The smell of books

My earliest memory of Bangalore is of life at Bangalore Military School, where my father worked as the Head of the Department of Zoology. The memories are faint and fuzzy as I wasn’t even 5 years of age. But I do remember walking to the library every day and begging the librarian to issue me some books on my father’s library card. There is one particular day I distinctly remember, when she showed me each thin book from the National Book Trust and I told her I had read them all. She looked rather flustered, and then handed me my first Enid Blyton, wondering if I would be able to understand the Noddy book. And that day changed my life. I discovered a world full of colour and fantasy.

A year later, my father sought a new beginning as a Principal and we shifted to Pondicherry. I vividly recollect my first day of school. When I was taken to my classroom, it turned out that all the kids had gone to the playground for their games period. And the teacher told me to wait in the library. Thus Ms Kamala, the school librarian, turned out to be my first friend in school. I was soon engrossed in reading new books at super speed. She came up to me,  and I asked for more. Thinking that I was just looking at the pictures, she asked me a few questions, before she was convinced that I was actually reading them.

Pondicherry was heaven. School ended around three, but my father usually stayed around in his office until five in the evening. And those two hours were when I stayed in the library, did my homework and read every possible Amar Chitra Katha, Blyton, Hitchcock and devoured the World Book Encyclopedia. Ms Kamala and I turned out to be the thickest of friends. She trusted me so much that I was often summoned from class during stock checking, as I used to have the uncanny sense of sniffing out where each book was rather quickly. I didn’t mind missing classes just to be in the company of books. The smell of books did something magical to my brain. And then there was Pondicherry’s ultimate Romain Rolland library whose mobile van came to the bus stop near home every Sunday, with an amazing collection of novels.

The library at my next school wasn’t that great. At least the librarians were not as motivating. But Ordnance Factory Chanda had an amazing estate library. And during the summer vacations, along with my friends Sunita and Suma, I was introduced early to the classics. I discovered Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and the hilarious PG Wodehouse. Sometimes I feel I read those books too early for my age, and I want to read them again to appreciate them properly.

From school, to Government Medical College Nagpur, where we weren’t allowed to step into the library in the first year, for fear of being ragged by our seniors. But the library bug was too difficult to resist. Come second year, and I refused to go home in the vacations- spending each day in the library from 10 am to 10 pm with a wee lunch break, falling head over heels in love with the writing of Stanley Robbins and his Pathology textbook. There were hardly any distractions there- except the sole coffee vending machine outside, which would erratically be functional. Eventually, I succumbed to doing my post-graduation in Pathology. The best part of life at GMC then, was that the library was on the same floor as the Pathology department. I had a guide who would encourage me to search for journal articles every time a case flummoxed us. It was easy access to a library in an era of no internet or mobile phones which made learning so much fun.

When I first joined Sevagram, I entered a small library at MGIMS. But it was amazing to see how organized it was. You just had to ask for a book and Ms Kusum, the efficient librarian then, would instantly procure it for you. I spent many an afternoon preparing for my DNB exams or writing my papers there.

In 2007, I spent six months in cold London, where I survived the lonely weekends by visiting St Thomas Hospital’s Library. The security guard there used to grin and ask me if I lived there- as quite often, I was the only person (with such a non-happening life) in the library. My weekend visits to the library stopped after an amorous French man asked me out for coffee! I was too scared to return there alone again!

Life took me to Maastricht in the Netherlands in 2012. I remember being awestruck by the library at Maastricht University. It was huge, colourful, fascinating and far beyond my imagination. Even though most of of our coursework and access to journals was digital, there was something special about sitting with other students, reading and discussing things. The library was constructed to facilitate team learning. Sound free cubicles for group discussions could be booked in advance. A cafeteria was adjacent to the reading room, with facilities for photocopying and printing. It was a world most magical and I was a kid again.

