Libraries . . . a personal history
In this twilight phase of my life, it is the memories of all the libraries where I have spent hours browsing books and reading them, borrowing from them, which assail me today.
There are all the stories of the libraries which have enhanced my love of books and reading. In this twilight phase of my life, it is the memories of all the libraries where I have spent hours browsing books and reading them, borrowing from them, which assail me today.
The very first library, a formative one, was the library at St Francis Grammar School, the missionary school I went to in Quetta, Baluchistan. The librarian, the obviously bibliophilic Mrs Zaidi, encouraged me, every time she saw me reading there, with ideas of the new books I could borrow.
It was a plenitude of Enid Blyton that I finished reading in that school library which, I understand, is yet there. It was from this library that I borrowed Tolstoy's War and Peace, thrilled by a challenge thrown at me by my history teacher, the beautiful Ms Kaniz Fatima, on who - between she and I - could finish reading the work faster. She borrowed her copy of the book too. I ended up reading the work before she did.
I was a frequent visitor to the United States Information Centre (USIS) in Quetta. I spent most of my evenings there reading up on every American president from George Washington to Richard Nixon (I speak of the times till mid-1971).
At one point, the USIS passed under the authority of the provincial Baluchistan government and became the Quetta Divisional Library. I went on visiting it regularly, in summer and winter.
Another library which attracted me with its collection of old books was the Sandeman Library in Quetta. I recall the bitter cold winter evenings through which I walked, entered the library, felt the warmth in it and sat down to reading the books that fascinated me.
The times were for me a fairy tale, for libraries were fast becoming a fascinating presence in my life. In addition to collecting books --- my father's colleagues were always either advising me on what to read or giving me gifts of books and journals such as TIME, Newsweek and Reader's Digest --- I discovered that it was gradually becoming a habit with me to search for other libraries in that garrison town.
I chanced upon one on the street near our home and from there I collected all the Classics Illustrated, including the Junior version, and all the Archie and Mickey Mouse comics, took them home, went through them at great speed before going back to the library to return them and borrow more.
And, yes, my reading habits went up a good number of notches when at debates in school I was given books as first prize. The very first such prize was a collection of Oscar Wilde's complete works, signed by my English language and literature teacher Allahyar Malik (whom I last met on New Year's Day in 1996 in Quetta and who passed away a few months after that meeting). I still have the work, a treasure in my home library in Dhaka.
In Dhaka, countless have been the hours I spent at the Public Library at Shahbagh and, before that, when it was located just behind the Dhaka University library.
In my early days, as a student of Dhaka University, I used to turn up at the Public Library before my classes began and read as much as I could on aspects of English literature, in order to strengthen my grasp of the subject.
And yes, there was the DU library, but I will confess I did not spend much time there. The reason was simple: it was difficult finding the books I needed, as I had to prepare tutorials, but when I did end up locating the books in question, it came with the shock of discovering that the chapters I was looking for had been torn out of them by students who obviously were more interested in pilfering pages than in sharing knowledge with others.
The British Library, close to the university, was a natural and necessary haunt for me and my classmates. There were the long afternoons we spent in its quiet ambience reading and, before afternoon gave way to evening, going home with an armful of books to be read and returned.
All those books had to do with English literature, for it was our tutorials we needed to prepare for, as well as ready the term papers we had been assigned by our teachers.
I have not forgotten the time when my teacher, Professor Kaiser Haq, directed me to prepare a term paper on the novels of Thomas Hardy. At the British Council, and also at the English department seminar library, I went through all of Hardy's novels before putting pen to page. It paid off. I was given an A-plus.
A library my friends and I loved being in was the USIS, later the American Cultural Centre, in Dhanmondi. Hasan, Javed and I were all engaged in tutoring, separately of course, a good number of English medium school students every evening at their homes in the area.
Between those periods of tutoring, we spent time in serious reading at the USIS. As members of the library, we borrowed books. Inside the library, we caught up on the latest journals and magazines, a process which helped us improve our vocabulary.
We also spent a good deal of time going through the thick catalogues on admission into American universities. Not all of us succeeded in having our applications accepted, but Hasan made it to America, where he has done well. These days, from Ohio, he conducts a book reading programme every month. I am happy to report that I have been co-opted as a member of the reading group.
In Calcutta, the National Library has been rewarding for me, especially for the rich documents dating from the past it holds in its archives. I only wish I could stay in Calcutta long enough to become a member of the library and partake of the history it holds in its time-enriched shelves.
The story is of course different when it comes to the library at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. As a Fellow at JNU some years ago, I was given the privilege of using the library, both in terms of reading there and borrowing the times I needed for my research.
Being at and with the JNU library was immensely satisfying. And there was too the JNU Centre for Historical Studies, where my friend, the French scholar Thierry d' Costanzo and I spent a good time reading. It was energising being there, thanks to the support I had from Professors Aditya Mukherjee and Rakesh Batabyal, scholars of high repute.
In London, it is the Leytonstone Library which I have often been to for catching up on books displayed on its shelves. It was here that a good number of years ago I read Mourid Barghouti's heart-rending 'I Saw Ramallah', enough to impel me into writing a review of the work.
I look for libraries everywhere I go. On the rooftop at our home in Quetta, in the old days, I tried giving shape to a library where I expected my neighbourhood friends to read. Only one was serious. She was Rabeya. I have no idea where she is today, a half century after she demonstrated her interest in my library.
At home in Dhaka, a humble library has come up in the room my nephew Shahan and I share; and in London a good collection of books now fills one of the rooms in the flat my spouse and I live in. It is cluttered space, but I wouldn't want to make any changes.