In 2020, at the Chennai Book Fair, I heard something that was bewildering and powerful at the same time. After walking around the book stalls for a few hours, I stepped out, and I was relieved to find a coffee stall. I bought a cup of coffee, placed my backpack filled with books on the ground, sat on a tiny plastic stool, and started to drink my coffee as slowly as I could. Two men walked to the stand. The one who reached the stand first asked for a cup of coffee. The other man who had just reached the stand pulled out his wallet from his pocket, enquiring how much a cup cost, and when he heard that he had to pay thirty rupees for each cup, he turned to the other man at once and said, ‘Thirty rupees. Do you really need coffee now? We can buy a book for thirty rupees.’ The one who was holding the cup was about to start drinking, but after having heard the remark, he handed the cup back to the shopkeeper, and both the men left the stand. For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of abandoning my coffee, too. I wasn’t sure if he could buy a book there for thirty rupees really, but I felt like I was reprimanded for spending that money to buy a beverage and not a book. It’s been so long since I witnessed this exchange, but I haven’t stopped thinking about what the man said. Because we live in a place where we haven’t got democratic access to books, where we make small and big sacrifices all through our lives to borrow and buy books, where we expend so much of our time and energy just to identify easier, cheaper ways to get books, and where the mere act of waking up and choosing books every morning is a constant, subtle protest against forces which want to mine our attention, polarise our thinking, and stretch the distance between readers and books. I am trying not to sound like an alarmist here — one is not shot for reading, fortunately — but the effort we make, to get the sort of books we want to read, seems invisible, but it’s painfully humongous.
Books entered my life in my late 20’s. Just six years ago, to be precise. Until then, I might have stumbled upon problematic books written by men who sported long white beard, drove Rolls-Royce cars, abused women, and stayed stoned forever. The men who read those men enthusiastically recommended their books to me for years, but an awful breakup had to happen for me to discover the joy of reading and good books. It felt like life itself was slipping through my hands, so I didn’t pay adequate attention to how often delivery representatives appeared to drop my book-packages. For about two years, I spent more than two-thousand rupees every month to buy books. On the other hand, even without realising that I was being fair to my impulsive decision to splurge, I devoured books. In November 2015, I had read twenty-one books. I wanted to hang on to something to save myself from drowning. Books were my life raft. From 2017 to 2018, I was unemployed for the first time since I started working when I was eighteen, I was broke, and I downloaded books to quench my appetite. It’s not something I am proud of, but I wasn’t thoughtful enough to reread what I owned then instead of downloading them illegally, and I didn’t try to find public libraries in my neighbourhood. The Internet seemed more accessible than a public library then. I went back to work in 2019, landed a job that put me in the place of privilege to afford books again, but now that I had experienced a long, dry spell when I couldn’t buy books, I was intensely aware of each droplet of money I was beginning to spend to not return to the arid phase again. As expected, I noticed that I was again spending thousands to buy books, and so, I subscribed to Scribd. Spending a few hundreds appeared better than shelling out thousands. Scribd’s catalogue was massive, delightful, and diverse. I was beginning to believe that my problem was solved; I didn’t have to deplete my financial resources to keep reading. The catch was, though, Scribd’s app was not compatible with Kindle. Because I didn’t own a tablet then, I read a dozen books on my phone. It’s now apparent that I had no respect for my vision. When I recently read Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, a paperback thankfully, I was reminded of the time when I read her Neapolitan Quartet — four books, 1,693 pages, 3,60,000 words approximately — on my cell phone, a device that was slightly longer than a bar of soap. I might be judging my younger self now, but I don’t think I was not completely reckless, for it was Ferrante after all. A few months after I subscribed to Scribd, I decided to buy an iPad — I convinced myself that I was investing — just to read the books available on Scribd. Now, it felt like I could protect my money and that my long quest to find the ideal library, although it was a digital one, had finally ended. But it didn’t. In less than four months, I found myself blankly looking at the electronic pages on my iPad, words that looked like unintelligible symbols, and I found myself reading without comprehending, but simply mentally pronouncing the words. I attributed it to the memory loss and attention deficit that humanity was experiencing in general because of being cooped up, deprived of social interaction and healthy stimulation. This seemed deeper than that. I was feeling numb after spending two-thirds of my waking hours in front of a computer, triggered by the endless din of Microsoft products, wrestling with my fight-or-flight response. The memory loss, attention deficit, inability to comprehend seemed to have been accentuated by the reading I did on electronic devices in the hope that it would help me decompress. I was making things worse. Reading, I was sure, would assuage my anxiety, but I was growing more anxious about not being able to read deeply and not retaining anything that I read. Loss of the interest to write was an obvious side-effect. To make sure that I wasn’t making this up in my head, I did a little research to understand if there was anyone else like me, who felt exhausted while reading on devices. I fully acknowledged the echo chamber that is the Internet, and it came to my attention that I was not alone. Many readers had reverted to physical books for myriad reasons including the inability to comprehend and recall books read on electronic devices. I was certain that I hadn’t scratched out and that I didn’t have to return to physical books with my tail between my legs, but I was back to where I started — how would I be able to afford physical books all my life?
