The school lunchtime bell chimed. The sound of desks banging shut, clatter of pencils, scooping up of books, clamour of excited voices, laughter and pitter-patter of feet rushing to the playground. My feet made their way to my refuge, my treasure trove, my wonderland – the junior school library on the second floor of the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Mumbai, India. Forty-five minutes of undiluted joy and bliss as I escaped to the land of the Faraway Tree, went on adventures with the Famous Five, marvelled at the lives of Gandhi and Lincoln, and quenched my great curiosity about everything under the sun.
The years went by. High school, college, university. The libraries grew bigger, the range of subjects wider. Enid Blyton gave way to Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Science encyclopaedias gave way to thick volumes on physics, chemistry, biology, management and technology. Drawers of library catalogues and blue ink issue stamps were replaced by electronic library management systems. But my lunchtimes and free periods were still largely spent at the library of whichever educational institution I was attending at that point in time. My access and exposure to public libraries was limited to the British Council library and the National Library in Kolkata. Community and local libraries are non-existent in India. My library trips had become quests for supplementary study material for my degree examinations rather than an exciting sojourn into wonderland.
Then came my relocation to Wellington and I still remember the first day my friend took me to the Central Library. My eyes were agog, awestruck. A free library with no limit on the number of books you could borrow. This had to be a dream! Large print books – didn’t even know they existed! Magazines galore. DVDs and audio books. Friendly librarian’s eager to help out with their wealth of knowledge. Self-issue systems, inter-library loans. A great café. But wait – what was that? The sound of children laughing. My feet find their way to the children’s section. The largest children’s library I’ve ever seen. A storytelling session was in progress. Children surrounded the storyteller, listening with rapt attention. I stood there transfixed, lulled by the mellifluous voice rising and falling, surrounded by Enid Blyton, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Horrible Histories and Tell Me Why. I was back in Wonderland.