Photo secured by the author, Partha Sarathy
Author: Partha Sarathy
US based senior management professional, Partha Sarathy was initiated to the world of books through his school library. Having set a school record in the number of library books borrowed, Partha says he owes a lot to the wide range of reading he was able to do in his school years.This gratitude was also a reason he readily agreed to share his experiences with the Libraries of our Lives project when the team approached him.
I’ve always been fascinated by libraries. I think a library brings together the best works of the best minds in human history, their immortal voices undimmed by the passage of time. While l revere all libraries, there is one that has a special place in my mind. It’s the library at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Vidya Mandir school in Elamakkara in Kochi, Kerala, where I studied in the 1970s and 1980s.
Our school was in those days one of the best in Kochi, and probably one of the best in Kerala. The school library was very good as well. We had a large collection of books and magazines, neatly arranged in shelves that stretched from one end of a large hall to the other. In my juvenile imagination, the library hall was so massive that one couldn’t see from one end to the other. Law and order was enforced by the gentle, soft-spoken, kind-hearted librarian Mrs. Maya Nambiar, supported by a rather ferocious assistant whose name I don’t recall now. The duo somehow maintained peace even when the hallowed portals of the library were invaded by mobs of unruly kids.
When I was in 5th and 6th, my favorite author was Enid Blyton. I think I read almost every one of her books. We had Noddy for young kids; the Secret Seven series; the Famous Five series for older kids; and a lot of girls’ books. I was careful not to be seen reading those in public. Years later I discovered that American libraries don’t carry Enid Blyton’s books because they are considered racist. It never occurred to me when I was in school.
We had a lot of abridged and illustrated classics by the popular authors, including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Alexander Dumas, and Robert L. Stevenson. These books were thin, had large font, contained nice pictures, and were a delight to read. I don’t think we had too many Indian authors, but I do recall R.K. Narayan’s books. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s mission was to preserve India’s literary and cultural heritage, so we had books by Gandhi, Nehru, Vivekananda, and other assorted swamis and gurus. We also had a reference section with Encyclopedia Britannica and many other big books.
The most popular items in the school library were magazines with color pictures. News magazines such as the Illustrated Weekly had very depressing content in those days. Each issue invariably welcomes you with an article on corruption, then you turn your attention to poverty and starvation deaths, next you enjoy famines and drought, catch up with disease and suffering, and eventually conclude with riots and bloodshed. Recent generations in India may not know this, but 1970s and 1980s were perhaps the worst years in India’s post-independence history.
Ours was an “English medium” school, so it was not surprising that our library didn’t have Malayalam books. In those days, English education was seen as the only hope for economic and social mobility. Yes, I know it sounds dreadfully naïve and elitist now. But back then, I was proud that we were taught in English, spoke English in school, and read only English books.
I sometimes entertained the notion that our librarian Mrs. Maya Nambiar had the best job on earth. Surely it must be glorious, I reasoned, to spend all your time in the company of such excellent books, free to read whatever you want and whenever you want, and actually get paid to do so. Upon further examination, I realized that while Maya had all the opportunity to read those books, I had never seen her actually do so. On the contrary, Maya spent all her time arranging books, entering information into thick registers, and doing other desk-based work. Meanwhile, she was constantly interrupted by screaming kids, fighting kids, noisy kids, bored kids, and kids in various other states of distress.
I know it’s a little disorienting to use the librarian’s name Maya, instead of the customary Mrs. Maya Nambiar. It does seem disrespectful, since we Indians are taught to treat teachers with respect and courtesy. But in another sense, I feel entitled to call her by name, since at 46 years I am now much older than she was then. It’s as if I have grown old over these years, while the concept of Maya the librarian has remained frozen in time since the 1980s.
Anyway, I was definitely an enthusiastic customer of the school library. I must have set a record, which probably stands even today, for the most books read by a student. We were normally allowed to borrow one book during the library period each week. But I ended up borrowing several books each week, and sometimes even one per day. What happened was that while in 6th standard I had a health issue that prevented me from playing with other kids during the weekly physical training class. I sought and received permission to go to the school library instead. So I could now borrow two books a week.
Soon it got even better. All the kids would go down to the ground and play during lunch break. I couldn’t join them, so I timidly asked the librarian if I could come to the library. The kind-hearted librarian (l don’t recall his name, unfortunately) readily agreed. He also added that I could borrow a book every day if I wished to. That was a dream come true, and I began to make the best use of the opportunity. I would take several books each week. Sometimes I would even finish a book overnight. When I returned the book the next day, the librarian would express surprise – “What, have you finished your book so quickly?” I would glow with pride, acutely conscious of my own awesomeness. I was a mediocre student those days, so I was desperately proud of my only accomplishment.
