These days during school vacations, the season of joy for children, you find them going crazy over mobile games, computer games and TV programmes. Time was when these things did not exist. All you had for entertainment was Doordarshan, which began its telecast at six in the evening, with a show on agriculture or some such topic. Yes, there were films in the single screen theatres. But they were a luxury to be indulged in once a month. What saved the vacation for us were man’s eternal best friends – books. Of course, no one could afford to buy them. That is where they came in, the most tempting watering holes for bookworms – the circulating libraries. There were several of them in almost every locality of the city, aggressively vying for the attention of the great number of readers.
The one we chose, in the well-heeled neighbourhood of South Mumbai, was particularly well-appointed. It was built almost like a doll’s house and was called Busy Books. It had transparent glass doors. We learned that the hard way when we tried rushing through the gate once. Eager to lay our hands on the books first, we had gone running to its doors, thinking that they were as eager to receive us with open arms. The violent knock on our head and nose instantly reminded us to be more patient. We never forgot that.
The library was air-conditioned and carpeted. It had those long bulbs which are mostly used in jewellery shops. Here, they highlighted gems of a different kind – Archie, Tintin, Asterix, Phantom, Mandrake and Commando comics. Then there were the novels, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Famous Five, Amar Chitra Katha, Aesop’s Fables, Sherlock Holmes, all the great classics, even Mills & Boon and James Hadley Chase. Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys were always hard-back books. And all of them seemed new, with crisp pages and the typical aroma that sends book-lovers on cloud nine.
Every time we went there, we found our mouths watering at that treat. We would hungrily grab 8-10 books each (Yes, were allowed to!). Then we would triumphantly return home with the booty. Once each of us finished our pile of books, we would exchange it with each other. It was sheer bliss to lie in bed during the afternoons and slowly open the first page. From then on, Time became a meaningless concept until we turned the last page over with a heavy heart. But the sight of other books waiting to be devoured quickly dispelled the temporary gloom.
So inspiring were the detective stories that we actually yearned to solve mysteries on our own. And once, we even tried that. Close to the library, there was a huge bungalow which had remained unoccupied for years. One day, we decided to solve The Mystery of the Empty Bungalow. It was late evening. We climbed the high gates of the desolate house and jumped quietly into the compound. Then, our hearts fairly popping out in excitement, we went up to the high windows. They were always closed, with no lights ever switched on inside the bungalow. Standing on a friend’s back, I slowly stood up to peer inside the darkness and get a ‘clue’ to our mystery. Suddenly, I found a man’s face looking into my eyes from inside the window. The next second, almost screaming in fear, I was climbing back up the gates, asking my friend to escape quickly. He hardly needed to be warned. He had realised that somehow, our adventure had gone wrong. We kept running continuously for 10 minutes, until we reached home. It was only then that my friend asked me what had happened. Even after several days of the incident, we always laughed hysterically at our own detection capabilities and our bravery.
Such innocence, such a sense of adventure, such simple pleasures and such bliss! All thanks to that beautiful circulating library. Oh dear God! Where have those treasure houses gone?