BCL Chennai – But Where is the Library?

“Nostalgia is an illness for those who haven’t realised that today is tomorrow’s nostalgia.”  Zeena Schreck.

If you walk into any place after thirty five years of your last visit, it is inevitable you would see some changes unless it is a temple which is a thousand years old or you are standing at the footsteps of the Pyramid of Khufu at Gaza when thirty five years is just a fraction of time.

I understand that – but when the change involves the way we live in our own country, one cannot but yearn for the good old days.

The last time I went into BCL Chennai was in the summer of 1983 and my relationship with the library lasted for few more years with BCL Pune and BCL Hyderabad which also came to an end in 1989 and that was still thirty years ago.

I have been planning to visit all the iconic places of learning in Chennai, Alliance de Francaise, the Connemara Library, USIS Library and of  course the British Council Library. But if it is going to be the same experience as I went through with BCL, I am not so sure.

In the seventies when Chennai was not a sprawling city, you could reach any of these places by a taking a local train and/or a bus and the city had a decent public transport which was the cheapest among the metro cities in India. All the three libraries and the Public Library of Chennai were in 2 kilometre radius. I just googled the distance from the place where we lived in Chennai and found out the USIS is 5.2 KM away, BCL is 7.3 KM and Connemara Library is 8.2 KM. Even today it would take just 40 minutes by public transport to reach any of these places.

Let’s get back to BCL. I had to give my car for service and the garage was just adjacent to BCL. The mechanic was out for lunch and they asked me to come after an hour. Since visiting the library was anyway in my agenda, I decided to pay a visit. That’s when I realised it is not just the places but the way we live our lives have changed forever.

The Library has become a kind of fortress the entrance looked like you are entering a high security prison and not a library. See the Featured image. There were security guards and X-Ray machines. Most importantly I had to show an ID. A visitor has to go through all these just to make an enquiry about membership.

Carrying ID in person all the time, is something alien to people who grew up in a free county. I don’t remember my father carrying any sort of ID with him except a driving licence which he used when he was driving a motorcycle. He travelled for work, lived in different states in India, held bank accounts wherever he lived. He also operated the company’s (where he was employed) bank account in these cities. I just checked with my mom before writing this. He never had to produce his ID to open or operate the bank account, either his own savings account or company’s corporate account. He travelled across the country in trains and aeroplanes and no one asked him to prove he was KM Ramchandran. Today he can’t even get into a library, public or not, without a valid ID.

I understand the world has changed beyond imagination, the security concerns are real and we need to accept these measures for our own safety. But you miss the freedom of being ‘you’ without having to prove it every five minutes.

I provided ample proof to the security that I am indeed an Indian citizen and I am not a threat to the library or the society at large and they let me in.

If the entrance of the library had changed as described before, the inside has changed  too, which now looked like, well, a swanky corporate office and not a library. Instead of library which should have had rows after rows of books, what I saw was huge seating area for visitors, three training rooms (like the corporate office conference rooms with plastic chairs, projectors and other paraphernalia) and staff manning the counters. Well the library had five counters but only one had staff others were just empty.

More seating area for making enquiries than book shelves.

There were about half a dozen people waiting to make enquiries and I thought it should take about ten minutes, not realising if the look of the library had changed, the working pattern would also have changed. I was asked to take a token from the machine and wait and wait I did for forty minutes to make an enquiry that lasted forty seconds. The customer who was presently at the counter had questions and every time he asked something the lady tapped onto her system to retrieve the information. This went on for about twenty minutes. I went through all the pamphlets and found out the library is offering more services now than just books and most of them involved some serious answering. So I had no choice but to wait.

The fifteen rupees magic:

When I was a member of the library in the eighties the annual membership fee was fifteen rupees (yes you read it correctly). This entitled you to borrow four books and four or five magazines at a time. Even by the our per capita income standards of the eighties it was indeed a fantastic deal. It was a boon for students of Medicine or Engineering, Arts or Science. You could get access to the best books on the subject, spend days in the library to take notes in so much of comfort. I had just started reading P G Wodehouse and this was in great demand. You could never see his works in the shelves. My saviour was Mr. Loordusamy, who I think was the assistant librarian. He was kindness personified. He introduced me to some of the best writers and books. He would tell me if a PGW book was returned that day, and I would rush to that shelf, retrieve it and get it stamped.

He was the one who told me about the books that would be withdrawn from circulation and sold to readers at a fraction of the cost. I still have one of the books, PG Wodehouse Mr. Mulliner Speking I got in the sale. Even today, it is a prized possession.

Withdrawn Book for Sale. PGW Classic Mr. Mulliner Speaking

The other Fifteen Rupees I am always nostalgic about, is the All Route Bus Pass which costed 15 Rupees. For fifteen rupees (about 20 cents in today’s currency) you could travel anywhere inside the city limits for any number of times everyday. Golden days indeed.

I was trying to check what other things had changed in the library since I last visited. With all the furniture and meeting rooms the bookshelves have shrunk in size. It looked as if the library has moved elsewhere leaving just a few shelves behind. The library now offers books online so you need not worry about how many hard copies are stored in the library. You can, today, with internet, access thousands of books online if you are a member. But the physical touch of a book conveys a different meaning. Even for a guy like me who now does more than 90% of reading from iPad and smart phone, right from newspapers to classic literature, a hardcopy of a book vellum, bound or paperback provides an intimate connect to the author.

In a library, you always stumble upon something which you would never see in Kindle Store. While waiting at the library, I glanced at the bookshelves close to me and found the title of the following books little intriguing.

  • The Decline and Fall of English Aristocracy – David Cannadine
  • The Life and Death of Democracy – John Keane
  • The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities – Caleb Scharf.

I was wondering what these authors would be talking about in these books when my number was called. I had planned to pass some comments about my earlier association with the library and ask about Mr. Loordusamy. In just few seconds, I figured out the lady was neither interested in my talk nor interested in roping me as a paying customer. When I told her that size of the library has shrunk, she said the books are all available on line. I told her, from the pamphlet they have placed in the library, I could see that they conduct Writers Workshops. How could I go about that. Her reply, “We don’t offer that in Chennai. It is done only in New Delhi.” I asked her if she could help me in getting more details, she said she would. But she did not ask my contact details.  Instead she pressed the button to call the next customer. She must thought the precious time of BCL should not be wasted on people like me.

I realised I don’t belong in this new world or new order of things. I am not going to meet librarians who knew not just the indexes but about great writers and recommend books.

The British Council webpage states that the Royal Charter which was given in 1940 set out their mission is, ‘promoting a wider knowledge of [the UK] and the English language abroad and developing closer cultural relations between [the UK] and other countries.’

So it was never about Library after all. Today they conduct English classes and prepare people for IELTS.

One day, in the near future, the library of congress may close doors for everyone and ask people to search for the books on their phones. Change, as they say, is inevitable. In future the nostalgia may not be about physical changes at all, it could be about how things in ‘the cloud’ has changed.







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