Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Musings of a Silverfish

In the summer of 1965, an opportunity of a lifetime came my way. I was able to spend that entire summer in the Kashmir valley. I was quite young then and a student. Along with few of my friends, We managed to comb the entire Kashmir valley. We traveled from Anantnag in the south to Sopur and Baramula in the north, and from Amarnath caves in the east to Sonamarg near Zoji La pass. We traveled in State transport buses, rode on horsebacks and trekked in the mountain areas above the snow line. We had some great picnics in the famous Mughal gardens. In short we had a roaring time. During our visit to Baramula town, I distinctly recollect that we were standing on the banks of river Jhelum, when our guide cum cook, pointed his finger in the northwest direction and told us that the areas of Hunza and Gilgit which lie in that direction are still in the hands of our enemy. Being a young man, I had felt very bitter and emotional about this foreign occupation of my country. I had also wondered, why these people do not revolt and join our motherland or why our Government does not do anything for these suppressed people?

I had a similar experience later, when I visited Shimla. There is a hill, called Kufri, at a distance of some thirty miles from this town. One can see from here, a fantastic panoramic view of Himalayan mountain ranges in the northeastern direction. Here also I was told that the parts of Tibet and Xinjiang which lie in that direction, are in our enemy hands. The feeling of bitterness and anger which had remained with me since my Kashmir days was augmented further and later stayed with me for a very long time. My first realization that something may be wrong with my beliefs came when I was watching a documentary made by BBC about Hunza. It was about time when cable TV revolution had began in India. For the first time, it was possible for an ordinary citizen, to watch TV programmes not produced by that dreary monolith called Doordarshan. In the BBC documentary, people from Hunza appeared quite different and very much unlike us. In fact they looked more like people from central Asia. I decided to do my own research and find out about history and geography of these areas. My efforts were completely stonewalled. There was no Internet at that time and since I was not connected with any quasi Government or Educational institution, access to any Library was denied to me. I looked around the Book shops. To my surprise, they had no books on subject of my interest. The book shelves were full with text books, guides and pirated copies of cheap American sleazy fiction. For an ordinary citizen like me,there just was no way of getting information.

Perhaps, things were not so bad earlier. In my school and college days, Pune city was known as Cambridge of the east. There were many reputed and well stocked book shops. In fact, one of the shops was so famous that even national leader like Pt. Nehru made it a point to visit it, when he visited Pune. Books on a range of varying subjects like Engineering, humanities, physical, social and behavioral sciences could be easily found. The prices of the books were also reasonable then with a Dollar parity of about four Rupees. But those good old days were unfortunately numbered. We had floods in year 1961 which almost finished off majority of book shops. Most of them just could not raise themselves from the financial disaster. The national Government at that time was also getting absolutely enamored with lofty ideas of state controls and so called socialism. With the country closing its doors to outside world, the books published outside India, were going out of fashion. Resultant inflation in the country then slowly moved the Dollar Rupee parity to ten and then to twenty. This made the books so expensive that nobody could afford them. They became out of reach for most of people. For an ordinary citizen,this finally closed the last window to outside world.

The total absence of any public libraries just darkened the horizons further. Pune has a large number of Educational and Research Institutions. They had their well stocked Libraries. But access to these was limited to their staff and students. For an ordinary citizen like me there was nothing. During British days a public Library was certainly established. But with total neglect from the local government, it had become almost non existent. With these ground realities, it was impossible for me to satisfy my curiosity. I just gave up.

Recently, just a few years back, I had my first break during a stay in United states. My old curiosity about northern borders of our country was awakened again, when I came across a copy of the book ' The Great Game' written by Peter Hopkirk. This book describes the rivalry between the British empire and Russian expansionists. It appears form the book, that the British rulers of India were almost scared about Russian designs on the Jewel in their crown. To solve this problem once and for all, they entered into a treaty with Russians in year 1896, drawing a northern and northeastern boundary for India. They created a buffer zone called 'Wakhan corridor' between two empires and attached it to Afghanistan. This border marking was done solely on basis of the positions of British and Russian political influences in that area at that time. No thought was ever given to any geographical or population synergies. It is therefore no wonder that the inhabitants of Hunza and Xinjiang look so different from us and also why they are not particularly enthusiastic about joining the Union of India. This example well illustrates how unfounded information can mislead.

