“Don’t you ever have the habit of returning books on time ?”, asked the librarian. His voice was not so harsh as it should have been probably because he was known to my father. In Neyveli, everybody knew everybody else.
I had the horrible nature of returning books later than they were supposed to be returned yet pleading with the clerk at the library to waive off the 5 paise per day fine citing reasons that I was a student and had to study for exams etc.
Jawahar, my school was known for conducting exams on every alternate days. On other days, the school conducted slip-tests. This was a known fact in Neyveli ( also rumored that this news had appeared in The Hindu ) and hence I was confident that the fine-clerk would be convinced with my reply.
Many a time I would be referred to the librarian who would be conversing with me using the first sentence of this write up.
The library had the board “Silence please ” pasted all over. Every body in the lib would be observing silence but the librarian. He had that stentorian voice that he could not hide. Even if he whispered, it could be heard in the next building.The irony was that when ever any one of us ever whispered, the librarian’s voice would boom thus: “Can’t you ever keep quiet ?”
Keeping quiet had never been my trait, whether at school or at home. Had it been the case I would not have been the out-standing-student that I was ( having been asked to stand outside the class due to this unique trait of talking constantly irrespective of whether the teacher was present or not). Hence it was no wonder that I didn’t keep quiet at the library. Library had always been a place in Neyveli for friends to meet up and chat about anything on earth. The only place where you got to see all kinds of people assembled with some desperate ambition in mind but not knowing what to do to achieve those – those were the kind of people who were to be seen seen in the library.
Let me illustrate :
I go there to get some additional information on “Mughal emperors”. While searching for that I come across this dog eared and worm eaten treatise on the British rule and its impact on the Indian agricultural system in India. I begin to wonder how on earth would somebody in Neyveli, an insustrial town, have spent a lot of time With a book of such nature, thereby spoiling himself completely in the rich traditions of the British spoiling the Indian agricultural system ?
How does this esoteric subject interest somebody that this book has probably been read many times by many people that the book has so worn-out so as to resemble the Declaration of Independence – the original one ?
Thus would begin my journey back in time to see who all had borrowed the book in the past. The names of the borrowers and the dates would have been written in illegible ink that would have faded in direct proportion to the time those entries would have been made. Some would date as far badly in time such as 1957 when the library would have been inaugurated. Probably Neyveli was an agricultural area then and some farmer who was literate and should have bought this book and after having gained adequate insight into how the British had spoiled the Indian agriculture would have found it fit to donate to the still nascent library. Then my eyes would hover around the next entry that would suggest a say ” Sambandam – 12-03-1959″. That would be enough to trigger off another series of thoughts that would cover the history of Sambandam, probably he was the Sambandar of the ancient times. But then logic would interfere and say that the British period was much later than the Sambandar period of the early 9 th century. But how come there had existed a Sambandam in 1959, that was interested in such a subject as dry as the Sahara desert, when the town of Neyveli itself was still in its infancy ?
With these thoughts in mind and an age old book and an age old topic on hand, how could I remain quiet? I had every reason to solicit expert opinion from Kichi my pal who had an opinion on anything . In fact he had an opinion on opinion itself. ( more on Kichi in a later post ). And when Kichi opened his mouth, there was no stopping him. And that would inevitably result in the librarian getting worked up as there could not be two loud speakers on at the same time.
How does one infiltrate into my territory and expose his erudition, so it appeared to me when ever we were chided by the librarian. But that did not deter us from continuing with our banter in not so hushed tones.
Library at Neyveli not only helped us quench our thirst for knowledge but also our thirst for ice cold water. There was a tap with a contraption that produced ice cold water all times of the day. In a way it reminded me of Kichchi in that it kept running even after the knob of the tap was closed.
The very personality of the Neyveli Library had such a stupefying effect on me that I used to wonder if I should probably take up the job as the librarian so that ‘officially’ I could read all the magnificent classics and the ‘dog-eared’ books present in the long corridors of book shelves. ‘How does one become a librarian ?’ I often thought.
And under these circumstances was I introduced to Tin Tin, Holmes, the Hardy boys and similar such beings. As time advanced, I graduated to meet the characters of R.K.Narayan, Wodehouse and the like and started to imagine myself as The Financial Expert or The Painter Of Signs with reference to the context.
While during the first week I became “Raman”, the painter of sign, on the second week I transmogrified into The English Teacher while just two weeks prior to that I would have been the Bachelor of Arts- all these being the different titles of R.K.Natayan. While Malgudi became my ideal town to live in, I began to imagine Neyveli as Malgudi. Hence the Central Bus Stand became the Malgudi bus stand, Main Bazaar became Market Road and the forests beyond Block 2 became Nallappas’ Grove. Of course the mountains of The Mines 1 and 2 became the hills of Mempi and the only thing that was lacking was the Sarayu river.
Once you start imagining yourself as the painter of signs, then the inevitable question would be ‘who is Daisy?’ Well. anybody could be the Daisy in Neyveli. In any case, the similarity between myself and the painter of sign , Raman, was that both of us circum-ambulated our respective towns in bicycles.