I am a fanatic on the subject of learning and, therefore, of reading. I came from a low-income middle-class family and knew that I needed to read and learn if I wanted to get anywhere. I developed a love for reading but discovered that books were hard to get in the city I lived in. Kolkata was painfully short of decent libraries.
The smartest idea I had was to start a library of our own. I was in high school and I talked with a classmate who too loved to read. We had already exchanged books: I had lent him the novels I had at home, two at a time, and he had reciprocated from his collection. Why didn’t we extend the scope, I told Prasanta, join with a bunch of our friends, pool all our books and start a library that all of us can use. We would have a much richer collection, which could get richer if we continued to expand the circle. Prasanta promised to think about it.
He did more. He returned the following week with a grander idea. Prasanta was from an affluent business family and lived in a large, three-story house. He said he had persuaded his father to let us have a room on the ground floor, free, for the purpose. This meant we had a place where scores of books could be safely kept, and several people could come and make use of the library.
We talked some more and expanded the idea. With space available, we could admit a larger number of members, not just our friends, but also some young people from the locality, which would help augment our collection. Further, we would institute a small monthly fee, which would help us buy more books to attract even more members.
The six pioneers gathered in the allotted room, cleaned it, put up shelves, added a few chairs, and started two folders with records of acquisitions and the daily transactions of books lent and returned. With modest fanfare, with cups of tea for all of us, a library started the following week.
We had to have a name and Prasanta suggested Sarat Pathagar, in honor of Saratchandra the novelist. Though second to none in my admiration of Saratchandra – rereading him thirty years later I still thought he was a master storyteller – I was averse to hero-worship and would have preferred a name that characterized our little library, but I went along with the general mood. I liked the literalness of Pathagar, a place to read.
Very quickly, it also became a meeting place of friends, many of whom liked the idea of sitting and chatting surrounded by a mountain of books and a sense of purpose. The very place induced us to talk about books we had read or wanted to read. We talked about what the books meant to us. As we talked about what we liked and what we didn’t, we went deeper and deeper into the content of the books. I remember, as we talked about the novels of Saratchandra, we argued vigorously about the role of women and what social customs put cruel restraints on them. The library helped teach us what our schools sadly failed to make us aware.
Prasanta, who had ambitions to teach someday, told me, “As a child, I heard from others and felt myself that learning anything is an unpleasant chore. When I started reading the literature, I found the opposite: learning can be fun. School is seldom fun. A library is always fun.”
We were proud we had created a library that made it fun for others too. When we went to college, we handed over the charge to others, but the library continued. I felt I had accomplished something worthwhile.
In years, I went on to study a ‘dismal science’ in a well-known college, but my undying love of literature and analytical thinking was nurtured in a modest room in Prasanta’s home, in the company of earnest fellow travelers who cared about books and loved to talk about literature. And Prasanta, to the great discomfiture of his businessman father and businessmen brothers, defiantly went on to study literature in the same college and in time became a professor and wrote the most astounding authoritative biography of Rabindranath.