"I grew up between the tall shelves and musty smells of that library."

Final chapter As Eloor Library shuts its doors loyalists say goodbye to a friendArjun Narayanan/Twitter
Features Books Sunday, January 07, 2018 - 12:01

When I recently learnt about Chennai’s beloved Eloor Lending Library shutting its doors, I was sad, but not surprised. It was like learning about the death of a close friend who you knew was suffering, was on a veritable death-bed. A friend whose pain you witnessed first-hand. But now, when the moment arrived, despite its inevitability, there was grief, and somewhere, a sense of relief.

“Every bookshop”, writes Jorge Carrión, in his acclaimed new book Bookshops, “is a condensed version of the world”. If bookshops are little worlds, then a library is like a window seat in a train that speeds through these worlds. The Eloor Lending Library was like a window seat with views that you could change, and a window seat with views that could change you.

I became a member of Eloor sometime during 2001. Eleven years old at the time, I vividly recall the surprise on my mother’s face when she was informed that membership would cost us an initial deposit Rs 500, a rather handsome sum for us then. Apart from this, there was an additional reading charge amounting to 10% of the cost of the books that we had borrowed. My mother didn’t have a reading habit, but she understood its importance. That, coupled with my pained puppy face, ensured that I walked out of the library smiling, with two shiny plastic-wrapped books in tow.

I grew up between the tall shelves and musty smells of that library. My mother would leave my sister and I there while she purchased vegetables close by. I’d explore the library like I was visiting for the first time, despite the fact that I’d have made a trip just the previous fortnight. As soon as you’d enter Eloor, the shelves on your right would call out to you with their classic titles, filled with books by celebrated Russian and French authors whose celebrated works you never truly understood. Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, de Maupassant and Tolstoy stared down on you with their somber covers, yellowed pages and tiny lettering.

Further down, the shelves carried works of fiction, meticulously arranged, author by author, in alphabetical order. These were the shelves in between which I spent hours deliberating if a book was worth being a part of the four books that I was allowed to borrow – the limit set by our parents. I scarcely knew about these authors, so I would read the blurbs to decide. These books were also the reason our lending limit was extended to six, before it slowly ceased to exist. I wanted to read them all. My favourite part of the library, however, was beyond the fiction shelves. The children and young adult section carried comics, fantasy novels and my guilty pleasure, Archie Comics. A trip to the library was incomplete without checking out at least one of them.

There are two things about Eloor that I have always found remarkable.

First, the constancy of their incredible staff. The same people who were there when I became a member are still there today. They always remembered their members, their members’ children and enquired about our life, our school, about homework.

Second, the library’s romance section. It’s easily the biggest section. They had hundreds and hundreds of Mills and Boons and Harlequin novels arranged according to the type of romance genre that they belonged to. Historical Romance, Medical Romance, Super Romance, Exotic Romance, American Romance, International Romance, Blaze (which, as I would learn later, was code for books that were mostly just sex-a-thons with a bit of story here and there) and more would greet you with their silly titles and their saucy covers. I still remember borrowing one in my very early twenties, and the staff member who stamped the due date took a look at me, then the book, and remarked at how it seemed like only yesterday that I was checking out Roald Dahl. Times have changed, he said.

It certainly had. The combination of pursuing a challenging academic course that cut down on leisure time coupled with the ease of e-commerce ensured that my visits to the library dwindled. Why force yourself to finish a book within two weeks when you could take your time? Why battle through T Nagar traffic and limited parking spots when books could find their way home to you?

On Friday, as Eloor began winding up and selling its stock, I went there to buy a few cellophane wrapped books for myself, but more importantly, for my one-year-old son, who will never know the library. I found myself wading through stacks of unorganized books along with a crowd of people, my co-members in grief, each of us trying to claim pieces of the library for ourselves.

While some people expressed their disappointment at the closure, others demanded answers. Why would you close this place, they asked. The answer from the staff to each of them was always the same: we have no option but to shut down because we’re running at a loss.

And now, so are we.