Where stories find a life

Baidehi Sengupta

“If libraries were honest, they would say, No one spend time here without being changed.”If Libraries were Honest, Joseph Mills

As we grow up, we inherit, experience, and encounter innumerable narratives that we share with the people around us, people we know, people who are strangers and eventually with every existence in this world that surrounds us. These narratives make their places within us just as books find their shelves within a library. They connect us with the world around, with our ancient past through folktales, mythologies, historical records, memoirs, personal narratives of our elders, and with our future through countless novel ideas and possibilities. These narratives shape our being and becoming. While our first-hand experiences can be limited, a library is a space that transports us to a larger world. It is the universe as conceived by the Argentine author and librarian Jorge Luis Borges in his short story The Library of Babel1. And probably this is one of the reasons why we often use words related to books and libraries as metaphors to talk about our lives.

I was born and brought up in a small suburban town of West Bengal in the late 70s, where all the ‘big’, ‘bright’, ‘enormous’ things of the world were non-existent. In the early 80s, there was hardly any house in my neighbourhood that had a television set. None of us could imagine that in some indefinite future we would use such technologies that could supply us stories from all over the world in seconds. But there never was any dearth of stories. Stories being travellers, often used to travel to that tiny unknown town through mysterious paths. Between the covers of a book, a noisy rehearsal of a play, RangaPishi’s metal betel leaf box, the songs of IPTA that Shakti Kaku used to sing, Chandanadi’s hand-woven floor mats with the designs copied from Soviet Woman magazine, black and white woodblock illustrations of Thakumar Jhuli2, a heated argument between the followers of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal football clubs – stories could pop up from every corner. We, a bunch of children from the locality, were ever ready to grab them and keep them safe in our memories. And the place that hosted all these was a large, one-room community library adjacent to the local club.

The book racks were arranged all along the walls. New ones with a sweetish pungent smell, second-hand ones mostly with yellowish brittle pages, coloured and glossy old magazines, specimen copies of textbooks and question banks, handwritten wall magazines, newspaper clippings, comic strips of Mandrake the Magician and Phantom3 from the dailies chronologically arranged in fullscape notebooks – there was every form of printed page that we could think of. And the empty space in the middle was ever crowded with people – both children and adults – busy preparing for occasional cultural functions. Those were the days when almost the entire para (locality) longed to spend their evenings together at thakurtola library hall.

Among all those book racks, one was for us, the children of the neighbourhood. It was our first corridor to a larger world, a world that hid beyond our ‘visibility’. The printed words were our vehicles. Among many such words, ‘adventure’ is probably the most significant in my vocabulary that would remain associated with that library throughout my life.

In one of those afternoon-evenings, our beloved, somber, quiet, and avid reader Sakti Kaku picked up a copy of Chander Pahar4 by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and handed it to the eight-year-old me. It was the story of Sankar Roy Choudhury, an ordinary Bengali man who travelled all the way to Africa around 1909-1910 and joined the Ugandan Railway as a clerk. The breathtaking narrative unveiled a series of events Sankar had to be part of. He had to fight against man-eating lions, black mamba, Bunyip (a creature from Australian Aboriginal Mythology), and many such ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ creatures before he could return to his own country. Though I have no clue how Bunyip reached Africa from Australia, the novel made ‘adventure’ and ‘Africa’ synonymous to me. My sketchbooks became full with the drawings of that unknown land and its never-heard-before creatures. It was almost after a decade that I came to know how African forests might look like while watching the film Born Free on a VCR player, rented from a local ‘Video library’, as we used to call it. My imagination could not be any farther from that vast expanse of corn-coloured African plain where lions feed on the carcass of a freshly killed zebra. But the anomaly could not separate the association of those two worlds.

A teacher by heart, and an exceptional storyteller, Chandanadi would gather the children from the nearby jute mill coolie-line every afternoon. The most common barter was half an hour storytime against a two hours study session. Out of all the stories she told, one particular imagery got engraved in my mind – …and then, when the western sky became clouded, and the storm was about to come, Thandidi (grandmother) wrapped up everything, – the pond, the palm trees, the cattle, the houses and the princess in her gamchha (cotton towel), kept it in her sack and started to walk towards the horizon…

After my 12th exam, like thandidi, I gathered up almost all my personal belongings, left the town, and settled in Kolkata for higher education. Years later, suddenly, I stumbled upon a poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub at Calcutta University Central Library that reminded me of Chandanadi’s story –
“…And he wrapped the garden in the sky, and the house in the garden
and packed the lot in a handkerchief
and went off
lone as an arctic fox
through the cold
unending
rain
into the world.”

Fairy Tales, Miroslav Holub5

References

  1. The Library of Babel (Spanish: La biblioteca de Babel) is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges and originally published in 1941 (published in English in 1962) in a short story collection El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan by Editorial Sur.
  2. Thakumar Jhuli, written by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder, is a collection of Bangla folktales that was published in 1907. The introduction to the anthology was written by Rabindranath Tagore.
  3. Both Mandrake the Magician and Phantom were syndicated newspaper comic strips written by Lee Falk and illustrated by Plill Davis and Ray Moore respectively. Both the comic strips began to be published around mid-1930s. Initially King Features Syndicate Inc. was the distributor of the comic strips. Both the comic strips were translated in Bangla as Jadukor Mandrake and Aranyadeb.
  4. Chander Pahar is one of the most popular works by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and was published in 1937 from M. C. Sircar & Sons Limited. The cover of this book was illustrated by Satyajit Ray. In 2002 Orient Blackswan published the English translation The Mountain of the Moon: A Classic Tale of Adventure in Africa. It was translated by Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri and illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu.
  5. Selected poems of Miroslav Holub were translated in Bangla by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay and was published from Dey’s Publishing in 1987. It was translated in English from the Czech by George Theiner and published in 1972 from Faber and Faber in an anthology of poetry The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

The author is a linguist, teacher and researcher of language education. She has completed her PhD degree from Jadavpur University and is currently working with APU, NIHH and Fair Wear Foundation in different capacities. She is the founder secretary of Mobile Pathshala, an educational initiative in Sundarbans, West Bengal. She can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Reply