I am a book lover. Right from my childhood days, I was a very voracious reader. Starting with vernacular books, I soon graduated to English Classics. By the time I had finished my college I had read a very large number of books. From Charles Dickens to H.G.Wells and from Agatha Christi to P.G.Wodehouse, I had read them all. I had enjoyed the adventures of Berty Wooster and the advice given by Jeeves. I knew how the 'Evil Under the Sun' was demystified by 'Hercule Poirot'. But then came the age of darkness, described above. I just could not get any new books to read except some trash. I could not afford to buy new books and there were no public libraries around. It was therefore very natural that later, after many many years, when I had an opportunity to see those wonderful book shops in United states for the first time in my life, my sense of wonder and amazement was almost childlike.

The huge area of these book shops was something unbelievable. It was obvious that lot of effort must have gone in design of these outlets to make them comfortable. The places were clean with no dusty books seen around. Air conditioning or heating was provided for extra comfort. Seating arrangements were made for the customers to sit down comfortably and browse through the books. A cafeteria serving coffee and light snacks was also provided for the customers. The place was filled with hundreds of very tall book shelves with books neatly arranged. I also found that prices of most books were between five and fifteen dollars. I thought that this must be a heaven for any book lover.

Few years back, I had developed an interest in Astronomy and star gazing. I had searched almost all book shops in Pune. I had found precisely two titles on this subject, out of which, one book turned out to be very expensive. And here in these book shops, there were almost two book shelves full of books on Astronomy and star gazing. The same story could be repeated for almost any topic of interest. Later on, I also found out that any book can be purchased on the Internet even at much lower rate. It was a common practice to browse the books in a bookshop and purchase them later on the net. I also found, some old world style book shops elsewhere in the city, selling second hand books at very cheap rates.

But the real revelation came when I visited a public library ran by the city. These libraries were much bigger and had all the comforts of a book shop, except perhaps the coffee shop and were absolutely free. Computerized catalogs and other features commonly seen in the libraries anywhere in the world were obviously there. But what struck me as most remarkable was the fact that any ordinary resident of the city could access this library for free and even could borrow books for home reading. To my mind this was the real secret behind progress made by this country. This was the real information super highway and it was available to any resident for free. Some of the remarkable titles I found here were, an English translation of Galileo Galilei's Italian book ' Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World ', Isaac Newton's 'Principia' and ' The character of Physical Law' by Richard Feynman. The range pf magazines available were also interesting. After many many years I was able to browse through issues of 'Sky & Telescope' or 'The scientific American'. I also noticed copies of 'India today', 'Business India' and 'Times of India' on the magazine stands.

I also found that spending few hours in the reference section was truly rewarding. There was enough material about US history, world history and also about famous American men and women. Some peripheral additional services, such as instant copying, microfilm readers etc. offered by the library were quite remarkable.

An illustration is worth mentioning here. My great grand mother had visited USA around year 1920 for some social cause. She had met one American lady called Miss. O'Reilly. This lady had helped my great grand mother to a great extent and as per her account, was a well known figure. I decided to search for O'Reilly in the Library. To my utter surprise, I found that this lady was a famous labour leader. Her name was Miss. Leonora O'Reilly and she was a founding member of Women's Trade Union League. All her writings as well as personal correspondence was well preserved . I could also read full details about how she came in contact with my great grand mother and their association for next couple of years. I was just amazed to see these records. The meticulous and painstaking effort that must have gone in maintaining all these cross references and records is truly amazing.

Perhaps, we can argue that the affluence of the American society makes it possible to maintain this kind of free service for the citizens. But what about a country like Singapore, which has gate crashed in the First world in a short span of just forty odd years. This little country has managed to create a network of free public libraries in a very short period. Every locality in this country has it's own library. There are four regional libraries which are much bigger and a central library. Any resident of Singapore can access any library and can borrow books from anywhere and return it anywhere else. In the library here, I found many interesting titles. I read books here about history of central Asia , china and Afghanistan. I found an interesting book about sudden demise of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Regarding establishment of libraries,what this small country has achieved, is worth emulating.

A country can become and remain free, only if all the citizens are informed. Now that we have Internet, things do not appear so dismal in India. But Information on the net can be only a starter. There is no real substitute for the books. And with the Rupee, Dollar parity going down to Fifty, not many people in India can really buy books. We must have a network of free Libraries. There is really no other alternative.

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