The charm of Usha Shenbagaraj’s Dheepam Lending Library lies in her bonding with members beyond books

Forty years ago, Madurai’s first private library started for a simple reason. Young housewives and college girls did not find much to read and were unwilling to spend on books. The Dheepam library in a 200 sq ft garage space in Narimedu opposite Noyes School came up as an ideal resource-rich alternative where residents dropped in to inform and educate themselves.

Between 1970 and now, a few small private libraries have emerged and died, but Dheepam, started by ‘Thaathaa Rajagopalan’, has survived. Usha Shenbagaraj, a member since 1982, has brought it this far.

She could have started a salon or even taught embroidery and crochet classes, but obviously it wasn’t the money she was looking for. Says the avid reader, “I read Jane Eyre and my first Danielle Steel here. My love for books made me buy the library from Thaathaa in 2002 and keep it going when others were closing shop.”

Dheepam was cruising with 100 members and 1500-odd books till floods struck in 1993. Many books were damaged. The few that were retrieved continued to circulate but with little maintenance. Then Thaathaa came down with prostrate cancer and started looking for buyers. Usha, one of his most regular members, took over his collection and space for Rs.30,000.

“It was a good price and I did not hesitate,” says Usha. She retained the name for familiarity and sentiments as it was named after Rajagopalan’s daughter, Amaradheepam, who died at the age of four. After becoming the owner, she discarded 135 kilos of old books and retained 500 books and 40 old members.

New address

Two years ago, Usha shifted the Dheepam Library to a new location on P.T. Rajan Road, dragging her new collection of 3,000-plus books, including bestsellers, cook books and predominantly romance and humour in Tamil and English. She now has 625 members to read them.

“I don’t stock many classics,” she says. Most of her members look for light reading.

She also stocks 500 books for children including Tintin, Asterix, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton because, she says, many parents in Madurai don’t want to buy books for kids as they are expensive and just lie around once the child finishes reading them. “Many homes also don’t have adequate storage space,” she adds.

Usha gives full credit to her husband J. Shenbagaraj for his support and tips in running the library. Thaathaa used to charge Rs.5 as membership fee, today she takes Rs.700 as deposit. “I am also strict with rules and insist that the borrower returns the book on time or else pays late fee. The book has to be maintained well or the cost of the book is recovered from the member,” she says, revealing that it hurts when people return books with food stains or telephone numbers and recipes scribbled on them.

“My husband doesn’t read at all,” she smiles, but his suggestions are always an inspiration. He taught her how to handle the tax inspectors without paying bribe and how to be stern with erring members without being rude. He designed the membership card, painted all the racks and put the seed money into the project. She was able to break even within four months but whenever there is a funds crunch her husband willingly donates from the family purse.

Though her new location too is cramped, Usha wants to ensure that her members get what they want to read. On their behalf, she orders books from Flipkart. “Members need variety of books to remain hooked on to the habit of reading. Earlier, I could read a book a day. I always had one book under my pillow, one in the handbag and one on my desk at the library. Now I have so many books but don't have time to read. I only manage one page at night before going to sleep,” she laments.

It is not only the running of the library, upkeep of books and maintaining members’ records that keep Usha busy. Her relationship with her members goes far beyond the books. She cheerfully counsels everybody on domestic issues, procures things in an emergency and helps people with contact numbers of doctors, jewellers and tailors. She has a binding machine, and during the summer months her library turns into a textbook godown as parents from even neighbouring districts leave their children’s new school books for covering, lamination and binding.

“I have all kinds of professionals from various strata of society as members of my library,” says Usha. “Whenever they come to borrow a book, invariably they sit and chat with me sharing their experiences, sorrows or problems. Some have become good friends and we go out for films and shopping,”

The library is her pride and she hopes to expand further, with more branches and more books. Only a book lover would understand the joy she derives from her self-chosen work. “Besides the smell of books, I love the communication and vibes I share with so many people.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)