By Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The Librarian
Author: Kavitha Rao
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte Ltd
Price: ₹ 299/-
The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.
The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity. He supports Vidya when she rebels against her parents’ conservative Gujarati outlook and moves to a hostel for working women, trying to live life as she wants.
In London on a three-month scholarship, Vidya walks through the lanes of the city, visits the places frequented by authors and fictional characters, including 221b Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes, and the grave of the famed English writer, George Eliot with its inscription of Mary Ann Cross. However, there is a discrepancy of a decade between the dates of George Eliot’s life span in the book and the ones inscribed on her grave. I wonder why… however, it is a minor detail in a story that spans larger societal concerns, where passions are unacceptable to ‘normal’ people and, left uncontrolled, can lead to fanaticism.
Vidya returns to Mumbai and Shekhar’s universe of books, trained well to be a part of it. As she settles into her role, Vidya almost loses her sweetheart in the terrorist bomb blast that tears through Mumbai in 2008. The blast not only rocks the city but also reverberates through the foundations of the library to shatter more lives, including Vidya’s, with untamed fanaticism.
The novel is steeped in suspense. The story is a first person narrative that starts with the disappearance of Mrs. Sen and ends with the story behind it.
It is a dark tale of ungoverned passions and innocence. I wonder why passions are reduced to an unhealthy obsession in the book. Why does the author fear passion? She herself ‘lives to read and reads to live’. She has woven a beautiful web of people passionate about books and yet, she traps Vidya in darkness. In the epilogue Vidya says she feels like Gatsby, used and thrown aside by Daisy and Tom and concludes with a quote from T.S Eliot’s Hollow Men – ‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.’ Vidya has retained her passion, but her world has been destroyed.
The narrative starts with a feeling of strength and rebellion but ends with a note of sadness and fatalism. Why does Ms. Rao let her heroine live with defeat and not make her strong enough to rebound? Does she try to show that people who read books and depart from the norm need to connect with the real world or vice versa? To me, this disconnect between people who love books and want to preserve the beautiful past and the world of money and glamour only enhances the failure of the education system to inculcate human values.
Kavitha Rao’s training as a journalist is evident in her style. The Librarian is a pleasure to read with its smooth and effective use of language and the story holds you in its grip till the end. The book not only tells an intriguing tale but also evokes questions – about the norms of the society in which Vidya lives and also the obsessive negativity that destroys beauty.
I would call this book a must read.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her by-lines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poems have appeared in the anthology ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com