Was it not the Bard who said there are stones in books and sermons in running brooks? The Man from Madras Musings is not so sure, but he does remember being very impressed when he read those lines for the first time. They more or less swam into MMM’s consciousness when he recently happened to visit a library run by a government institution.
The place was touted to have a hoary past and MMM was all excited. He had been granted permission to visit it in connection with some research that he was doing. The request had been hanging fire for quite a while and MMM had to move heaven and earth to be granted access. It was almost as though MMM had asked to be allowed access to state secrets. But now that the permission had come, MMM lost no time in going across to the library. Speed is always of the essence when it comes to matters concerning access to Government records. You can never be sure as to when your permit will be revoked or the sanctioning authority may get transferred, in which case his/her successor will spend all his/her time revoking whatever the predecessor had done.
And so, there was MMM at the hallowed portals, all agog. He was like a child on its birthday, awaiting gifts. And from then on, the story could only go steadily downhill. The first shock was to see the librarian prostrate behind a few racks. She got up on seeing MMM and was suitably apologetic – she had been unwell with a virus she explained and was just recovering. MMM expressed his sympathies even as he hitched his face mask a little higher. The lady became chatty thereafter – she could have stayed at home she said but preferred to be at the library. MMM commended her for her sense of duty. To this she replied that while that was true enough, what appealed even more to her was the peace and quiet of the place, ideal for rest. At home she said, there were the in-laws and also the demands of the children and the husband, while here at the library she was all by herself. She then also added in what MMM took to be a powerful hint, that nobody ever came to the library anyway.
MMM decided that he had better call the meeting to order. He had, he said, come specifically in search of some journals that he knew were brought out by the institution for over seven decades. The lady immediately replied that she had never heard of such a publication and was MMM sure he was not mistaking this institution for some other place? MMM said he was quite sure and moreover Google Books was also emphatic that the past volumes were to be found here. The woman was no longer smiling. Google Books could say anything she said but reality could be quite otherwise. There were no such books in the library. Was there a catalogue asked MMM. Yes, came the reply, but it would mean switching on the computer and that could take time. MMM said he would wait and while he was at it, could he wander around the library and see what was available? To this there came a reluctant yes by way of an answer.
Even as the computer gasped and spluttered to life, and not before three men were summoned to switch it on and see if it worked, MMM browsed the shelves. In one of these he found three bound volumes of the journal he was looking for. It was a drop in the ocean when compared to the treasure trove he had expected to find but nevertheless it was there. MMM triumphantly took the volumes to the front desk and confronted the librarian who was not so pleased. MMM then asked her as to where the other numbers were. Pat came the answer that as far as she knew, and she had been in service for five years, these were the only volumes available. She had never seen any other. She also added that the library had a policy of culling unwanted books each year and it was quite likely that older issues had been destroyed. MMM could not believe his ears. They were one of their kind he exclaimed. So what, came the reply, nobody used them in years and what with space being a constraint and the pressure to accommodate new books, some clearance had to be done.
MMM had nothing to say. He glanced around at the so-called new books – they were of the kind you normally classified as pulp fiction. Clearly, reading tastes had changed with time. MMM had to beat a hasty retreat. But he could not help noticing that despite the large-scale purchase of potboilers, patronage had not improved at the library. A quiet glance at the visitors’ book revealed none in the past few years. Of course, there was covid.
The librarian’s parting shot at MMM, just before she went back to recline between the racks was that if he gave her advance intimation before arriving next time (meaning he had popped up this time like the genie in Aladdin), she would make sure she was less busy and be of more help to him.