I gnawed at the question, the answer didn’t surface, but to make the situation worse, I discovered some Indian independent bookstores on Instagram. E-mails flew back and forth, pretty packages with gorgeous books and adorable bookmarks arrived, and the process was repeated so many times. I told myself that I had reasons to buy books from independent bookstores — birthdays, festivals, work milestones, retail therapy, and Jeff Bezos. But, on my journey to establish a healthy relationship with my book-buying habits, I learned that life couldn’t be perfect. On an uneventful morning, I woke up feeling like checking the cost of choosing independent stores. My last purchase proved that each book that I bought from an independent store cost hundred rupees more than Jeff Bezoz’s price. I decided that I wouldn’t be able to buy from independent stores every time and that I had to develop the courage to return to e-commerce sites and patronise independent bookstores once in a while. Anyway, the far left thought that I was participating in capitalism by buying books, the woke thought that I wasn’t supporting the independent stores enough, the far right thought I was being westernised, and there I was, a helpless, confused, tired person, who simply wanted to read and didn’t want to slit my wrist, shed blood just to be allowed to lay my hands on a book. With my electronic devices sunset to look after my mental health, with my relationship slim with independent stores, I was back to buying books on Amazon, but I wanted to try harder. My trips to public libraries began.
Connemara Public Library was welcoming. How did I not think of it and let myself suffer! All that the librarian needed was three-hundred rupees, and I was a member. Despite my enthusiasm, I trained myself to temper my expectations; I wanted to check out their collection first. The English Literature section was the quietest. It was way bigger than I imagined, but if the English Literature section was the Milky Way, the Tamil Literature wing was this universe. The enormity of the Tamil Literature wing, the difference in size between the English and Tamil sections, made me feel like an outsider. I read Tamil. However, as a reader, I prefer English to Tamil, and the place reminded me of how removed I was from the place I lived, how much I was missing, and it made me examine my choice to read in English and launched an inquiry about my biases. If I were an absolute outsider, I would have felt less awful maybe. If I were an outsider, it would have also meant that I didn’t belong here but somewhere. I felt stuck in between. I was neither here nor there. I swallowed the hurt and entered the English section to let books lick my wounds. The collection pulled me into a warm embrace. I struggled to choose six books (that was all I was allowed), but I felt decisive about bringing James Baldwin’s Another Country home. The copy that I had borrowed was printed in 1963 — it was twenty-four years older than me — and the moment I opened it at home, it died in my hands. The binding had encroached the text, and like characters who spill horrible but incomplete secrets before they die, the pages fell off the book as I flipped. I went back to the library a couple of weeks later to find other ancient and some contemporary books. I walked around the racks, sweating profusely, with my mouth behind the tyranny of a mask, and it occurred to me that I had spent about a thousand rupees in the last couple of weeks to visit the library. I stayed fifteen kilometres away from the library, and if I continued to read at the pace of two books per week, I would visit the library once a month and sometimes twice, and that meant I would spend a thousand rupees for the commute again. The corporates have ruined me — at times, unknowingly, I end up calculating the cost of my decisions. I did the math and decided that to make full use of my library subscription, I should become a member of another library that’s close to Connemara, and at the cost of one trip, I could borrow books from two libraries. The British Council was not as modest as Connemara when it came to annual subscription. I paid two-thousand and two-hundred rupees to become a member. Their collection, only English obviously, was not as diverse and large as Connemara, but there was an interesting mix of classic and contemporary. With two subscriptions in my pocket, I should have, ideally, felt relieved. The quest to find the ideal library should have ended there, but not yet.
