“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My British Raj

“Show me your books”, asked my aunt, glancing at the bulging bag that hung from my shoulder. “Hmm… Nevil Shute, Maurice Procter, - what? J. Krishnamurti?” I was embarrassed, as any 20 year-old jobless youth whose achievements till date were a bagful of dreams.

The year was 1977; my aunt was a retired teacher of English for a long time in Zambia and had come to visit us in Trivandrum. My mother said – “Akka (sister), this boy has no ambition. He doesn’t study well, he smokes, he dreams and all the time he is shut up in his room reading all sorts of books”. I looked at my aunt and said – “I may not be ambitious but I have ambitions. Only problem is that I don’t know how to go about realizing them”, and felt quite smart.

My relationship with the British (Council) Library in Trivandrum began in 1977, the year I graduated. One had to be a graduate to become a member then, if I remember correctly. All through the years till March 2008 when the library was closed down. It has been a lifetime…

In those days when there was no internet, libraries were our windows to the world, other than the movies and documentaries which would always be a couple of years old. And what a world it was! Sight & Sound, Country Life, Punch, Geographical, Autocar, Flight, and a host of other journals and magazines – and the books! I met J Krishnamurti at the BCL, attracted by the title of his book, ‘Commentaries on Living’. In the Eighties and Nineties, all my information on environment and wildlife was provided by BCL. The huge illustrated reference books which I opened reverently, with great awe and humility! The stern librarian, Mr.Parthasarathy, who was an English butler personified! The members kept pin-drop silence. Elders looked down at us bums over their spectacles with disapproval – my perpetual corduroy trousers and cotton kurta was so infra dig!

Years passed – the library acquired computers and videos, as the books diminished. In the late Nineties ( I don’t remember exactly when ) they started culling the number of books by selling them to the public. How many Mondays I have taken leave to wait at the doors of the library – at the stroke of 10 o’clock, make that headlong rush to grab books! Some devised a strategy of coming in groups and pick up the books greedily, rapidly and then at leisure go through them for the final list to purchase.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the culture of the library underwent drastic changes. Youngsters came mostly to browse the web and borrow CDs. Many of the Indian civil services aspirants in Trivandrum hogged the tables. The kind of books that I wanted – environment, biology, philosophy, conservation, old British authors – alarmingly became near extinct. Though with a waning interest and a heavy heart, I continued to visit the library, in spite of the hefty fees. And then in 2008, the final goodbyes were said.

Those who have been members in the British Library of Trivandrum would fondly cherish the memories. It was one of the few places in Trivandrum where you would find the vestiges of dignified behaviour. It will always have a place in my heart; just as the many books I bought secondhand from the library has a special place in my shelves. It nurtured, moulded and guided my life to a great extent. Everything in life has to come to a pass; so too the British Library. Just like the older USIS Library and the Gorky Bhavan ( Soviet House of Culture)in Trivandrum which were shut down long ago, the closing of British Library has created a vacuum in our hearts that will never be filled. It rang the end of an era, the breaking of the last links with the British Empire.

******* ** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 13.10.2010

See also: http://bpradeepnair.blogspot.com/2007/12/british-library-thiruvananthapuram-to.html

photo courtesy: http://moorthyblog.blogspot.com/2007/12/blog-post_07.html


  1. its sad... so many wonderful things of the past are lost with the new age.. i can understand your feelings. its not just the library. our readings are changing. apparently ebooks have overtaken the publication of hardcopies...i dread that. i wud hate reading books on the comp....

  2. Few very good things that inadvertently came good to us from the British period
    - The English Language
    The Railways
    The British Council Library.

    Painfully nostalgic for Trivandrumites- The British Council Library!!!

  3. 1977.I was doing my internship at Trivandrum Medical College at that time.I had a membership there too.It was a routine to go to the library in the evening and from there to the YMCA hostel,where some of my class mates stayed,and then to the front of secretariat,which was the favorite destination for 'mouth watching' those days!

    Closing the Library is like taking away the academic foundations of the State.The USIS library is gone, the Soviet Centre is gone and now this.Kerala is the most literate State,and any thing to do with culture and literature is gone.Given the sad situation of our libraries,it is ill fate that we have lost such an establishment.

  4. hello sir .new to your blog .nice write up too. seems like you have enormous wealth of knowledge .A member since 1977!

  5. @K: I have downloaded many e-books, but I am yet to read at least one of them, in full! You are right, the alienation of the present-day youth from books is lamentable!

    @Anil: Inadvertently,yes!!

    @Doc: Our paths must have surely been crossed! :). I was there too, in front of the Secretariat, mouth-looking! Closing of the library was heart-breaking!

    @Raji: I don't know about the 'enormous wealth of knowledge', but the more I read, the more I am convinced of my vast ignorance! :)

  6. Balan, you won’t allow me to sincerely hate this bloody thing, nostaligia, would you?

    British Library, Trivandrum was part of our lives. Those were the days. Even those disapproving looks at my mundu :-( Walking down to coffee house straight from the library, ogling at the passersby en route..... those were really the days!

    I continued the imperial connection even at Ahmedabad ( the membership was transferrable) and yet really missed the beautiful building at Trivandrum with high ceilings, neatly arranged racks and yes the librarian too.

    It is a pity that they weighed money over mind as the wont is. I don’t know whether the A’bad one is still there. I really don’t care. Closure of Trivandrum BCL, however, marked the sad end of an era...

    BTW, have they demolished the building and built another monstrosity like the adjacent YMCA over there?

  7. @Ashok: I am not sure, but I think it has been converted to an extension of the YMCA. The building is still intact.

