What’s in a name?

Salem was the wrong town to be a bibliophile. The sole source of books was a lending library whose name I don’t remember, at Shantam Complex about ten kilometers from my hostel. Or about a half hour on an Anna Transport Corporation bus, if you don’t count the walk from Four Roads. The library was manned by a couple of women – one of them older and obviously in charge. In addition to maintaining a database of books in her head, she was on first name terms with most writers – “Have you read Sidney’s latest?” and “Robert’s new book is coming out next week.”

The younger girl’s job description seemed limited to buying tea for the lady-in-charge, and repeatedly drawing her already drawn dupatta over herself whenever engineers entered the library. Not that we cared.

It was here that Sanjay introduced me to John Le Carre. From Sheldon and Ludlum to Le Carre was a heady leap, a leap that would later lead to Rushdie and Proulx, Atwood and Arundhati Roy, Stephenson and Gibson. On that day though, I’d just finished reading Naïve and Sentimental Lover and wanted to get back to reading something more, um, familiar. Late that evening, I entered the library and young girl promptly adjusted her dhavani. I ignored her and spoke to the lady-in-charge, who was a little unhappy with me:

“This book is late.”

“Sorry, it is a little dense. Took me a while to read it.”

All this while I was scouring the Le Carre shelf for a book I wanted. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the book that brought him instant fame. Unable to find it, I asked her

“Do you have The Spy Who Came in From the Cold?”

“Who is the author?”

“John Le Carre.”

“Oh, John?”

“Yes, John. Do you have it?”

“I think we do, my boss just finished reading it, and it will be available tomorrow.”

“Will you remember? Maybe I’ll ask a friend to pick it up for me tomorrow.”

She took a sheet of paper, and folded it into half. Then another fold, and then another. Then she carefully licked along the folds. And equally carefully, she tore the paper along the folds, fashioning a post-it note of sorts. She asked me for the title again, and I repeated it. And she scribbled something in the note, and left it on her desk. “Now, I’ll remember.”

The next day, I looked frantically for someone that was going into town. I could only land a guy I barely knew, but I asked him anyway. “Can you go to the library in Shantam and pick up a book for me? Just go ask the lady in the library, mention my name, and she’ll give you the book.” After some hesitation, he agreed.

Later that night, I went to his room. “Did she give you the book?” I asked. “Yes,” he said handing me the book and added, “But what is Garp?”


“Yeah,” he said pointing to the title. It was ‘The World According to Garp’ by some guy called John Irving. Some type of giant mix-up had occurred.

I had a whole weekend to burn, all my friends were out, and I hated the TV room. Now, no book. Disappointed, I walked back to my room and contemplated my options. There weren’t any, so after uttering a few choice expletives, I reluctantly decided to read the first few pages and then go back Monday and give her a piece of my mind.

Early the next morning, I was done with the book, having read it in one sitting. It was the most satisfying book I had read. Sleepy but content, I turned to the next page to read the author bio. Pasted to the page was the library call notice. Stuck to the notice with cellophane tape was the make shift post-it note. It said, in Tamil:

Book with a long name

13 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. please tell me the comment didn’t read: “edo vaayla nuzhayaadha peru” for the book’s name! 🙂
    man – indian libraries – even when you paid for the borrowing you could never get satisfied.
    i still remember rajeshwari lending library on kutchery road, mylapore. just opposite was one of those damn open-door masala powder grinding shops and the air in the whole area was engulfed in throat-scorching chilli/sambhar powder. wonder how the mylapore mami’s survived that but i would always then walk a little further one to a place called “senthil’s softy ice” and drink rose milk (of course the guy would call it “rose vaatar” and it quickly became obvious why he used that term …)
    ah madras, nalla madras – can’t wait this last week to get there!

  2. 🙂 Actually, it said “Periya Per”. It was funnier because she seemed to know her books – you could ask her about most books they had, and she’d know where they were.

    Rose Milk and Panneer Soda are special delights. Have fun in Madras.

  3. Your librarian is like Jenny I guess.She doesnt believe in last names..
    You were extremely luck to end up with Garp, though.

  4. I never thought of it like that, but that is a funny coincidence – Jenny didn’t believe in last names either. Given the number of Johns that write, I am glad I ended up with Garp and not something like this

  5. (I came here via “A simple desultory Philippic”.)

    Ah, libraries! When people ask me if I am happy about moving to Melbourne, I tell them that the libraries are reason enough.

    In Madras, I was a long-time user of the dusty Murugan lending library in Adyar. If I went there with my (very cool) uncle, he would buy me a dosai and coffee in the Woodlands next door. Dosai, coffee and Agatha Christie–my idea of perfection when I was 13.

  6. Everyone who reads will have a library story to tell, I’m sure. In Coimbatore, where I grew up, there used to be a place called “Choose And Read” right next to my dad’s office.

    I was allowed a book a week, and over the years, I went from Hardy Boys to Sidney Sheldon to Ludlum (and sneakily – Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace).

    A colleague of my dad caught me with a copy of The Piranhas, and told me that “at your age, you should read Clive Cussler” and I lived deathly afraid for a few days that he would tell my dad, and my dad would stop library privileges. I was also a little relieved that he hadn’t caught me with the Xaviera Hollander book the previous week 🙂

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  8. hey…i am from salem…but dont remember any library in santham…chamundi had one & had 2 ladies at their counter who i strongly believe cudn’t read a line in english!!! oh…this post does bring back some gr8 memories…lovely 🙂

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