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Madras through Madras Literary Society

It is a truth universally acknowledged that public libraries are a celebration of literature, the art of reading and carefully assembling a treasure trove of books so as to bring people together and build a community. Interestingly enough, Tamil Nadu is the first state that enacted the Public Libraries Act in Independent India. It came into force with effect from 1 April 1950. However, the Madras Literary Society came into existence long before that— by Thomas Newbolt, a Chief Justice of the Madras High Court in 1812 along with the Bengal Asiatic Society, Calcutta and the Bombay Asiatic Society. My own history with MLS is a lot more recent, I helped out with categorizing, arranging and dusting books in the summer of 2016 for a little while and it largely moulded the way I think about reading, writing and of course, Madras itself.


As a kid, I remember carrying this ferocious need for all my books to look like they’ve been untouched— no shabbily handwritten notes in the margins, smudges of coffee rings inside pages or dog-ear bookmarks. Nothing of that sort. My spick and span tendencies unfortunately translated into an eerie hesitation associated with lending and borrowing books, to even my closest friends and family. In my house, we like to mark the front pages of our books with the date and place of purchase. It’s an act of endearment— for books, which give us whole new worlds to escape to every time the real one gets maddening; and for each other, a token of remembrance, intending to always come back to these pages. Even this little impression on my books would irk me, but I let it go, for the sake of material memory, sentiment and what not.


As it turns out, I grew up and learned to love over-used books. Books that carried stories separate from the ones inside it, books that many people had many thoughts on and then passed on to me to figure out my many thoughts on said story, books at their intellectual best and structural worst— tattered, borrowed copies with foldable spines and unkempt corners. One of the first times I challenged my own immature perceptions of what it means to own many books was at MLS; I was lining a tower of books with catalogues filled that contained logistical details that expanded on when the books had been borrowed last, how many times and by whom. One of the books had been borrowed back in 1957, a year that seems so ancient that I couldn’t even fathom someone alive and breathing had read this book back then. An important and early lesson in learning that such is the magic of letting books be touched by the presence of all those who’ve crossed its path. I’ve found that it feels like being part of a lineage, rejoicing over the creation of my own history, and enamoured with the artefacts of literature.

Every time I visited MLS I couldn't help but think of how reading together is a tender act; quietly on friends' shoulders, during unendingly tiresome college lectures, or, in this case, around a wooden table while sitting in brittle plastic chairs. This somehow always feels like an unspoken book club. By reading together and silently gazing at everyone else’s novels’ titles and letting them examine my own, I opened up a little sliver of my heart that is specially reserved just for allowing literature and by extension, my thoughts, feelings and love to be borrowed.

Shared reading subconsciously transformed the way I write as well. As I slowly began to read with people I love and think of reading as a collective activity, rather than unaccompanied, I witnessed the many wonders of being inspired to write by my friends’ thoughts and actions, in relation to the books they were reading. A few months back, on a mellow, unhurried evening, a friend came up to my dorm room to borrow a collection of Mary Oliver poems. She doesn’t really offer an explanation for why she suddenly felt the need to read and neither do I ask. It’s a shared understanding. One Mary Oliver poem a day keeps scary, uncertain thoughts away. Rega Jha shared some of my favourite words on reading with friends, “We become squatters in other people’s souls, unpack our things, find our favourite corners. This is, to me, the greatest heist. And in dwelling together, we share the spoils.


A great chunk of the experience of reading in a public space like MLS are the 3 integral As: ambience, aesthetics and architecture. My first introduction to the cinematic frames of MLS was through Mani Ratnam’s ‘Mouna Ragam’. A film that among other things, critically questioned the institution of marriage, with a Jane Austen-esque female narrative. The red-brick building is particularly interesting to any cultural buff with its obvious Indo-Saracenic features typical of many old Madras buildings, and its other enchanting little additions like sandstone trimmings, a Madras Terrace roof, walls of brick with lime mortar and several Rajasthani-style elements. Inside the building, books are stacked from floor to ceiling on 60-foot-high shelves, with metallic staircases used to access them and, in a charming, old-world addition, a pulley mechanism to transport the books from one floor to another. (Shreya, 2019)

I’ve also begun to look at a library as a political, public, accessible space. MLS has decades' worth of literature on an array of themes but the ones I’m most intrigued by are books centred around gender, religion, caste and governance. By preserving its legacy while adapting to contemporary preferences, the library is an exceptional example of housing written work on minority communities and how their upliftment can be facilitated through reading and agitation.


Reading in libraries gives my otherwise scattery brain some space to catch up. To make lists of books I want to read. Create fake but happy-chemical inducing scenarios in my head. Here, I will let myself make snow angels in a pool of my own thoughts. I breathe easier in a library.


About the Author:

Neeraja Srinivasan is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. Her work has been published by the Museum of Material Memory, The Remnant Archive, and Madras Inherited, amongst others. To Neeraja, writing is an instrument that she uses to quietly sit and examine the hearts and minds of those around her; a love language of sorts. You can find her musings on Instagram at @neeruslists.

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