Back in mid 90s when I was studying in college, internet and computers were still emerging choices and not easily accessible. A good library that was well-stocked with books was an essential tool for students for their studies – Googling your college assignment was not really the trend in those days.
Membership of the British Council Library was much sought after and you often had a long waiting list of applicants ahead of you. Luckily students were given priority and I managed to get mine fairly soon. And I spent a lot of time at the library, not just reading for my college since I was always more interested in fiction and stories.
I was pursuing my B.Sc. course at Fergusson College in Pune, India and the library was a walkable distance from our campus. I used to spend hours visiting the same and unlike most students I just did not visit to read about my majors, rather I was more interested in reading authors particularly in the ‘Fiction’ section. Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry was of less interest to me than the Graham Greene novels that were so easily available at the Library.
In fact most of the student activities were rather peripheral in my case – I guess students would often remember BCL for IELTS preparation and looking at options to study abroad at British Universities using the scholarship platforms available. I spent my time hunting for popular books that had a great demand and would often be reserved by readers long in advance. The best way to grab some of these books was to see the lot that had just been returned and was waiting for the attendant to be sorted and returned to its regular place. It was our version of ‘trick or treat’ for you never quite knew what you may land up for reading. Back then I was rather catholic in my reading tastes and any book would do so long as the blurbs on the back cover were appealing.
And yes, of course, any book of my favourite authors like Maugham, Greene, Wodehouse, Iris Murdoch, Martin Amis, Naipaul, Shaw, Wilde, Dickens was always welcome. A marked trend was of course to find British writers rather than American ones. Yet another was the prevalence of the Indian diaspora – typically first generation emigrants who wrote about their experiences in a foreign land and culture in the language of the Sahibs.
The library has its own rhythms and soon one started getting a nod or two from the regulars who came everyday and spent substantial time at the place. The reading section was meant for newspapers and periodicals but one would often find a few veterans reading a book at a stretch and not breaking their session for hours. In those days the library was modern but rather functional so one could not grab a Coffee to go along with the book. One still had the choice to take the break and cross the road to grab a lunch or coffee at Hotel Vaishali or Rupali, couple of popular Udupi joints in the neighbourhood.
I moved on to Mumbai to complete my PG course and then took my first job, couple of years later, in Chennai. I was able to continue the membership and relationship across cities. The libraries were among the best available in the city and always conveniently located so you could drop in periodically. Of course, one spent less time scrounging for books and I am sure you have seen it happen when one finds a book so interesting that you just sit engrossed – right there on the little stool provided to pull out books from the top shelves.
Over the years the digital world caught on and the habit finally broke as work and family pressure never quite let up for you take off into a private world without feeling somewhat guilty of indulging oneself. Times changed for the British Council Library as well given that they launched an online version and the old world was lost forever. I used to get their e-mail and then they finally stopped. I have been away from India now and frankly do not miss them now.
The old memories were triggered as I am spring cleaning my Yahoo mail box and came across one of their old mails regarding the monthly schedule of the ‘British Council Events’… I found the new look images of the library on the net and they look right for the new generation who are on the right side of the digital divide and don’t quite know the magic of the old world of libraries.