What I learnt about travelling, I learnt inside closed doors. I grew up in a small town in Rajasthan which didn’t have much to offer by way of entertainment. On school holidays, I would desperately search for ways to while away time. One summer afternoon, as I biked around idly, scouting for distractions, I noticed the pale-yellow building that flanked the town square, and recognised it for what it was — the town library. I went inside.
The library smelled of stale air and musky untouched paper. As I went around flicking off dust from the books lined in perfect order, a man’s voice interrupted: “What are you looking for?”
I kept quiet, feeling I had been caught prowling by the librarian. Noticing my trepidation, the voice mellowed: “Do you have a library card?” I shook my head. “Let’s make you one, then.” But I don’t have money, I said.
The man laughed, “It’s a public library. You can borrow the books for free.” He went to the desk and pulled out a box of yellow paper. Carefully, he filled out the details. There I had it, a yellow folded card with my name in neat handwriting on top. “Let’s show you where the children’s books are,” the man beckoned me to a corner of the library.
In this library, I first discovered Enid Blyton. I devoured her books over the summer, relishing the adventures from a world so different and far from mine. I wanted to travel to that world.
Just when the summer break was nearing its end, the librarian, perhaps impressed by the ferocity with which I was finishing books from the children’s section, offered a book. ‘It’s by Premchand. Read it. You won’t understand it now, but someday you will come back to read it again.” With that he handed me Godan.
Godan opened a world that felt as far from mine as Blyton’s; only, the characters of Premchand lived in a wretched world, struggling. I didn’t understand the story much and said so to the librarian while returning the book. “That’s okay,” he said, “as long as you become aware that this world also exists somewhere on this planet.”
School became intensive, and progressively the school breaks began to fill up — first, with preparations for the mighty board exams, and then for JEE. I stopped frequenting the library, promising myself I would return once I cleared JEE.
Across times and places
Years later, when I got into IIT Delhi, the first thing I did was search for the campus library. I couldn’t have been happier at finding this well-stocked haven. While filling my engineering credits, I picked Modern Fiction as well (a humanities course is a requirement at the IITs). When I look back at those years, what I remember the most is this course, which opened up the worlds of Joyce, Rushdie and Camus for me. Even as I struggled with my engineering papers, I was happily discovering and consuming their books. If my friends came looking for me, they knew exactly which table I would be sitting at.
In those four years, I read Marquez, Llosa, Naipaul and many others. Through their works, I travelled across times and places and philosophies.
It was with books from the library in my backpack that I first began to travel. I I started by exploring my surroundings. Every weekend, I would head out to Old Delhi, and learn about its overlapping histories. Then, I moved beyond the capital, exploring Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttaranchal — not just the famous destinations but also smaller places off the grid.
As I oscillated between the library and the road, my grades suffered. My batch mates were hitting GPAs of 8, while I was stuck at a lowly 6 — but I more than compensated the loss with the experiences I collected.
And when I moved to Sweden for work, one of the first trips I made was to Istanbul to explore the Bosporus that forms the backdrop of most of Pamuk’s novels.
These days I live in Malmö, Sweden. In my first week here, I found the modern glass-and-stone building of books with its floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the magnificent green stretches of Kungsgården, the royal garden. Now, after 10 years, I still spend weekends sitting next to these windows and reading from the vast English section of the library. And just over the Öresund strait is Copenhagen, with what’s perhaps one of Europe’s best known libraries — the Black Diamond.
Over the years, I have become a travel writer. When I ponder about what led to this, I realise that it’s all the books in all the libraries that gently pushed me to explore unfamiliar worlds.
The writer is an avid admirer of Nordic literature.