and I’d pick up some books from such places. This is why I never touched the Harry Potter books there. I only returned once in a while to see if they had something interesting. I once lost a book from the library in 2000 because the teacher in class confiscated it. He never returned it and he left school, so I never got the book back. That’s when I stopped going there for a couple of years.

Walking to Serene is how I picked up my habit of reading while I walk. I’ve been warned about that by a lot of people, ranging from friends to strangers. I don’t read on the road, mostly on footpaths. It’s therapeutic.

I wonder what happened to the librarian. The garage where he operated out of is still there, closed. I wonder if I’ll find books if I open it. The shutter hasn’t been open in the years since. There’s a Cafe Coffee Day there, but there used to be a pet store next to it as well.

I think the last time I went to see Serene was in 2003, and it probably closed after that. My membership number was 683, if I remember correctly. I remember opening a second account because I’d lost my first library card after the gap in my visits. I think he gave me the same account number. I didn’t really go very often even after making the account. I mostly used the books at the school library. The last time I went was to riscind my membership so that I could use the safety deposit of 250 INR. I wish I’d kept the membership card instead.

If you asked the younger me what he thought about the absence of circulating libraries, he’d call it tragic. I’m not sure I feel the same way. I have a the resources to own over at thousand books, and I also own a Kindle Oasis. I’m not reading as much as I used to, not even nearly as much. I read the occassional book on tech, and I’m trying to reread my favourites from childhood, starting with The Wheel of Time and the Tolkien collection. I never read those at Serene, and I wonder if somewhere in the shelves lurked a copy of The Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit that I never found. I’d like to think that there was.

Note

There is more I want to write about Serene, and the route I took to get there, especially because it introduced me to a kind man who changed my life. I hope to write more about that later.

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