The library at Maastricht University

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever foresee that within four years of my graduation from Maastricht, the sleepy village of Sevagram would boast of a library, equally, if not more aesthetic than the library I loved. Today, as I saw the excitement of students on MGIMS campus during the inauguration of the new APJ Abdul Kalam library, I shared every surge of adrenaline with them. Spacious, well-lit, planned and modern, it is a sight to behold. There is immense gratefulness in being able to experience this new learning space. For the vision and the belief that something like this could be replicated in Sevagram, I would like to thank the men and women who brought it to reality with their persistence. Libraries speak of our culture of learning. They should never be neglected.

The new APJ Abdul Kalam Library at MGIMS Sevagram

Some years ago, I heard people say that no one needs books in a library, as these days, everything is available online. I vehemently disagree. There is something magical about breathing in the essence of books, about smoothening the wrinkles on their pages, and merely holding them in your hands. And no cold laptop can ever replace the warmth of a book.


(MGIMS photos courtesy: Dr Azhar Sheikh and Shruti Atram)


  • Lakshmi iyer

    I am compelled to comment on this piece!..I was instantly transported to my good old days of childhood where books and library were a part n parcel of my life..Be it the library at my school or the local one near home,I always eagerly looked forward to picking up a book or two from these places…The never ending serpentine queue at the school library,begging the librarian for your fav book.. especially the Nancy Drews and Hitchcock…those were the days! Come summer holidays and there wasn’t a minute wasted to enroll at the library close to home….I grew up reading Anar chitr kathas( history was thus read n understood this way),Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hitchcock,Agatha Christie,Indrajal comics, phantom ( I found him very handsome then).,Chandamamas, the list is endless..and gradually grew and graduated to reading Danielle steel,Sidney Sheldon and the like…not to forget the smell of books..( both,old n new) and as you have rightly pointed out, no technology can ever replace the smell,sight and feel of books…cheers to all the book lovers!! Keep posting more,Anshu!

  • Ramji Singh

    Dear Anshu,

    The write up and the catch line “smell of books” gives the magical feel as we are surrounded by books. Reading habits are made from childhood except few exceptions. My experience is also very interesting and I am sure if voting is done I will get more than you. I do likes the smell of books, particularly new one. That induces sleep very fast even today.
    Yes, the MGIMS library has become one of the model library. Thanks to the visionaries and staff. Congratulations to all involved in dreaming, designing and developing it.

    • Anshu

      I didn’t think on that angle! For me sleep induction depends on content. The smell comforts you in any case!

  • Arati Desai

    I completely endorse what you have said. As a child, I devoured books in every place, whether it was my school or club or bookshop…I lived the Noddies, Famous Fives, Malory Towers and St. Clares of Enid Blyton. Just loved the Richie Riches, Tom and Jerries, Donald Ducks and Archies of Walt Disney. Then grew up to appreciate the Panchatantras, Ramayans, Mahabharatas, Aesops Tales and Premchand’s Manasarovar. My honours in English Literature gave me a deep insight into Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Kipling, Ruskin Bond, Shelley, Keats, Maupassant’s short stories and R.K.Narayan. Specially loved his Malgudi Days. Becoming a librarian seems a natural next step. Since then, when I donned the role of a librarian 30 years ago, I have revelled in all types of print. The smell of fresh paper, the feel of a new book and the pretty illustrations in them all transport me to another world which is tranquil and calm.
    The Sevagram library looks outstanding. Kudos to all involved in it !!!

  • Rachana Shetty

    I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and as you rightly said, no digital formatting of books ( kindle etc) can replace the smell of new pages, sleeping with the book under your pillow or the thrill of owning a rare edition of a paperback. It distressed me to see all my favourite bookstores close down one by one. My sons tell me that the Enid Blytons we grew up reading, are too dated . Wish they were newer authors catering to kids, and I was happy with the first edition of Harry Potter which I thought would fill that void. However the later books turned out to be darker and not to my liking. Also, kids aren’t encouraged to read much by teachers in school. Discussing books outside of the syllabus helps spark interest in reading. Another thing which I found wonderful in my growing up years is the class prizes in my school ( Bishop Cotton Girls, Bangalore) gave books as prizes for proficiency and we could make a list of the books we wished to be presented with. All of which is missing in the academic culture today and is probably the reason fewer kids read anything but comics

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