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Anna Centenary Library

Anna Centenary Library in Tamil Nadu, India
  • By Samanth Subramanian
  • Issue 11
  • Shelf LifeJuly 2015

For the purposes of this story, let’s call my friend Anamika, Sanskrit for “the anonymous woman.” Apart from myself, no one in her circle of family and friends knows that she has spent the past three and a half years in a library.

It goes without saying that Anamika has always loved to read. During the decade I’ve known her, I’ve learned little about her past or her family or the material contours of her life; we talk almost exclusively about writing and books. I don’t know what precisely transpired in September 2011, when she quit her job at a technology firm in Chennai. Perhaps her work, which she spoke of with grim tolerance, had become positively loathsome, or perhaps her ardor for books simply overwhelmed her. At any rate, she quit, and she began haunting the stacks of the Anna Centenary Library at Kotturpuram.

At first, Anamika insists, it was supposed to be temporary, a lovely little two-week hiatus before she sought another job. Then the library wrapped itself around her. Nearly every morning since then, she has taken a bus the few miles to the library. She spends the day reading and writing and drinking coffee out of her thermos, with a short break for lunch. Then she returns home to her parents, with whom she lives, and who are still under the impression that she is gainfully employed. Even her frugal life has, over time, drained her finances, so this state of affairs won’t last, she knows. For the moment, though, it is the most glorious limbo imaginable.

The library itself is in limbo. It was commissioned by the previous Tamil Nadu state government, and intended to be one of Asia’s largest libraries. The chief minister declared it open in September 2010 and named it after a Tamil politician of the mid-twentieth century, C. N. Annadurai—“Anna” (“elder brother”) for short. A statue of Anna, in black bronze, rests on a plinth in front of the library’s entrance; he is seated cross-legged, engrossed in a book. At the time of the opening, only the physical structure of the facility had been completed: a nine-storey building, its façade composed largely of dark-tinted windows, set amid compact lawns. “Even when I began coming here, a year after it opened, they had only just finished the cataloguing,” Anamika says. Millions of dollars’ worth of books had been ordered, but they hadn’t all found their way onto the shelves. “There were stacks of books on the floor everywhere.”

In 2011, the government changed. The new chief minister, in a fit of pettiness, announced that the books would be moved elsewhere, and that this eight-acre plot and its gleaming new building would be converted into a hospital. A lawsuit was filed in protest, and in December a court decided that, until a verdict could be reached, the library’s activities should be frozen. It could remain open, as one giant reading room, but it could buy no new books and had to operate with only a skeleton staff. “What a commotion there was at the library when this news broke,” Anamika says. “People were talking about it everywhere. I couldn’t read at all. Then some TV news crews arrived here, and one of them asked me for a byte. But I couldn’t do that! What if my parents spotted me on the evening news?”

Over two days in May, I accompanied Anamika to the library, to see it through her eyes and to observe her routine—although of course, in a sense, I had already altered her routine by being there. We checked our bags in, signed a register, and took the elevator to the seventh floor: History / Geography / Travel / Biography. Through the tall windows, you could see the distant ocean winking in the sun. Occasionally, an airplane passed overhead and its shadow swept the room. There were half a dozen other people there, reading or napping at the blond-wood tables.

Anamika read Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. I strolled among the yellow metal racks, marvelling at the eccentric thoroughness with which a state bureaucracy had purchased its books. Stumbling upon, for instance, full hardbound sets of Records of Oman, Military Handbooks of Arabia, and Japan: Political and Economic ReportsThe Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. I’d never heard of the man, so I looked him up. Winstanley, an English Protestant reformer in the time of Oliver Cromwell, founded the True Levellers, a group devoted to reclaiming public lands that had been privatized, digging them over, and planting them with fresh crops. Even learning as little as that about him, and seeing the plump anthologies of his writing on the shelf, sparked a short moment of giddy joy, the kind that bookstores and libraries so often inspire: a frisson of wonder at the infinitude of literature.

On the first afternoon, Anamika gave me a guided tour: “There are half a million books here, and I think I know where each one is, pretty much.” We wandered the various floors, through Engineering (Fourier Optics), Cinema (Vsevolod Pudovkin: Classic Films of the Soviet Avant-Garde), Theatre (the plays of Stephen Poliakoff), Business (Major Companies of Europe 2010, in seven volumes), and Self-Help (Teach Yourself Estonian). The second floor, devoted to Tamil literature, was striking: rack after rack of books with brightly colored spines, and near-complete sets of works by firebrands like Jayakanthan, Aravinthan, Asokamitran, Kalki Krishnamurthy and Charu Nivedita, their novels kneading and re-kneading the boundaries of religion, modernity, caste, and class. Anamika reads Tamil fluently; she had spent some time on this floor, she said, but not as much as on the fourth, where the English-language fiction lives. There she has truly unleashed her voracious appetite, upon American and British writers, but also upon translations of novels from Russian, Arabic, Spanish, and many languages of sub-Saharan Africa.

She wrote to me recently about having discovered the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, an author I have certainly heard of but whom I imagine I will never have the time to read. I respond to these emails with undisguised envy: I tell her she’s leading the life all true readers and writers really desire, a life unencumbered by daily work, pledged to the life of the mind. She claims I am mistaken—that she wants to hone her writing, which is still work even if it is hustled toward no particular deadline; that engaging deeply with great books, figuring out how they tick, requires a great deal of effort; and that even her loving attention towards her daily reading can sometimes slip, so that she spends an hour taking stylized selfies of her hand holding a book.

But the process—of understanding literature, and of then writing it—is important to her. “It may be my last hope to do well at something I love,” she says.

On the first day we spent at Anna Centenary, we were standing at a table next to the library’s cafeteria counter, which sold tepid coffee and wan pastries. She was eating a piece of chocolate cake.

“And what happens when you run out of money?” I asked.

“I’ll figure it out,” she said. “I’ve figured it out so far.”

Silence, except for the mastication of cake.

“Still, it’s a good life,” I said finally. My envy was undiminished.

“Isn’t it?” she said.

I drank my coffee and looked idly upwards, towards the library’s atrium. The glass was in dire need of cleaning, and on one wall, vast damp patches were sprouting a faint, creeping fuzz of green mold.

Slideshow links - for visual effect only:
Slideshow links - for visual effect only:
Anna Centenary Library in Tamil Nadu, India
Anna Centenary Library in Tamil Nadu, India
Anna Centenary Library in Tamil Nadu, India
Photo from the Anna Centenary Library by Mahesh Shantaram