It’s just over a year since I decided to take leave of stuffy officialdom, and I mean stuffy because there is only so much time of your life you can afford to spend in a box.
An air-conditioned office, however (reasonably) large and arranged, is but a glorified big box that constrains. Worse, it can also constipate – minds, or semblances of such that I have had the unfortunate experience of encountering during my boxed-in time.
My point is that since then I have been doing things that, like many of those in a similar situation and of comparable age to mine, I kept pushing until that famed post-retirement stage. Amongst others, I had wanted to be as frequent a visitor to the Carnegie Library as possible, but the celebration of the hundred years of the Royal College Curepipe (RCC) came as a timely reminder that I had lapsed on that wish.
The fact is I find that I am perhaps more rather than less busy, which I thought I would be – and that is what I have heard from many friends too. Which is not a bad thing really, because there could be no worse situation to find oneself in than retirement ennui: plenty of time on one’s hands but little or nothing to do.
Yesterday, however, I managed to find myself at the Carnegie, for the second time during that elapsed year. It was about 11.30 am, and there were few people. Enough daylight filtered in through the ample windows to allow reading. I thought this was very nice indeed, because many libraries I have been to depend on artificial lighting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but then there’s nothing like daylight isn’t it?
Generally it was silent, and this is one of the most attractive things about a library — the silence that one feels is hanging about. It can be almost eerie when the library is huge and/or quaint as well because of its age – antiquity! – such as the library of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. There, the awesomeness is perhaps due to what those who frequent it intuitively know – the vastness of accumulated knowledge that literally resides inside the tomes on its shelves, and the realization that through its portals have walked in and deliberated generations of pioneer surgeons whose published works, names and glory are forever part of the lore of the library.
Love for books
It was my father who introduced me to the Carnegie, a couple of years after I had been admitted to the RCC in January 1957. He had obtained his monitor’s certificate but finally had to find work in the railways. However, he kept up his love of reading – and supervising our studies, very strictly and sternly too! My uncle had a small stock of books and magazines, which included the Reader’s Digest, but that was clearly not sufficient. As there was no money to spare to buy books one would read for one’s pleasure, the only alternative was the College library for a start. It was no doubt well endowed for, neatly kept and organized, with a qualified librarian in charge. I have spent many happy hours there.
But it did not have all the books, and my father did recall a number of authors whose works he wanted me to read, such as Thomas Hardy, Edgar Wallace, Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle. And he knew that their books could be found at Carnegie. So he encouraged me to enrol there, more so as there was no subscription fee to be paid. One could borrow two books at a time, on loan for a week or perhaps ten days, I don’t quite remember. One title would be my choice, the other was for him and which I ended up reading as well, because the author would be one of his identified ones that he wanted me too to be familiar with.
This is how my love for books and for reading grew. As a matter of fact, compared to a number of my contemporary friends, I came into regular reading rather late, perhaps when I was in Form IV, whereas a few of them had been avid readers even earlier. I remember a friend who was a fan of the Biggles series. Biggles was a fighter pilot in the world war, and the books are about his exploits. Is it any wonder that this guy went on to become a pilot in the Royal Air Force? Without surprise, he is settled abroad, and what luck that a common friend invited me to lunch on the 31st December, and that other friend who was on holiday here was present too.
Our Comfort Zones
Like we all do, the first time that I entered the Carnegie last year after nearly half a century, I half expected it to look exactly as it was then: we all seek our comfort zones, don’t we! It didn’t, of course. I pictured the tall bookcases near the wall to the right as one enters the library, which housed the books I have mentioned earlier, as well as many others on science, natural history and so on. They were all leather-bound, and some dated to the 19th century, such as one by the naturalist Thomas Huxley. It was a travelogue, and I distinctly recall reading a passage in it where he describes his visit to Moka sometime in the late 1870s.
I have only pleasant memories of the Carnegie, save for one incident that took place one afternoon. I may have been in Form III, and after school hours I had gone to the library and had sat at a table, reading. A group of lower form girls from the Loreto College Curepipe came in, chirping as was the wont of such a cohort, of course becoming silent as they sat down at a table, all together. After a while, a similar group from the Hindu Girls’ College walked in, and looked for places to sit. To my surprise, the librarian who was a bearded guy and whose name ended with ‘ville’ as far as I knew, got up from his seat and walked in a huff towards the new entrants. He was very severe with them, almost shooing them away.
I found his behaviour very surprising and was taken aback, because a couple of times I had had to deal with him and he was quite soft-spoken and polite. Much later when I thought about this episode which has remained etched in my memory, I could not help associating it with the growing anti-Hindu sentiment that was being fanned in the country by politicians of the Ralliement Mauricien who were anti-Independence. Those were the heady days of acute communalism, with the so-called spectre of ‘Hindu hegemony’ being bandied about.
It seems all the more bewildering to me because at the RCC we were such a mixed lot, including the teachers who never made any distinction based on community, colour or religion. Clearly the outside world was big and bad, and inhabited by different tribes of people who had other agendas to pursue. And perhaps my expectation of the librarian was coloured by my experience of my learned teachers at the RCC, and I was disappointed to find him not of the same ilk.
As I grew up I continued to have recourse to books at the Carnegie, especially those with historical value like Huxley’s. But I was also interested in possessing some of my own books. I had taken an interest in happenings in the Second World War, especially Hitler’s Germany and the concentration camps, as well as books on history generally. Chez France on the Royal Road, Curepipe Road, had a glass covered panel outside the shop in which were displayed paperbacks on these subjects. They used to sell at between 50 cents to one rupee. My pocket money used to be 15 cents a day for five days a week, and it used to take me about three months to collect enough to buy myself a book.
After HSC I worked for six months as a teacher at Rs 275 per month before I proceeded for my medical studies. I took this opportunity of earning a salary to buy more books from Chez France, and from these modest beginnings I built up over the years and continue to add titles regularly, my own choice as well as gifts that regularly come my way. I am very proud that some of those from Chez France are still to be found on my shelves, amongst which a five-volume set of the American Civil War, being soldiers’ accounts. Little did I know when I bought it that I would one day visit Gettysburg – and that too on a 4th July, the American Independence Day – where the most decisive battle of the Civil War was fought and where Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous speech, known as the Gettysburg address, a short one containing the lines ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’
Nostalgie, quand tu nous tiens…
* Published in print edition on 30 January 2014