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Remembering the Dusty Halls of Bally Sadharan Granthagar

Written by Atri Mukherjee,

November 14th 2020,

My grandfather had kicked the bucket before I was born. While I use the idiom innocently, he had indeed died by slipping and falling in the bathroom, giving a last spurn to the bucket before he ascended to his armchair in the heavens. Naturally, I never met the old man. But, he has always existed around the house in wedding photographs and Beatles records, and sometimes in my fear of slippery washroom tiles.

 My grandmother became my first playmate around the house, and used to take me on walks around the neighbourhood. This exercise often ended in brief visitations to an old public library in our district. Bally Sadharan Granthagar (translated: Bally Public Library) looked as old from the outside as it was inside, cobwebs aplenty. It preceded a small football playground behind it. Having served audience to many football matches in the district’s history, the wrinkles on the building had shown themselves in the form of crusty mud marks from whenever the football hit the walls of the library. There was an air of silence and magnanimity that the building took onto itself as the people descended a narrow slope to get through its small front door with a green grill, where the noise of the city would be detained before it. 

Occasionally, a dog could be found sleeping at this door, but they were as harmless as they were lazy. A few gentle pokes of my grandmother’s pointy black umbrella would send them agreeably away. In the evenings, young footballers would sit refuge beside this door and take off their studded boots, and continue barefoot to the slums nearby. A canopy of trees hung over the building. Mornings came late, and the evenings fell quicker on the land around the library. If one were lucky and punctual, they could stand right under the homecoming songs of the birds in the evenings to their nests in the trees.

 My grandmother would make her way through the door and seat herself down carefully — rather dutifully — on the wooden chairs at the issuing counter. People revered her as they respect any older woman from the district. Besides, most of these young men who worked at the library were schoolmates of my father. 

Having been restricted to pages and ink throughout the day, a child would be the first source of entertainment for these library workers, and they would often offer me a glass of water and ask me questions that were childish for me, even then. They would presumably ask my grandmother questions without the banal cartoonish voice that they spoke to me in. None of the pleasantries exchanged between them included the bi-syllabic words of my then vocabulary, and I would restlessly dote on her to tell me the first task. As a part of these games, she would point at catalogues and ask me to recognize the number written on them. Consequently, I learnt the number system, lodged between dusty, cobwebbed catalogued shelves of Thackeray, Walpole and Priestley. The next part of the game would include borrowing a pencil from the issuing counter, remembering to say thank you, and rushing back to spell the names of the lucky authors. They had won grandmother’s catalogue lottery that day.

Following the years after the death of my grandmother, I had grown to become a regular at the library. Acquaintanceship with a lending library at the young age had morphed me into a vociferous reader. By the time I was in first grade, I had raced through the pages of Hergé’s ‘Tintin’ and Uderzo-Goscinny’sAdventures of Asterix and Obelix’, while my counterparts still struggled with spelling ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. I was now reading heavy-duty Enid Blyton and narrating the stories of the Famous Five to our maid at home. She listened to me with intent, as I sat cross-legged on our marble staircases (somehow, she could never grasp why Georgina would want to be called George). Each Sunday included cycling to the library and helping the once young librarian with the cartoonish voice, push the weight of a door that had become twice his size. We would wait for the people to come rushing in at the stroke of 9.00 AM.

 I worked brief errands for the library and observed people’s borrowing habits. The behaviour of people in lending libraries was far different from the ones in bookshops. In lending libraries, people always came looking for books that were of their original taste, not their pretended ones. Contrary to bookshops, people did not spend their money here and hence, the manufacturing of an identity associated with the purchase of an apparently intellectually ‘superior’ book was absent. Moreover, the library served as a gathering of people from around the suburban neighbourhood, who had nothing to prove to each other more than they enjoyed discussing books and cracking jokes about their wives in the reading rooms.

 As the years went by, the library witnessed lesser people. Now and then, a postal worker would come in and ask for a glass of water, or a father and young son would come in to enquire about how old the structure was. In my early teenage years, the management of the library renovated the second floor to a small amphitheatre. On Rabindra Jayantis, children performed Tagore’s plays. I had signed up for one of these plays because a girl I then fancied was a part of the cast. 

 Living away from Calcutta, the frequency of my visits to the library has narrowed.  I have crossed the library only a few times with another destination in mind, and each time I had been greeted by its padlocked green grill now turned rusty. It has lost the warmth of culture and familiarity that it once had, and welcomes no crowd on Sundays except a group of boys who climb up its narrow walls to smoke inside its quarters.

The city is not easy on these buildings, and my father says it is only a matter of time before the municipality decides what to do with the plot of land the library stands on. When the inevitable happens, I hope care is taken in dealing with the catalogues that have grandmother’s corrections on my handwriting over the spelling of ‘Huckleberry Finn’.

Experience Further: In my months at Bangalore, the Beatles 1967-hit ‘Penny Lane’ would remind me of the library, and all the people who once frequented it. The lyrics spoke of the ordinary mannerisms and behaviour in the streets, who had come to create a world of their own. 

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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