The books in our lives

A great library engenders a sense of pride and passion for books 

Without libraries what have we?
We have no past and no future. 

— Ray Bradbury

Here is where people
One frequently finds
Lower their voices
And raise their minds.

— Richard Armour, writing on the "Library"

SHOULD one want to, one can write for long, very long, on books and libraries: what having them means, what place they occupy in our lives, what ‘dukedoms’, in Shakespeare’s ringing words, they confer upon us. But at the time of writing this, three thoughts, or images, come to my mind, and I would so like to share them.

The first, oddly enough, is something I came upon recently on internet. It was a 19th century image, a woodcut, of a small ‘library’ — a publisher’s premises, in fact — that looked more like an advertisement than anything else. It led us into the view of a small room, wooden door panels open, completely stacked with neatly bound books, standing in apple-pie order on shelves from bottom to top: inside, on the floor could be seen two men seated on the floor and dressed in Indian fashion — dhotis and jackets and seemingly Gujarati turbans — gazing eagerly at the viewer or visitor. Well, above the shelf directly behind the two men, father and son possibly, were two rows of small framed ‘religious’ pictures tacked to the wall — the image on the net was regrettably too low in resolution for one to be able to see it perfectly clearly or to reproduce it here — everything under a floral arch, within which, three lines of decorative calligraphy proclaimed, in English: "Yaduvanshiya Pustakalaya; Govardhandass Luxmidass; Publisher of the Ancient Literature".

A witty old woodcut showing the building of a library, with books as bricks and readers as masons. 18th century
A witty old woodcut showing the building of a library, with books as bricks and readers as masons. 18th century

A Bookworm. Caricature by Grandville.
A Bookworm. Caricature by Grandville.
France, 19th century

Virtually, the same text appeared at the bottom of the picture in Hindi; however, on the wooden panels at the sides was provided the admirable information, in Sanskrit at left, and in Hindi at right, that this ‘pustakalaya’ had been established for the restoration — the word used was "jeernoddhaara" — of old ‘arya granthas’ in the year ‘1887’.

Who Govardhandass Luxmidas, with such passion for books was/were, I have no idea of; what ‘arya granthas’ did they restore and publish one is ignorant about; where this place was located seems to be knowledge that has long been lost.

But the image stays in my mind for I have never seen anything like it in the Indian context.

In the second place, randomly, my mind goes to a moving note that I saw inscribed on an Imperial manuscript that was once in the great library — kitabkhaneh — of the Mughals. We know something, through that indefatigable chronicler, Abu’l Fazl, how brilliant the imperial libraries were, with what care and passion they were assembled, and what treasures they housed. On the fly-leaves of countless manuscripts, there appeared, in the form of a formal record, brief notes, followed by carefully affixed seals of librarians, which gave the exact hour and date on which the work was entered in the library, or taken out for examination, or taken charge of from the previous librarian by the person making the note.

But there was something special and elegant about this boldly written note, for it was in the hand of the emperor Shah Jahan himself, in very neat nastaliq characters: as a prince, the emperor had taken some lessons in calligraphy, one knows.

If my memory serves me right, it ran something like this: "On this blessed day, the fifth of the month of ‘Azar, which is the first day of our — always the royal ‘our’ instead of ‘’my’ — ascent to the throne, we have inherited this work, the Iyar-i Danish, and have duly entered it in our library. Written by this humble supplicant at the door of the bountiful Allah, Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Shah Jahan Padshah, son of Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir Padshah, son of Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar Padshah, the great Conqueror."

There is something deeply moving in this, for here is the Emperor of India, on the very day of his ascending the throne when countless tasks must have had to be performed, quietly entering his kitabkhaneh, finding the time to examine the choicest of his manuscripts, and then inscribing them thus in his own hand. In the act, there is pride, and there is passion.

The Imperial Library of the Mughals was a private matter. At the other end, however, and down to our own times, is a public, very public, institution, the Library of the celebrated Harvard University in the US, the ‘guardian’ of which, Robert Darnton — Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at that University and Director of the Harvard University Library — gave these astonishing figures in a recent article.

"Having begun in 1638", he wrote, "with the 400 books in John Harvard’s library, we now have accumulated nearly 17 million volumes and 400 million manuscript and archival items scattered through 45,000 distinct collections." And then went on to add, for the context in which he was writing was the financial crisis through which great libraries are going through at the moment: "I could string out the statistics indefinitely. We collect in more than 350 languages and many different formats. We have 12.8 million digital files, more than 100,000 serials, nearly 10 million photographs, online records of 3.4 million zoological specimens, and endlessly rich special collections, including the largest library of Chinese works outside of China (with the exception of the Library of Congress) and more Ukrainian titles than exist in Ukraine`85."

In these casually tossed-off opening words and statistics, one can feel the sense of pride and the passion for books that a great library engenders.

Footnote: Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, once said: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library".