A lighthearted story for the holiday season, which would effortlessly qualify for the "plainly mad" category. While places (and possibly people) like those written about in this story must exist in real life, here they are purely products of my imagination, and bear no resemblance to what I have seen and heard.
The city of Channallur in South India was what the travel books called a "bustling metropolis". It had several million residents, a couple of factories set up by assorted multinational companies, a dozen colleges, apartment buildings of every hue and shape - and two Foreign Libraries. These, the Imperial (British) Library and the American Library, were held in high regard by Channallur’s citizens.
It was unanimously agreed that the Imperial Library was the superior of the two. This library, run by a stout, feisty lady of a certain age called Mrs. Balendran, enjoyed a bountiful budget which was the talk of the town. The American Library, run by an equally stout, feisty lady of similar vintage called Mrs. Rosario, limped along on the leanest of budgets. This, too, was the topic of many a discussion around town.
The Imperial Library was considered a marvelous place to work in. The air-conditioning worked all the time, delivering blasts of freezing air to its patrons and employees, while outside, the city's citizens sweated and cursed in the sweltering heat. The floors gleamed, the walls were spotless, and it opened and closed on time. The place hummed with efficiency. It was, all in all, as unlikely a workplace as one would expect to find in India. It had been built over a hundred years ago, in what was now one of the most prized neighborhoods in the city. High walls surrounded beautifully manicured gardens. Stepping inside its gates, one felt transported into another world. The din and clamor of the city became immediately muted. The air was fresher, cleaner, and had the scent of grass, trees and flowers. Birds chirped and swooped happily among the trees. People accustomed to dashing about slowed their pace, as if an invisible hand rested gently on their shoulders, urging them to relax.
Getting a job at the Imperial Library was regarded as a great thing. It was extremely difficult, for one. The only way in, as far as people knew, was to be in the social circle and the good books of its director, Mrs. Balendran. The two did not necessarily go together. Getting into Mrs. Balendran's social circle involved convolutions that had nothing to do with liking her or being her friend. The Imperial Library job paid well (far more than what the people who worked there deserved, jealous people grumbled). It gave 28 days of paid vacations, an unheard of thing. (Nobody had ever availed of this privilege, convinced that their job would be gone by the time they returned from their 28-day holiday; besides, what would they do for 28 days?) There was free coffee and tea available throughout the day (stale, the jealous ones whispered gleefully).
All of this paled into insignificance, when Channallurians learned that, to top it all, an Ergonomics Expert had been flown in from London. He and his team had gone around the library with their measuring tapes and calculators, scribbling earnestly into their notebooks, tut-tut ting and shaking their heads occasionally. They had even measured the employees who had stood, stiff with embarrassment, while the Englishmen bustled around them. Two months later the Imperial Library received a new set of ergonomically correct sofas and tables for its patrons. In addition, every employee got a new chair which was equipped with little levers along the sides to raise or lower it, and a footrest with bumps all over its surface. These came with a set of individualized instructions signed off by the English Ergonomics Expert himself: what height the seat of the chair should be; what the correct position was for the computer keyboard in order to minimize strain on the wrists and arms; what the ideal angle was for the adjustable footrest so that the thighs and the legs formed a perfect 90 degree angle. The Imperial Library buzzed with excitement that day. A big notice was put up outside:
LIBRARY CLOSED FOR ERGONOMICS RENOVATION.
WE WILL REOPEN TOMORROW.
Inside, the employees scurried about, raising their chairs, lowering them, massaging their feet on the footrest bumps. Mrs. Balendran walked around, a satisfied smile on her face.
Getting the Ergonomics Expert - not any Ergonomics Expert, but a London one - had been quite a coup on her part. Her counterpart and bitter rival at the American Library, Mrs. Rosario, had been rendered speechless when she heard about it. Her budget, pared to the bone, allowed for no such indulgences. In vain, she pleaded with her boss to allow her to buy new furniture for her library. "Everyone will go to the Imperial Library," she said, "Nobody will come here any more".
She was absolutely right. Most people chose which of the two Libraries to go to not based on the books and magazines (with the one exception of People Magazine, the American Library's pride and joy), but on how well the air-conditioning worked, how easy it was to find parking and how long they were allowed to "lounge". On all counts, the Imperial Library was ahead. And now, with the ergonomic sofas (which Mrs. Balendran would ensure the whole city heard about) her American Library stood no chance. The American Library boss would have nothing of it. He was trained to believe that his budget numbers told the whole story. Profit Margins he could understand. Balance Sheets were his bedtime reading. People going to the Imperial Library because of its air-conditioning? Or its sofas? He had never heard such rubbish. Did Mrs. Rosario know what that would do to his carefully tended Bottom Line? No new sofas for the American Library.
