STOP FOR A MOMENT... AND LOOK AT THE BOOK
A recent exhibition — a collaboration between writer Jerry Pinto and photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri — is a photographic attempt to look into the heart of Mumbai’s People’s Free Reading Room and Library, and to see how time ages that heart, how it works a certain elegiac magic on the pages of the book. A rare book is much more than its words; it may never be read; it may never be opened even so as not to damage its spine. It may turn from book to fetish object and its fetishisation is an index, not of its cultural value, but its economic worth. The show looks at how time interacts with the book, how books respond to use. Can one divine the way a book has lived simply from looking at its pages, looking closely, looking respectfully?
The library is an ancient human institution, an extension in brick and mortar of the brain, an expansion across time and space of the human cerebrum.
The library is a vain attempt to capture what we know when what we know is always in flux and our ways of knowing have been challenged repeatedly and variously.
The library is an elitist institution, based on the premise that the only knowledge worth having is the abstract knowledge that will allow for capture. It is not interested in non-abstractable knowledge.
The library is a dream space, a fevered dream space, a Borgesian dream of infinity. Any library with more than 40,000 books will defeat the longest human life, even if you read a book a day. This library has more than 40,000 books.
The library is a space for imagination, for daydream, for invention, for research, for investigation. The library is more than the sum of its parts.
If you need to look for what it means to be human, look no further than the nearest library. If you need to look for what it means to be inhuman, look no further than the man who burns a book.
Choose your definition. Even as you choose, know this. That edifice which looks so imposing, those rows of books which look so welcoming, they are as susceptible to the passage of time as you are. Time ravages books just as much as silverfish, mildew, and blades wielded in secret and in silence. The book has many enemies. So have libraries.
But the worst enemy of all is the sound of receding footsteps, as people walk away from libraries. Tell me, when did you last go to the library?
When you take that selfie, it is to remind yourself that something happened to you. It is equally important to show it to others so that they may be told that something happened to you.
This is not a habit we’ve just developed. It’s called self-consciousness and it goes back to the time our tribe first told stories around bonfires, chanted hymns to the forces of nature and scratched wall paintings on to the interiors of caves.
When the world came of age, when printing met paper met alphabets, we began to write books. Books are selfies too. There is no art form that is not a selfie. The selfie is only the most naked of the lot. (That embarrasses us.) Think of the library as the selfie of our tribe. This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to remember. This is how we remember. Do we remember how we used to remember?
Before the selfie?
I do not want to write about this.
I do not want to write about libraries. It’s somehow too personal.
I cannot remember ever feeling that I belonged in a library. They seemed to be built for other people. For scholars, for men who fit those big armchairs, for women who had given their lives to scholarship or more often, to the abetment of scholarship.
I have never felt worthy of any library that I wanted to be a member of.
I still do not want to write this.
I do not want to love these photographs. They are death pictures.
Here are books dying, being eaten by time and its cohorts in crime: moisture, mildew, animals, insects.
I can’t stand here too long.
There is a certain colour here.
It’s not yellow, it’s not brown, and no, it’s not sepia, that most misunderstood of colours. it’s the colour of old paper.
It’s the colour of tree-corpse-flakes dying in their turn.
In old libraries, old books wait.
They wait in vain.
Now when they are picked up, their pages flake.
When you blow on them, to disturb the dust, the ink seems to shiver. Without ink, what is a book?
I want to write bravely: the library lives.
I want to write defiantly: the book lives. Instead I say: I do not want to write about libraries.
This is wall text and it will evaporate with this show. These words will vanish too.
Opposite page and below: The exhibition featured photographs shot at Mumbai’s People’s Free Reading Room and Library, narrating a story of the library through images of the books rather than those of the place
Right: Chirodeep Chaudhuri (left) and Jerry Pinto (right) captured at the People’s Free Reading Room and Library, Mumbai. (photo by Vedika Singhania)