Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To the Library

While growing up, a visit to the public library was a monthly affair. My grandfather would take me with him to the library to borrow and return books. While he would pick his books, I would walk around its dark, cool alleys lined with rows of books, unordered, picking books that would interest me, reading a passage, picking torn, single, yellowed pages that usually lay at the bottom of the pile, or lay hurriedly buried between other books. Reading, with a feeling that I could easily spend my life there. Books, so many of them. What more can life offer, I would think. My grandfather would invariable pick on history, fiction - short stories and novels, Indian and non-Indian, essays - on politics and literature, poetry, theosophy, philosophy and religion. On a membership card which let him borrow at most three or four books, in any odd combination of these picks, any given month, a bunch of books would invariable find their way to me. While my grandfather would take notes in a diary, scribbling a line or a passage of his linking from a book (my father lamenting his father's bad memory), I slowly mastered the ability to finish a month's quota of books in a week and still be hungry for more, ready to goad him into visiting the dingy old library again.

Jammu is an old city. Or rather now a city of the old.

During last couple of years, on my in-frequent trips back to the city, going through his book shelf, I realized my grandfather's pick had gone down to mostly books like 'Vairagya Satakam' by Bhartari and maybe a book on Kashmir. Checking the library card told me his trips to the library weren't religiously regular anymore. 

Last week, on my most recent short trip to the city, he complained about watery eyes and blurred vision. Not to be outdone, I told him I have the same problem somedays. I am told on some days he forgets that he has already had lunch. I am told only on some days it is because of memory, rest of the time he is in fact hungry. Decade and a half of diabetes (which he has managed quite well with his active and clean lifestyle) and two operations for cerebral hemorrhage, second one just after a trip to Kashmir a couple of years ago, have taken a toll on his health.

Still. At Menzraat function of a cousin sister, pulling me aside, an uncle told me to accompany my grandfather to the banquet hall and have him eat something. So I slow walked with my grandfather to the hall, taking one step at a time, climbing stairs, him holding my hand. Inside, as I prepared to have a plate ready for him, I asked him what would he like to have. He smiled and took the thumb of his right hand to his mouth. Confused for a moment, I realized he was signing for booze. Signalling again, he asked, 'Where are they drinking tonight?' He wanted to know where were the men of the house drinking.  In a typical Kashmiri manner, most of the drink on such family events is done in private, away from the women and elders, probably in some corner room next to the kitchen. As I laughed my heart out, I walked my grandfather, a life long 'almost teetotaller', who was now in a celebratory mode looking to 'wet his beak', and led him straight to the lair of drinkers.

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This time I had the opportunity to re-visit the library with an Uncle, my Mamaji, who wanted me to check out some old photographs of Jammu that were shown in a recent exhibition at Kala Kendar of Jammu (apparently it had a surprisingly good response from the city dwellers) and that are now placed in the 'Reference Section' of the library. The last time I remember going out on such an outing with Mamaji on his Scooter, we were in Kashmir, I must have been seven and he took me to surprise trip to 'Exhibition Ground' where I got to see 'maut ka kuan' and cocoons getting boiled for silk.

This trip wasn't as dramatic but it was just as fun. My Mamaji had reference of someone, a reference always helps in such endeavors, but that someone had since been transferred to some other office. The new person in his seat, wasn't in office, so to see (and possibly photograph the collection) instead we had to deal with two kindly looking aunties who (probably intimidated by a camera and beguiled by my 'educated' air)  kept asking if I hadn't photographed their official desk that had a bunch of tiffin boxes, half-open, placed over newspapers. It was almost lunch time. I told them it is understandable. They thought I was from some cable channel or such. (Ah! My educated air!)

I told them the purpose of the visit. There were complications. In absence of  a senior officer they couldn't let me photograph the collection. They had strict orders prohibiting it. In Jammu, photography is prohibited even in exhibitions. The reason, an old official one: if we let everyone have what we have, who will come to us. And so history remains in offices.

It told them I understood and dropped my camera next to a tiffin. As we discussed copyright issues, some how conversation took an interesting turn (actually you just have to say, 'Look at west' ). One of the women went to tell an anecdote that according to her summed up the issue: Tagore went to America, to its most famous library, and asked them to show him their most prized possession. They brought forth a book bound in golden (or something precious like that, she added in after thought). Tagore (that should be Vivekananda, was my early-thought) was expecting to see a Bible or something from the west, but he was astonished, and beaming with pride, to see The Bhagavad Gita. 'We don't care about out things,' the woman added as she passed a big thickly bound catalogue of old images.

It was a collection photographs shot by lesser known Raj era photographers Herzog & Higgins and dated early 1920s. The collection has some incredible photographs of old Jammu - Mubarak Mandi, Raghunath temple, Tawi and some rare panoramic shot of Jammu city. Sadly, most of these panoramic shots are, for the sake of convince, cut into two in the pages of the book.

Another collection of old photographs included photographs of a royal marriage - Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir on an invite to some other Kingdom (Kishangarh?). Kings shooting, riding elephants, stuff like that.

I was kind of disappointed that I couldn't capture some of the incredible scenes I saw (those in the city must check it out). There were places I could recognize like the old secretariat at Mubarak Mandi, for sometime in early 90s, we lived in old area surrounding this place, view from Tawi river (although its sparseness was shocking), my father's childhood favorite Ragunath Mandir ( but with a view an ancient water tank that is long gone).

I realize like most urban spaces in this region, Jammu too is essentially built upon an ancient tomb. A tomb not only whose last traces are getting fast buried but even the memory of which is fast fading, buried in forced apathy.

As I start to walk out of the library, one of the kindly women suggested that we should go to Kala Kendar where some of the old photographs are still on display. So my uncle kick stated his scooter and we were on our way to a building that all this time I believed to be a government hotel or a tourist center.

Ranbir Public Library, Kachi Chawni
The way to reference section
Inside

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