Lately I have been spending my time in libraries.
I choose the portion of a desk protected by wood screens on its sides, an asylum for those prone to sensitivity and nervousness upon exposure. Unlike my personal work-desk, which is stocked with stationery, potted plants, and totems acquired at different points in time, the library desk is bereft except when occupied. It makes me think about the search for recognizable places outside our immediate. The smallest semblance brings to our disposition a desire to occupy and claim that space as ours. So is this small portion of the desk a unique piece of me in the outer world that I expect loyalty from and I identify with.
The pistachio-green desktops are inviting and stand in contrast to the ivory-coloured walls. On closer observation, the years of wear appear, one by one – a mark made with ink, a scratch and a pockmark – bringing one to the present moment, its delicate movement amidst the ordinary things. If in a word, I have to describe the order of the place, it would be summed best by the word bureaucratic. The only disorder rests among and within the books like it should. Some books having lost their front or back covers have been hardbound, and stacked with the fresher copies. Fiction, biographies, psychology, movements, media, literature, social issues, laws, religion, history, and many more brought in at different times, now are coded and classified.
On most working days, there are few visitors, mostly women, visiting for different purposes including studying, preparing lectures, and for research. I visit the library to read although on some occasions I have forced myself to study. On my last visit, I read about Ruttie Petit or as she was more popularly known, Ruttie Jinnah. At eighteen, she had married M. A. Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, and shared with him, a love that exalted but which also proved ruinous. She died on her 29th birth anniversary to what some believe an overdose. While in history, she is mentioned barely, as if lacking subjecthood, she was a powerful force behind Jinnah, and during the struggle for freedom.
Today Noor Zaheer’s My God is a Woman caught my eyes and I brought it out to my reading desk. I read five chapters in a little more than an hour, and when I closed the book, I read a snippet on the back cover, about the murder of a beloved character. I felt wasted, knowing as with life so with literature; loved ones live and die. There is also Ismat Chughtai’s The Crooked Line to be read- the opening scene from her childhood where she learns to discriminate between the powerful and the powerless; like we have learned as well.
Libraries themselves have been pushed away as knots, hidden between arrays of modern buildings and commercial ventures. When I read about libraries which have been defunded, a wave of depression hits me, and I writhe in pain. As a child in school, going to the library meant more rules to be observed than usual. The environment caught me in its fist to make me dislike it; fortunately, I grew up in my senses.
I found a book called The Hopes of Snakes in a library, which has now closed its doors to the public, and has restricted its functions to a bare minimum. But even then its sombre stacks offers brilliant works such as this book, which talks about the condemned birds and animals living among us in the urban landscape, some of which, we call a pest. But it is not only books that they offer.
We are in dearth of places where one need not talk or engage, where one can be let in solitude. As a culture, we promote spaces for socializing, hanging out, and too with stimulants, as if they need them. In libraries, we are quiet, ruminating upon an expression that perplexed us, or perhaps dozing, our heads resting between books. What better place for someone who enjoys reading!
A small rack holds my books, some two hundred of them, many collected in the last seven years. I keep reminding myself, I need to buy a new bookshelf. But there are no free corners in the room or in the house. I joke, these are my only possessions to pass on! Some know it to be true. Others don’t see the sense.
When I leave from the library, I have already spent five hours. And in my hand I carry a notebook with a sentence half-written, breaking open the nettled negative after a month. I come home and write it to completion.