Volumes of wisdom and fun too
Though the owners of lending libraries lament the decline of the reading habit following the advent of cable TV, there are still quite a number of avid book lovers in the city.
THE BOOK fair is as much a feature of the Chennai scene in winter as are cutcheris. Chennai has always had a good reading public and the response to the fair has always been good. But while in the Eighties one could pick up good fiction at the book fair, for the past few years it has been almost a "text books only" fair, except for the Tamil section. It is probably a sign of the times. With browsing no longer being an activity related to books, books probably no longer enjoy the primacy they once did in Chennai. The owners of most lending libraries lament the advent of cable TV as being responsible for the demise of the reading habit in the city. But somehow it's difficult to believe that a true book lover will give up the pleasure of reading for television. While he may watch a few TV programmes, he will make time to read.
One of the earliest lending libraries in Chennai was the Dasan Lending Library in Sundaram Pillai Street, Purasawalkam. It opened in 1930 and closed down sometime in the 1950s. It worked just as the present-day lending libraries do a fee would be collected for each book borrowed, depending on the cost, the condition and the popularity of the book. It had books by famous authors of the day like Vaduvoor Doraisway Iyengar, Arani Kuppuswami Mudaliar, Seyyoor Saranayaki Ammal. Saranayaki Ammal's most famous book was "Aparanji" published in 1934. It had a good review from Swadesmitran, which was considered the arbiter of taste in those days. Saranayaki Ammal was also the editor of a magazine called "Manoranjani". She must have been pretty revolutionary to have entered a profession that was considered an exclusive male preserve in those days. For those who wanted to read English books, there was the Madras Library Society in Egmore.
A true book lover is never content with borrowing books from a library. He must have his own books to cherish and care for. It's like playing with our neighbour's child but still wanting to have a child of your own. In the 30s and 40s K. Mahadevan of Mylapore was the best bet for picking up good reading material.
My great grandfather had a huge collection of books, most of them bought from K. Mahadevan. When he knew he was going to die, great grandfather donated most of his books to the Madras Library Society of which he had been a member for forty-five years and president for five years. Madras had many book lovers with huge libraries like Sir Venkata Subba Rao and Justice P. V. Rajamannar.
The problem with a home library is the maintenance of the books. In spite of the best attention some of them succumb to the ravages of age, and it is always one's favourite books that get damaged. And if one's books miraculously escape the many hazards in their lives, they are invariably borrowed by one's friends(?) and are never seen thereafter. Entreaties to return the borrowed books fall on deaf ears. The borrower is impervious to insults. A stolen book apparently gives as much pleasure as a mango purloined from neighbour's garden. One very good book that my father lost was the first biography of Abdul Kalam Azad written in Tamil. It was published in 1945 and the author was M. M. Ismail. My father who was in school then marvelled at the brilliant Tamil. Little did he know that it was same M. M. Ismail who would become his professor in the Law College and later on become a judge of the Madras High Court. One good book that we still have, despite its having been borrowed quite a few times, is a biography of Bharatiyar in English by P. Mahadevan, who was a professor of English at the Madras Christian College and the Pachaiyappa's College. He used to review books for The Hindu and for the Indian Express. This book was published in 1957 and has a foreword by Justice P. V. Rajamannar. The style is lyrical and the book is a treasure as much for its style as for being the biography of a great poet.
Barnes and Noble, the chain of stores selling books in the U.S., has an arrangement with shops selling second hand books, whereby the latter give Barnes and Noble a list of books they have. When an online buyer wants a particular book that is out of print, Barnes and Noble checks these lists and informs the buyer about the number of copies available, the price and the condition of each copy, whether it is a hardback edition, whether it has a dust jacket. Everything right down to the smallest tear is mentioned. If the buyer is satisfied he can then order the book, which will be shipped to him. One wishes that the bookshops here too had some such arrangement. The problem here is the lack of shops selling second hand books. Moore Market fulfilled this need admirably. There was one particular shop called "Grand Book Stall", whose owner could reel off the names of several authors and the titles of their books. He had a huge collection of books, which was wiped out when Moore Market burned down. We bought a number of "William" books from him. William is that delightful eleven-year-old boy, a certain of Richmal Crompton. Macmillan has now brought out the entire collection. Although William books are kept in the kiddies' section in most bookshops, they are full of adult humour. William is a sure cure for the blues.
In the U.S., membership in district libraries is free. Old books are periodically sold off at a discount by these libraries to make place for new books. It is obvious that these libraries get a huge funding from the government or from some philanthropists, because the members don't pay a cent.
In a country like India where most people cannot afford to buy books, such libraries funded by the government are necessary. Reading must be free of shades of elitism.
In the past the Madras Corporation maintained several reading rooms in the city. There were at least two such reading rooms in Purasawalkam. One that functioned until quite recently was in Manicka Mudaliar Park in Lawder's Gate. This reading room had all the leading dailies and magazines of the day. There were benches in the park outside the reading room where people would sit discussing what they had read.
Finally, a word of caution to book lovers. Books lent have a way of getting lost. When Shakespeare said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be", he must have been thinking about books.
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