That confused my friends and readers. A librarian? It was clear to me nobody thought of the librarian as a heroic figure. A librarian was expected to be a namby-pamby clerk, who kept an inventory of books and loaned them to scholars and students for short periods – and pestered them if the books were not returned in time. In the US, the image was that of a woman with moon glasses, gray hair in a bun, shuffling about noiselessly, shelving books and maintaining a place of sepulchral silence.
To be sure, the aura of books for me came partly from their sheer scarcity in the India of fifties and sixties. There were very few community libraries and their collections were pathetic. Schools and colleges had outdated inventories, and restrictive library practices seemed designed to keep students away from books. Open access was unthinkable and you could get only one or two books on loan at a time. The US and British Embassies created a sensation in my city, Kolkata, by opening large libraries where you could walk up to the shelves, browse to your heart’s content and sit and read as long as you liked. I became a member of as many libraries as I could, and then persuaded friends who worked for academic and professional organizations (and never used their large libraries) to let me use their membership cards.
All are perfectly understandable and perhaps defensible. Yet I cling to my idea of the library as a magical kingdom, where impossible things can and do happen. Where your mind is blown by staggering new ideas, your imagination takes awesome leaps as you discover a new poem or play, your heart expands and sings as you read Murakami, Kundera or Rushdie, and you finally know what it is to be truly alive. A library above all is a haven where you discover yourself, joyfully and with abandon.