By 8th standard or so I had completed reading most of the popular fiction books, and turned my attention to non-fiction. It was a strange world. Gone were the implausible fairy tales in children’s fiction books. Instead, these were serious books written by adults for adults. Non-fiction books were hard to read, but I felt proud that I was expanding my intellectual horizons. It was only a matter of time, I was sure, before the whole world realized my awesomeness.
One of the first non-fiction books l read was “Why I am not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell. It influenced me greatly. I was an atheist since childhood, both because my father was an atheist (though he became a devout believer as he grew older, much to my consternation), and because Kerala had a vibrant secular environment. Reading Bertrand Russell cemented my disdain for religion. Another atheist book I read from the school library was “Gods, Demons and Spirits” by Abraham Kovoor, which bravely exposed and ridiculed ghosts, godmen, and miracles. I think I was fortunate to read these books in school. I don’t think there are too many atheists who read Russell and Kovoor at age 13.
To this day I wonder – how did these atheist books find their way into our school library? Perhaps the librarian or a teacher was an atheist, but did the other teachers not find them awkward? I suspect the school’s management wouldn’t have approved of these books. So was there a rogue librarian or teacher, acting alone and without approval, who wanted kids to absorb secular values? I am not sure what exactly happened, but I am grateful it did.
As I moved to 9th and 10th standards, my reading habits changed. In fiction, I began reading Charles Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse, both supremely gifted writers with a genius for comedy. I suspect I was the only kid in my school who had read all of Dickens’ books. Dickens could make you laugh with his outrageous humor. I felt that Pickwick Papers and Sketches by Boz were among the greatest comedies of all time. But Dickens could also make you cry.
I’ve always been haunted by stories involving orphans. Perhaps that’s because my mother grew up almost as an orphan, under very difficult circumstances. I couldn’t help noticing that virtually every one of Dickens’ books revolved around orphans – especially David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and Bleak House. I can’t read any of them without crying when they describe the hardships faced by orphans. David Copperfield is probably the best of Dickens’ books. Like any other shy, insecure, and sensitive kid, I could identify most with the protagonist in David Copperfield. The book was so beautiful that I couldn’t stop reading it, and yet parts were so sad that I couldn’t continue. Dickens continues to be my favorite author, though I stopped reading fiction decades ago.
I was in 8th standard when Indian-born astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar won the Nobel Prize for physics. Iwas inspired by Chandra, and fascinated by astrophysics. So I decided to pursue a career in science and hopefully earn one or more Nobel Prizes. I promptly went to the school library and brought home the thickest book on physics I could find. It had almost 1,000 pages, and was titled Atomic Physics. It was clearly meant for college students, but I was undaunted. After all, I had read 800-page Dickens books, so how hard could this be? I attacked the book enthusiastically, but soon the going became tough. With each passing page, the English content diminished and strange mathematical equations sprung up. After twenty or thirty pages, the book had become completely unintelligible. I skipped through the pages and was excited to see the derivation of Einstein’s famous equation E = m c^2. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand a single line. I admitted defeat, and returned the book to the library the next day.
As we moved to 11th and 12th standard, I think our reading habits changed again. In those days, students in 11th and 12th focused exclusively on physics, chemistry, and either mathematics or biology, depending upon whether you wanted to pursue engineering or medicine. English was compulsory, but we thought it was a waste of time since it wasn’t part of our engineering and medicine entrance exams. But thanks to our brilliant English teacher Saroja Muralikrishnan, we became a little more interested in English classes and reading English fiction. Saroja said that how well you write is a reflection of how well you think. Even if you can think well, you cannot go far if you cannot write clearly and structure your thoughts well. I think her challenge put an entirely new spin on the English question.
I was a mediocre student all these years, but for the first time in my life, I stood first in my class in monthly tests in 9th. True, it was not a big deal to be first in a class of 22 students. And it’s also true that I slipped to 2nd and 3rd positions in the half-yearly and annual exams. But it was still a huge deal for me. Coming first gave me confidence, pride, and sense of accomplishment that I had always lacked. It was also a big deal for my parents. They grew up in poverty and were naturally fanatical about the importance of education. Seeing their eldest child do well at school made them a little more relaxed and a little less panicky about their children’s future. Maybe we weren’t such dismal failures after all?
As I look back thirty years, I wonder. Was there any connection between my voracious reading habits and my modest academic success? Was the generosity of the school librarian in 6th standard in some way responsible for my good exam results in 9th? I am convinced the answer is yes. I think whatever little academic success I enjoyed was built entirely on the reading habits that I picked up early in school, courtesy the kind-hearted school librarian whose name I don’t remember.