    You know, I used to feel quite important going to the BL. Taking out the big books from my bag, showing the membership card, the recognition, the acknowledging smiles of the staff ( I am an senior member, kids, make way for me, said the condescending expression on my face!) and the serious browsing of the BIG books! How silly, but how good!

    Good ole days...

  8. beautifully nostalgic!

    i came to tvm in 85. i'd heard of bcl from a lot of my tvm colleagues and cousins.i found the library very useful and feel sad when i think it's no longer there. but didnt share the sentiments u talk about, and my tvm acqauintances raved about. possibly because i am an unorganised person and discipline and efficiency made me nervous and gave me a feeling of what?-- am not sure, uneasiness, inadequacy.besides it was a phase of british bashing for me too:-).
    i used to be much more comfortable in the public library. had a few friends among the staff here.

    btw, the comment box on your commetaries (other blog)is not opening.

  9. Seems long long time ago :-)

    The British library seemed to have provided you so many books and journals and you have lapped it all up. :-)

    This episode of yours got me recalling my school days and my school library; eventually my engineering days.

    I spent all my time in library and never attended any classes. Gained more reading books than attending engineering lectures by professors who knew nothing!!

  10. Bals
    I nearly left out an incident which I can never forget when the BCL is discussed. And of course the ubiquitous Parthasarathy was in the centre of that incident.I can still remember him glaring at me like an English Butler.
    I was then the member in the Junior section.I guess I was in the seventh std in school.The Junior members were not eligible to pick up books in the general section. Inadvertently someone left a book on Human anatomy amongst the junior books. And I was fascinated and picked that up. The guy at the counter did not notice and overlooked, and stamped out the book for me. When it was returned a few weeks later It was Parthasrathy at the counter and he caught me firm. He was quite angry ( dont know if it was my age and the book content or I picking up the General section book while being a junior member). He shouted in a firm voice and wanted to report the matter back home. He even accused that I cheated the Library. I mumbled feebly that was all I remember.

  11. @kpj: Oh, yes, BCl had a lot of snob-value in Trivandrum! :). I remember kids holding the library books seemingly so casual, but the plastic jacketed books were distinctively BCL and the rest of the world is supposed to notice it and feel - Oh! Wow!

    Personally, it was a refuge for me. I felt I was someone, someone of substance!

    Though still a member of Public Library ( again, since 1977), I was always frustrated by the utter lack of order and the bleak bureaucratic attitude of the librarians. Things are better there now; computerization and a lot more accountability from the members.

    Thanks for pointing out the comments pop-up in the other blog. I had opened it as a trial; fixed the issue.

  12. @Insignia: What do you mean, 'a long time ago'? 33 years is not ancient history, you know! :p

    It did you good, didn't they, the libraries? Nothing like the smell of books!

    @Anil: There is a story that Dr K V Srinivasan is fond of relating: While he was studying in Intermediate College (Govt.Arts) he went to BCL to get a student membership. After checking the application form and credentials, Mr Parthasarathy asked KVS a question: "Who is your Principal?" KVS sweated. 'Er - I don't know', he managed to stutter out. Parthasarathy raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. 'You DON'T KNOW the name of your Principal? This paper says you are student of that college!" KVS mustered his courage and said - 'I don't know his real name but I can tell you what we call him...!!"

  13. Few days back i read a post by another blogger friend who says that sometimes we like a place so much that in a way we adopt it.It is really sad the place you loved so much is closed.The 'snob value' you talk about in one your replies to the comments is so interesting.

    My first experience of a library was in a place called Bomdilla (in Arunachal Pradesh )-- i can never forget that place and the smell of books there.I used to read regional language books translated in Hindi.If i am right my mom still has that library card.Now my book reading habit is gone mostly because of my getting hooked to the internet.I haven't read the books i bought two months back from the book fare .

  14. You are right; my reading of books too have come down drastically since the happening of internet, esp. blogging. Parvati says I am addicted to blogging now - well, except for the soaring electricity and internet charges,I am happy with this addictive!

    I always felt very secure and happy in libraries. It's like home ground!

  15. Oops!!! sorry!! 33 years is long time ago for me as I wasnt born yet!

    Didnt mean that for you. You are a dynamic young man!! Chill! :-)

  16. What an excellent post! I too used to be a frequent visitor to the Trivandrum BCL and liked its atmosphere and overall ambience for students. I used to spend my hours reading the books on law because at the time, I was trying to secure admission in London for Master's degree in law. The staff at the BCL were always very courteous and helpful to students like me.

    Your post brought back some very poignant memories and I hope you will continue to write such posts often. All the best.

  17. @Prabhakar: Thanks,P!

    @Insignia: Hrrmph!Um,Um!

    @Sanand: Glad you liked the post and welcome! :) Hope you got through to London.

    It is not nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, but the loss of such simple great things in life makes one despondent. What makes matters worse is that the mass is unaware of the value of such institutions. Our life has become poorer...

  18. You, Balan, are one intelligent man; in more ways than one. You are a walking endeavor of knowledge and the desire to aquire more....As John Wayne once said in an old movie" You have done well pilgrim." and you have

  19. @Sandy: Ow, I'm blushing again! :) But you have never been miserly with your appreciation of what I write. I would not say that I have the 'desire' to acquire more knowledge; just that I would let anything that comes my way, escape without savouring it!

    Pilgrim! I love that word. That is exactly what I would like to call myself, a pilgrim, through this journey of life, though without a destination...

  20. Then I shall now see you, and maybe even refer to you, as The Pilgrim....because really, we are just that..I am a Pilgrimess....LOL

  21. I frequent the district library of Coimbatore as my interest is in history. And I get to read a lot of good books there, for no cost! When I was in Chennai, it was Connemara Library. Boy, what a collection they have!

    Destination Infinity


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