Bluebells in Summer

A couple of years ago, I came upon a new outlet of Just Books. I paused on the pavement, holding the news of the arrival of a local library close. Through the glass front I watched the librarian quietly sift through the books that were in cartons and arrange them on the shelves, and recalled how, a summer thirty years ago, my friends and I started a library.

We loved to read as much as we loved playing outdoors, so we pooled our books, and led by the oldest – Anu, 14 years old and gregarious – lined our much-thumbed-through Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and Tarzan comics, and Enid Blyton series along old racks in Meera’s garage. Meera lived in number 46, while the rest of us lived in houses across from hers on second cross lane, Vasant Nagar. Our city was called Bangalore, green and serene, less city and more town-like in those days.

Meera was a soft-spoken girl, so dear to her father’s heart that he parked his car on the street outside and gave us the use of his garage.

We named it Bluebells Library. How could we not, when books like The Faraway Tree and Adventures of Mister Pinkwhistle were as much part of our daily fare as sambaar-rice! The image of blue, bell-shaped flowers, blossoming along cool, wooded paths, danced in our oily crew-cut or pig-tailed heads in the tropical heat of Bangalore.

Word got around and our friends (and their friends) trooped into Bluebells Library. We took turns to be the librarian – suggesting books, issuing and making a note of them in a ruled register and collecting payments of 50 paise per book. The long summer days became purposeful. Shifting from being a reader to becoming a provider of story magic was terribly exciting. We did our duty as the local librarians officiously … perhaps too much so, for the day 10-year-old Balaji decided to take his favourite comics back home, a fight broke out.

What started with Anu ordering him to keep them right back became a scuffle in the hallowed space between the bookshelves. Balaji yanked Anu’s long braid and she grabbed a fistful of his summer mop. They pulled and yelled. Someone fetched Balaji’s sister, Ranju, who came charging in to drag him away from the fight. But then Balaji’s precious wristwatch fell to the floor and its glass broke. We stood by, stunned and sorry, as, sobbing, he retrieved all his books from the shelves and trudged back home.

While the rest of us had stood watching the fight, Meera had slipped indoors. Shaken, she refused to come out for the rest of the afternoon. We received orders to dismantle the shelves of Bluebells Library. The space that had crackled with books, chatter and the clink of 50p coins, became a drab green-walled garage again.

We talked about starting another library, but where? Meera’s father had been the only parent willing and able to spare the space. Our own grandfather was a doctor who ran his private practice out of the garage, his little growly Standard Ten car parked in the lane outside. We returned to playing Hide-n-Seek and Lock-n-Key for the rest of the summer.

As teenagers, the girls among us contented ourselves with a lending library a few lanes away in busy Vasant Nagar market. We’d sigh over the ‘T.D.H’ heroes of Mills & Boon romances, not quite able to imagine exactly how tall, dark and handsome the brooding heroes actually were. We ran through Jeffrey Archers and Sidney Sheldons. The librarian was an indifferent woman who didn’t meet our eyes and left us to forage through her common fare on our own.

A library is not business-as-usual. It is a space to indulge the community’s love for stories through sharing and (quiet) conversation. It’s about the availability of worlds to explore and lose yourself in. We all had access to school libraries of course, but these were part of school and rules like ‘if-you’re-caught-talking-you-don’t-get-a-book’ … so, not much fun.

We grew up. Meera continued to live in Number 46, renovating the house and raising her children there; Anu, Balaji and Sriram moved abroad to live and work; Adithi moved to north Bengaluru. She and I became authors. We wrote a collection of short stories called Growing Up in Pandupur, etching in incidents and spaces of our childhood in Vasant Nagar…

Balaji’s older sister Ranju featured as ‘Thangi’ in many of my stories. She was the perfect heroine – bold, spontaenous and often in trouble! Ranju would attempt to climb impossible trees and walls, grazing and bruising herself in unlikely places. She’d run pell mell, barefoot, down the street on errands for her grandmother. Our houses shared a compound wall, so she’d be sitting on it at 7 am, teeth not brushed, hair uncombed, impish grin in place. She’d call our names till Adithi and I got out of bed and wandered sleepily over to listen to her plans for a long day of adventure.

Stories about Thangi/ Ranju have found their way to school library bookshelves, and even to some local lending libraries. Just as well. Ranju, who lovingly ran a nursery school in a town in Kerala, lost her life to cancer last year. We found out through an announcement on her Facebook page. It jolted the rest of us into reaching out. Over phone, email and visits we communicated grief at her loss, rued our distance over the years and recalled the happy summers of our childhood. In every conversation, Bluebells Library featured. We laughed over the scuffle between Anu and Balaji and worried about how he was coping.

Ranju’s leaving cast a pall over my memories. Those summers don’t seem like they were only about climbing up the Faraway Tree or spying out invisible Mr. Pinkwhistle. I see now that in our gardens red hibiscus, not satiny-cool bluebells, grew.

That tiny outlet of Just Books in Lokhandwala shut down barely a year after it opened. When I sent them an email asking, naively, for it to come back, their Customer Care rep wrote – Mumbai has its challenges of extremely high real estate costs which sometimes a small library chain like ours cannot afford 🙂

I know. I just needed to ask one time …

Books haven’t left my life. I continue to buy for my own bookshelf and browse among my friends’ books. I’m certain my childhood friends have gone on to discover great stories in others’ collections and to dispense story-magic in their turn. Perhaps they take their children to the local library on Sunday afternoons.

In each book lover lingers a librarian and a member. The space for books shrinks but we continue to share and to savour.

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