Book: The Librarian
Writer: Kavitha Rao
Publisher: Kitaab International Singapore
Price: Rs 299
With a title like The Librarian, no marks for guessing that Kavitha Rao’s novel is set in a world of books, more precisely, in a library in Mumbai. There are librarians, assistant librarians and readers involved, not to mention all possible acclaimed writers, books and works of literature. The story is centred on Vidya Patel, a girl born in a Gujarati family whose parents long for nothing more than to see her married off to a suitable boy.
Vidya, however, is an avid reader, whose interests and ambition in life are vastly different from that of her parents. By the time she turns 10, she has exhausted everything readable in the house, paving the way for her entry to Macmillan, a library situated not far from her house. There, she develops a deep bond with the greats — Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling, C S Lewis and others under the able guidance of Shekhar Raghavan, the bespectacled patrician who presides over the library.
But Vidya’s obsession with the written word also shunts her social life. It makes a recluse of her — all she ever wants is to be around books. It’s no surprise then that when a position opens up, she gets the highly underpaid, completely non-coveted position of a librarian at Macmillan. It makes her folks supremely unhappy, and, after a massive showdown, she leaves home and takes refuge in a women’s hostel where she revels in her new-found freedom and thrives at her job, even though, sometimes, it involves backbreaking labour.
There is a three-month interlude in London, and a brief romance that comes to a tragic end. But things finally turn on their head with the disappearance of Mrs Sen, the assistant librarian, who wore dhakai saris to work and was distantly related to Tagore. What has happened to her and can she be saved?
Rao’s novel is an ambitious project that tries to tie together different strands such as reading, the worrying state of library budgets around the world and how Vidya comes into her own. It could have been a gripping story but the novel gets derailed by the plethora of details thrown in (The “showpieces” at the Patel household were gold-plated and Vidya’s hostel was like a strawberry squashed in the middle of Marine Drive, for instance). On the other hand, the lesser characters — the book binder, the peon, and the head bai — all seem colourful and one wishes they had more room in the book. Read it if you are a bookworm yourself.