A former reporter’s memories of the best place in the world
March 17, 2017

Today, like everyone else he says he is a ‘victim’ of technology and works from the comfort of his home with all kinds of information being available on the Internet. Partab Ramchand recalls his regular visits to the libraries in Chennai where he spent a lot of time assimilating knowledge and doing a lot of research in the course of his profession

“Peace and quiet is for libraries,” says Bette Davis in the 1950 classic film, All about Eve. There is a lot of truth in that even though the legendary actress’ memorable dialogue was meant to be rather caustic. I have spent a good many hours of the day in various libraries and the time I have been there has been marked by imbibing knowledge about various subjects and, hopefully, becoming a more erudite person. One just cannot think of a better place in which the time can be spent more usefully and creatively.

These days, of course, there may not be much need of making the trip to the library, for anything and everything is available on the Internet. Just sit at your table top (or laptop) go to Google, Wikipedia, YouTube or other relevant sites and almost any information can be obtained about a person or a place, a discovery or a disease. And while it certainly is a convenient tool to have, I frequently go off on a trip down memory lane and think about the leisurely hours I have spent at the libraries in the American Centre, British Council, Max Mueller Bhavan and Russian Consulate.

Among all the ‘temples of knowledge’, pride of place must go to the American Centre Library where I used to spend hours making maximum use of the available facilities. Even though I have not visited it for a couple of years I am proud of my association with the library which lasted almost half a century. As a teenager, I remember going to the old premises of the library which houses the Bank of America building on Mount Road. That was in the late Sixties. I also remember the Madras public’s open mouthed admiration for the majestic new premises at Gemini Circle when it was inaugurated in 1969 and where it still stands as part of the American Consulate. 

The best time I had at the library was in the Seventies and early Eighties when I was with the Indian Express doubling up as a sports reporter and film critic. Not only was I a daily visitor to the USIS or American Center as a film buff I also frequented the lovely little auditorium in the basement to see some of the best movies I have ever seen. For me and many of my friends the library was “the best place in the world” as we used to describe it. The books were informative, magazines colourful, newspapers entertaining, the staff affable, helpful and courteous, and the air-conditioning – so important in a place like Madras – was perfect.

And, of course, on Election Day every four years, the library wore a carnival look as they were festoons, balloons, TV programmes and giant boards showing the latest results. I know of many people who would walk in around opening time 9.30 am, walk across to Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant around 1 pm for lunch, come back to the library and stay till closing time, which was 6 pm. And if there was a movie they would stay back for that too. 

Over the past three decades, however, because of circumstances I am sure all of us can comprehend things have become very different. The place has become a fortress; perfectly understandable given the volatile nature of protests especially against the US Consulate buildings the world over. It all started with the hostage crisis in Iran around 1980 and since then as we all know the situation has become worse with the result that security is very strict and entry comes with a lot of restrictions.

As a result, it has lost its old charm and not many people frequent the library as they used to and I myself go once in a way basically to relive my memories. And what memories! I shall always cherish the time I spent at the American library assimilating knowledge, making good use of the reference books which were very useful in my professional capacity as a journalist and making friends with nice people. Yes, nice people and amiable surroundings. That would be my abiding memory of the American Library. 

But then the British Council just off Mount Road and behind the old American Centre Library would come a close second. My two passions in life are films and sports and if the American Centre Library came up trumps in improving my knowledge about films, the British Council was where I went when it came to sports books and magazines. The facilities there, too, were worldclass and the staff no less friendly and helpful. Indeed, I made a lot of friends over the years at the two libraries and some of them have stood the test of time. The British Council screened films in their courtyard and I remember seeing a lot of British classics over the years. The security there was not as stifling but as only to be expected some amount of policing was required. I am afraid my visits to the Russian Cultural Centre and the Max Mueller Bhavan were very limited and I have only fleeting memories of these places. 

The past decade or so I too have become a ‘victim’ of technology. The research for my articles is all done on the Internet in the comfort of my own home where I sit in my shorts and hammer away at the computer as I am doing right now. In many ways, this is more convenient, not to mention much more faster. All the same, there are times when I take off on a nostalgic trip, go down memory lane and remember the good times spent at the various libraries. Oh yes, as Mary Hopkin sang, “Those were the days…” 

January – March 2017