I was beginning to feel crushed under the due-date pressure. So many books were due at both the libraries, work bled into life, and the time carved out for reading faded. I was simply transporting books from home to the libraries, returning them unread. I was wasting money, time, and piling up blocks of anxiety. I could have bought more books using the money I spent for the commute. I could have read them in peace. As I write this piece, five books are staring at me from my bookshelf, including the beautiful Gionvanni’s Room, and maybe they are mentally screaming at me to send them back to their original places because they weren’t meant to stay with me so long. I can’t stop imagining how this scenario would have played out if I lived near the libraries or if the libraries lived near me. If the books were overdue, no problem. I could return and borrow later. If there were new arrivals, I could visit the library during my break at work to bring them home. I could volunteer, go for reading sessions, attend events, sit in silence, and not worry about returning home before the arrival of ungodly hours.
I am not asking too much. From my home, there are five cinemas within a radius of five kilometres, and all the main roads which bookend my neighbourhood are populated with hundreds of restaurants. Movies, yes. Food, yes. Books, yes and no. There are a couple of libraries, but their collections fill me with dread — the Chetan Bhagats and the bankers of India who monopolise the racks by filling them with their misogynistic and mythological stories written with the goal of sending them to Bollywood. Or it’s the Sidney Sheldons and the JK Rowlings of the world, and piles and piles of academic and technical books (how to code, how to join IIT and IIM, how to crack NEET, how to speak in English) which are many Indians’ only way to a better life. We need all of those books with some room for diverse literature. I am taking a moment to check my privilege — an acquaintance, whose book collection filled me with awe, picked up a book and said, ‘I don’t like it. You can take it if you want.’ I considered taking it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy it by myself and that it wouldn’t be available in the public libraries here. My self-respect held my hands back. I turned down the offer politely.
The system and the public make me feel perplexed. Except for Connemara, other public libraries seem to pander to the popular English novelists who misshape our reading. It’s just not the algorithm that’s messing with our reading choices, but the people in power, people who can fix the libraries’ catalogues. Maybe, their decisions are dictated by the budget, by the demand, by what the public is curious to read. Every other type of book is for the intellectuals, they think, maybe. It’s for the losers. It’s for the loners. It’s for the stuck-ups. It’s for the dreamers. It’s for the idealists. It’s for the rich. It’s for the sinners. It’s for the blessed. It’s for those who have got all the time in the universe. It’s not for those who want to live deeply. It’s not fun. While I write this, time and again, I realise that I am a minority here. If I weren’t after English books, this very system that I have been bitterly questioning could have been something that I am grateful for. But I am a minority with some privilege. Being able to read English is itself a privilege here. But no human being should suffer just to be able to read what they want to read. Public libraries are beautiful. In a country where there is no space at most homes to read and study, public libraries are a refuge. Tomorrow, I can visit a public library, sit in a wooden chair, and read my own books. I need not be fond of their collection to visit them. But this is the thing — I am back to where I started. There is a well-lit, safe, vast, quiet space, but I still need to buy what I want to read. So, I buy books like my whole life depends on it, as though I am an anxious animal squirreling away for winter.
This year, I bought a steel bookshelf with glass doors. I loved it so much that I didn’t sleep much the night it arrived. I stayed awake just to keep looking at it — colourful rows of books framed by white doors. This year, I bought sixty-four books, and along with what I already had, I am now in possession of one-hundred-and-three books which I dream of reading someday. The roundabout route that I took to arrive where I am today has made me generous. I don’t hoard books, I don’t get too attached to them — I am not ready to donate Anuk Arudpragasam’s books yet — and I don’t harbour any apprehensions about letting them go. It feels like it’s my responsibility to pay it forward. But I still live with some anxieties. I spend more money than I intend to, I avoid buying clothes and shoes because I might as well pump that money into books again, and I am still in the clutches of my imagination that makes up unhelpful images — the times when I would be bookless. It may never happen but I suffer and survive the imaginary ones in my head every day: unemployment, fire, flood, relocation, loss of vision. The worst one among all is this — what will happen to the books when I die, when the books would be without me?
Some Sunday afternoons are spent fleshing out some anxieties. I fix my gaze on my steel bookshelf with glass doors, and I tell myself that if I can’t afford books from next month, if I manage to read one book per week, I could go on for two years without buying and borrowing another book. The fear of missing out could be overwhelming, but isn’t it the same now, even when books keep coming home every week, every month? And then I smile — why do we struggle to expand this short life, to make sense of this long life, to live many lives in one life, to see, to observe, to feel seen, and to belong?