Thursday, May 12, 2005


For me, probably the SINGLE best thing in the U.S. is the fact that you can order books of your choice and ask the librarian (may she live a hundred years, may her house be overflowing with prosperity, may her grandchildren live a hundred years too) to buy them. I ordered, among others, the following books which I had loved to read, and within a month, I can see that they are already in the process of being shelved:

1. Manufacturing Consent (New Edition, 2002)- Noam Chomsky
2. J. Robert Oppenheimer; A Life- Abraham Pais (who was Einstein's assistant)
3. Paradigms Regained- John Casti
4. Medicine, Science, and Merck- Roy Vagelos (CEO of Merck during its most successful modern run)

I can only embarrassingly compare myself with the spoilt rich child of the millionaire, who pesters his father for a Ferrari and gets it right away.

NOTHING like this was possible in India, where libraries were held really sacred, in fact, that students were not supposed to use them- the most gross and twisted and convoluted paradox that I have ever encountered.

In India, I could hardly issue an existing book, let alone order new ones. But wait...for issuing existing books, you have to be physically present among the bookstacks and browse old books, and THAT is precisely what was not allowed in the exalted Wadia Library of Ferguson College (as I am sure it wasn't in other places). As I have mentioned sometime back, the "mamas" or peons (what an unfortunate title; mamas are supposed to be among the kindest members of the family and are supposed to indulge their nephews) in the library guarded the book treasure like a snake guards gold, and just like the snake doesn't have the remotest inkling or awareness of what gold is, so don't the mamas have the slightest idea of what bibliogold the library harbours. Just like the snake, the mamas 'guard' the books simply because they are obeying the vacuous mandates of 'higher' authority, and in this way eking out their miserable existence in the library.

You can issue a book only if you already know its name and it is already supposed to exist in the library according to the catalogues (more often than not, there's no connection between what's in the catalogues and what's on the shelves, antedeluvian as the catalogues are). If by sheer luck, the book IS listed in the catalogues, even then, it's only the insidious mamas who can slither inside the bookstacks, and not you. Usually, they take one lazy, general look to see if the book is there, and then come back to tell you that it is not. Underpaid, but more importantly, usually not possessing the slightest respect for knowledge, these villains (and I dare say this includes the librarian) are the prime movers in the obfuscation and damnation that inundates teaching and learning in our institutions. I was very lucky that I met two dedicated mamas who recognised my genuine interest and allowed me to browse books and issue them (and that too, primarily because my parents teach in Ferguson). In Marathi, there is an apt saying; "Gadhwala gulachi chaw kay" which simply means that no donkey can ever appreciate what sugar (or jaggery if literally translated) tastes like. Plainly, the mamas are donkeys, but unfortunately in this case, ones who are not going to go away if you beat them with a stick. If anything, if you do that, there will be another "fast unto death" decorating the main entrance of Ferguson the next day, the catch phrase this time being (again), "the protest of the inhuman treatment of the downtrodden class", and you will be forced to leave the college.

It's one of the biggest tragedies I have witnessed in life; this condemnation of books in the Wadia library and elsewhere, their introduction to life long 'termite physics', which finally and painfully brings about their demise, and woefully, all of this without almost anyone even using them. It's the most despicable form of informal totalitarianism I have ever seen imposed and it would not surprise me if it massively contributes to the continuing and final decline in the quality of education that our system provides. It stifles, once and for all, by sheer inane bureaucracy, the most innocent beginnings of an interest in learning that a student displays. It almost moves me to tears, when I see stacks of priceless books, covered by layers of dust, that are going to die a cruel death, all because 'the mamas don't take care of them and disallow students from browsing them'.
I salute the courageous and dedicated students of our Physics Department, who, along with their teacher, were literally ready to engage in hand-to-hand (and hand-to everything else) fights with these apostles of ignorance in the library. In the end, they managed to at least salvage some classic physics books, and transfer them to our student-managed Physics Club. The last time I was in Pune, my eyes glazed when I saw that treasure trove of books, finally looking safely ensconced, whose ranks included original volumes by the likes of Einstein, Heisenberg, Jeans, Hoyle, and Feynman. However, after a couple of years, there will be new students and new teachers. Would they have the same respect for our heritage of knowledge? Unfortunately, it seems that probably for years to come, there won't be any new mamas...


Blogger Chris said...

If the library actually busy things you suggest, you're pretty fortunate. I got spoiled on interlibrary loan when I was an undergrad.

I remember dealing with the librarians at Fergy though. I managed to get a few interesting books out of there from the little section they reserved for junior college students.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I take full advantage of ILL too, but I was quite pleasantly surprised when I found out that this facility could obviate that necessity to some extent at least in the long-term.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

I must confess, I am too lazy to even fetch the books. I look for the book on the lib catalog and request the book online, so that I can simply pick it up at the front-desk. The poor library folks have to fetch the book from the shelves.
It is so easy to get used to luxury.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Actually, I am even lazier. But browsing through the bookstacks makes me feel like I have had a workout in a fine intellectual gym.
1. This gives me an excuse not to go to the real gym of weights and hideous looking pieces of machinery.
2. It nourishes me and at least gives me the feeling of making me ready to face yet more bashings of graduatehood. :)

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Madhura said...

Couldn't agree more!
I remember my school having an awesome liabrary and what's more it was well-maintained too!!! Most of the Marathi books I read were from the school liabrary!
But I am really ashamed to say that I never even once entered the library in COEP!! Even the thought of the all-pervading beaurocracy in COEP was enough to keep me away from it!
Right now, I am looking forward to a lot of reading in summer thanks to the school liabrary, public liabrary and ILL!! :-)
By the way, commenting here for the first time and sorry for a slightly lone one that doesn;t even say much! :-)

2:20 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Madhura: Hey, good to see you here! I can imagine your frustration with the COEP library. Even I may not have ventured so much into the Fergi Library, had my parents not facilitated my access there.
Your comment reminds me that there's a WHOLE LOT of Marathi books that I have to read...hope I find time for them somewhere.
And why the sorry??!! Ashich lihit jaa :)

3:55 PM  

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