And so the Imperial Library hummed along. The new sofas brought waves of people to it, all curious and eager to sit on them. Mrs. Balendran herself greeted them at the door, smiling and directing them to a table filled with biscuits and little plastic cups of fruit juice. One of the employees guarded the table to make sure that nobody took more than one biscuit and drink. A few days after the sofas arrived, Mrs. Rosario came to visit. Curiosity and pride had waged a spirited battle in her, and curiosity won. Holding her head up high, on high alert to spot any flaws in the enemy territory, she marched into the library, barely acknowledging Mrs. Balendran's triumphant greeting. She fought the temptation to have the biscuits and juice, and walked around with a bored look. From the corner of her eyes, she took a look at the sofas. Jealousy washed over her in a hot wave. What magnificent sofas! They were plushly upholstered in some expensive material, and had little cushions scattered on them. There were four new sofas - two three-seaters and two single seaters. They had been artistically arranged in the lounging area, which was right next to the Reference Librarian's desk. The Reference Librarian's new chair was in full view. She was sitting proudly on it, adjusting the levers every couple of seconds with an air of great importance.
With a bitter heart, Mrs. Rosario observed the throngs of people milling about. Her library had a few hard wooden chairs which were hardly conducive to lounging. They were dull and scratched. In the good old days, when the American Library was a worthy rival of the Imperial Library, there actually used to be long lines of people waiting to get in. You had to be invited to become a member (as was the case with the Imperial Library), which greatly enhanced its desirability. Mrs. Rosario was a highly sought-after person in the Channallur dinner party circuit, as was Mrs. Balendran. Often the two would be invited to the same party, and they would laugh and chatter with their arms around each other, acting like they were the best of friends.
The truth was, they kept each other going. Neither of them worked because they needed the money. Each had started working, many years ago, for precisely the same reason - to get away from their overbearing mothers-in-law. They continued working long after the mothers-in-law ceased being overbearing and eventually moved on to the next world, because by that time they enjoyed the job, or, more accurately, they enjoyed their rivalry. Each kept a keen eye on what went on in the other's Library. The end result was that the member citizens of Channallur enjoyed marvelous programs, as each Library tried to outdo the other. The two ladies thrived. The Libraries thrived. The members of the Libraries thrived.
Then, along came Mr. MacLean, the new American Library boss. He was sent from Washington to check up on what exactly was going on in this distant outpost. He came with a freshly minted M.B.A. and with a religious devotion to the Lean Budget. The budget he inherited, like Mrs. Rosario, was anything but lean. With horror he read about the Book Discussion Groups (for each of which 500 rupees worth of samosas and soft drinks had been purchased); the Ladies Talk Night (where people recently returned from the United States talked about their trip to the Lady Members) for each of which again samosas and drinks had been bought by the hundreds. And so on and so forth. Every event seemed to involve immense amounts of samosas and drinks.
With his red pen, Mr. MacLean crossed them out. No more Book Discussion Groups. No more Ladies Talk Nights. No more Tiny Tots Book Weevenings. A Library was a place where people came to check out books, and that was that, he informed the flabbergasted Mrs. Rosario. Then there came the bombshell. No more members by invitation only, said Mr. MacLean. The American Library, true to its democratic roots, would be open to all who could pay a Rs. 1,000 annual fee. That would give a new look to the Bottom Line, eh?
That was the beginning of the end for the American Library. The members, informed that they would now have to pay for the privilege, refused indignantly. Why, when there were better air-conditioning and equally good programs at the Imperial Library? What? No more Book Discussion Groups or Ladies Talk Nights? And what about the poor Tiny Tots? This America was a merciless country; all it thought about was money, money, money. Almost overnight, the place lost its allure. Only a handful of people paid the Rs. 1,000 membership fee, a far cry from the hundreds anticipated by Mr. MacLean. The last straw was when he cancelled the subscription to People Magazine. That knocked out at least a dozen people who had been considering becoming members, for whom the People Magazine gossip was the ticket into higher social circles. Locked up in his little world of budgets and numbers, he had no clue about the Indian love for gossip, no matter whom it involved.
After many months of this, Mrs. Rosario plucked up her courage and apprised Mr. MacLean of the situation. There were days when only one or two people showed up in the Library, she said. There were only twenty two new members. The staff was very demoralized. In the meanwhile, the Imperial Library was flourishing. Its programs were the talk of the town. Then there were the things she did not tell Mr. MacLean. Like the way people looked pityingly at her at the dinner parties. Like how she had not been invited to Mrs. Arunachalam's annual Diwali bash. Or how everybody crowded around Mrs. Balendran at the Murari Iyers' and all but ignored her after they satisfied their curiosity about what was going on at the American Library.
Mr. MacLean frowned and opened up his spreadsheets on his computer. Hmmm, yes, it was true that while the expenses had decreased quite dramatically, the profits had not come in quite as he had expected. Very reluctantly, he agreed to a compromise. The Membership Fee would be reduced to Rs. 500, with a special Rs. 250 rate to the first one hundred applicants. But no People Magazine. Mr. MacLean loathed People Magazine with a passion. Members coming to the American Library should be enlightened about great American literature, culture and traditions, he told Mrs. Rosario. They would get all the wrong ideas about his country by reading People Magazine. To set people on the right track, he had ordered subscriptions to the Journal of Democracy and the Journal of Capitalistic Economics. Mrs. Rosario shook her head and walked away.
