Asiatic Library with its town hall flight of steps, Cinderella-like from afar and chipped and battered up-close, a promised haven of untouched library treasures locked deep in unreachable and (more importantly) undecipherable metal chests, is an exercise in shedding. At the door, I am shed of my backpack. Name in the register, token in hand, I place the carcass among the deposited bags; it folds in on itself, forlorn. In my arms, I juggle a laptop, two notebooks and a fountain pen encased in a travel box that Charley Miles does not let me throw away when she gifts me the fountain pen, because who knows when you might need it? I approach the desk, pull out a notebook with a combination of elbow, chin and chest and point. Tillotson. Rajput palaces. Rs 3,500 on Amazon—here, free. Do you know where I may find it? A kind lady directs me to the corridor of metal chests. Look for the name, she assures me, then write down the code here—paper handed to me—and bring it to us. We will bring the book to you.
The cupboards are steel, rusted and authoritative. They eye me. They look much like the Godrej cupboards my grandmother kept her stitching in; they remind me of the old saying: Godrej lasts a lifetime. I try and move confidently. I have tried to navigate this corridor once before; then, I scampered, pretending to look urgent and hassled to hide the shame of my absolute bewilderment. Is this subject? Or author? Or foreign author mixed with subject? Or title and periodical? Or just periodical? I find a file of cabinets titled ‘Author’ and yank on a drawer labelled ‘Ti’. It reveals a belly full of catalogue cards, handwritten in faded ink pen. The list is endless, my fingers parting yellowed paper that frays at the edges. When I finally reach the end, it is only on ‘Tilak’. Recognising the next door holds success, I am excited. The drawer is stuck. I keep pulling, trying to pretend this is just a minor set back. After one minute of rattling the large cabinet, sound thundering among equally thundering fans, a librarian helps me. He opens it with ease. Second exercise in shedding: my dignity. There is no Tillotson. But I have checked this out with the secret knowledge of the Internet—I am certain the book is here. I will not be defeated: not after one hour in J.J. Flyover traffic, being roasted under the Mumbai sun, skin turning a fleshier brown. I move to the ‘Subject’ cabinet and begin to search. The librarian, a kind man who has decided I know little to nothing of life, is beside me again. He disappears to help customers who want books: between them, he returns to me, a guruji drawn to his most damaged pupil. Tillotson? But he is English. I’ve been looking in the wrong cabinet all along. He points, to a cabinet I believe is neatly labelled ‘Periodicals’. All foreign authors are listed there. When I find the promised drawer, beginning with the famous ‘Ti’, it is again stuck. This time, I shed all semblance of capability. I am desperate. The librarian reappears—slippers slapping slow against the long flagstone corridor, weary for this damaged pupil who keeps straying—and pulls. It is indeed stuck. He comes back with a hammer. Having pulled out the drawer above, he proceeds to hammer at the edge of my drawer, short, powerful strokes that drown out even the thundering fans. If I have shed my knapsack, dignity and capability (and possibly all belief any stranger may harbour that I am older than twelve years old), I am now re-clothed in stares. Asiatic pauses to observe the spectacle—bang, bang, bang—as the metal cabinets eye me, certain that they will outlast any life I choose to lead, no matter how healthy. I vow to take my calcium tablets and exercise. The drawer opens. The librarian leaves. Tillotson is not there. I gather up my laptop, books, wallet and fountain pen, delicately arranged in a pyramid. I don't understand, I cry. The Internet—the Internet—said the book would be in Asiatic Library. Madam, says the librarian, and for once, I sense a touch of weariness, this is Central Library. I am ushered down more corridors, this time with escorts. It is clear my fame has spread. Each librarian, no matter which section they sit in, knows: this woman cannot be trusted to get where she needs to go. I am deposited in front of more metal cabinets, placed under a beautiful wide ceiling with glossy leather armchairs. A man behind another desk watches—at the first sign of need, he will be by my side. But there is no need. This time, I find Tillotson, perched under ‘Til’, smug and confident as anything. I am directed to another desk, a calmer man, who promptly takes down my name and strips me of my laptop. He asks if I need it. I say, of course not. I hold my pen and notebooks tighter, and feel proud.
The room I enter is calmer, more sedate, rows of desks where librarians work in heavenly silence. Even the fans are more respectful. It has—oh sweet lord—a computer, with an online catalogue that I can use to find Tillotson’s book number. Another librarian stands over my shoulder as I type and talks me through it anyway—because, why not? Leave nothing to chance. She watches as I open my fountain pen case and then my fountain pen, writing the code on the sheet she hands me. By the end, my fingers are stained with ink. It is a valuable book, she says, checking its classification. I think of Cambridge, where rare books are placed on a pillow and you’re given a soft cloth paper weight to hold the pages down—a fat, ridiculously snakelike apparatus that I was constantly tempted to drop onto the floor, to watch it slither and curl—and you are not allowed anything but a pencil. I look at my blackened fingers. Would there be, I say, holding up my hands, a ballpoint pen I can borrow?
The next two and a half hours are spent among those librarians, turning the pages of Tillotson’s Rajput Palaces carefully with my clean fingers and sometimes with my elbows, taking down detailed notes. It is by far the most useful book I have encountered for my study, and I am rewarded with beautiful, beautiful floor plans of Udaipur City Palace. These I am allowed to photocopy (or send for photocopying, after filling out another form) and I carry them with me as I leave as evidence of my triumph. On my way out, librarian after librarian smiles, nods, does all but clap. The guard at the door returns my empty bag to me and watches as I refill it, proud. After today, I would not blame them if they were glad to see the last of me. But it's not that. It is not even that they are proud of my triumph, their lost and baffled pupil—I not only found the book I wanted but stayed, diligent, to comb through it properly. No. I believe their delight comes from a simple piece of knowledge, evident from my step, my smile, the two sheets I all but wave at the crowd. Asiatic Library, chipped steps, metal cabinets and all, has found a fan.