Matters improved temporarily at the American Library when there was a rush to be among the first one hundred applicants in order to avail of the special Membership Rate. These people were sheepishly informed that they now had access to the Journal of Democracy and the Journal of Capitalistic Economics, two of America's leading journals. No, there was no People Magazine, as it had been deemed morally corrupting. Some demanded their money back (no refunds, Mr. MacLean had instructed Mrs. Rosario sternly), but most listened meekly. They thumbed disinterestedly through the Journals and then congregated listlessly around the air-conditioning vents. They flipped through month old Time and Newsweek magazines and then left, because there was nothing more to do.
The Imperial Library got busier and busier. It became the place to spend the day or evening. The sofas were a great hit. Many an animated discussion took place on them. Mrs. Balendran had started a new monthly evening series, Amazing Adventures. The first Amazing Adventure lecture was given by an Englishman who had spent a year huddled in a tent in the Arctic. The Imperial Library was filled to overflowing and the citizens of Channallur gaped at the pictures of the icy, windswept wasteland this madman had lived in. The next Amazing Adventure lecture was given by a Delhi-ite who had visited Nepal. Not in quite the same league as the first Amazing Adventure, but the series had to be maintained and not all adventures could be equally amazing. The samosas were ordered from Sri Ganesha Savories, Channallur's best samosa shop, and the Fantas and Frootis were served undiluted. Mrs. Balendran was at the height of her power and popularity.
And yet, and yet... Thrilling as it had all been in the beginning, these were now hollow victories for Mrs. Balendran. She knew that her Library was thriving not really because of her efforts but because of Mr. MacLean's budgetary bumbling. This had nothing to do with the superiority of her programs over Mrs. Rosarios'. Why, that last Amazing Adventure lecture by that Delhi chap had practically put her to sleep. Only the samosas had salvaged the situation. Poor Mrs. Rosario was now a toothless tiger. Mrs. Balendran was a fierce competitor, but a very fair one. She knew that it could very well have been her in Mrs. Rosario's situation. Something had to be done. She invited Mrs. Rosario for dinner one night.
Mrs. Rosario arrived at Mrs. Balendran's house with a heavy heart. She, too, had cherished their rivalry, and had enjoyed being kept on her toes. While many of her contemporaries moaned about arthritic knees and failing memories, her own body and mind remained in fine form. What fun it had been, discussing promotional ideas with her staff, and how she had enjoyed throwing herself into the various events, ensuring that everything met her high standards! Now, rendered powerless by Mr. McLean's Bottom Line obsessions, she had starting developing headaches and a stiff back. She knew that Mrs. Balendran sympathized (she would have done the same had she been in her shoes) and wanted to help, but how?
After a delicious dinner (no samosas - Mrs. Balendran was heartily sick of them), the two ladies retired to the living room, sipping soothing, fragrant masala tea. Mrs. Balendran leaned forward and looked at Mrs. Rosario with concern. She had great respect for her rival and felt distressed at the troubled look on her face. Through the dinner, the talk had been confined to non-Library matters, but both women knew that the topic could not be avoided. She asked gently probing questions about Mr. MacLean and his habits. Over the course of the talk it emerged that Mr. MacLean was a serious student of astrology. A couple of times, Mrs. Rosario had caught him poring over star charts, which he put away hastily when he saw her. Mrs. Balendran listened thoughtfully.
A few weeks later a young man appeared at the American Library for a job interview. He came highly recommended by the British Consul, so Mr. MacLean had to see him for the sake of diplomatic face-keeping, even though there was no job (his Budget would simply not permit it). The young man, whose name was Mr. Shiva Shankar, was skinny and unimpressive-looking. Mr. MacLean greeted him coolly. He really did not have the time to waste on unnecessary interviews, and this fellow did not look like he had much to offer anyway, what on earth did the British Consul see in him?
One hour later, Mr. MacLean was still with Mr. Shiva Shankar. In fact, he was engrossed in conversation with him. Mr. Shiva Shankar, it turned out, was a qualified astrologer (Mr. MacLean did not stop to think what his qualifications might be). Mr. MacLean timidly asked Mr. Shiva Shankar if he would cast his horoscope. Mr. Shiva Shankar said he would be honored. He jotted down Mr. McLean's birth details, and then sat frowning, as he made various calculations on a piece of paper. Mr. MacLean watched interestedly. Half an hour later, Mr. Shiva Shankar said that he had completed casting the horoscope. He had used a special method which cut down the time taken considerably, yet was far more accurate. Staring hard at the horoscope, he began to tell Mr. MacLean various things about his past. They were all correct. Mr. MacLean sat up. Looking at the chart again, Mr. Shiva Shankar said that Mr. MacLean's job performance would get a great boost if he hired a new Special Programs Assistant. He was hired on the spot.
So, after all, matters ended happily for everyone. Mr. Shiva Shankar controlled Mr. MacLean like a puppet on a string. The Lean Budget days came to an end. Membership fees were reduced to a nominal Rs.25, which hundreds of people paid happily. The Special Programs section bloomed. It was like the good old days. Mrs. Rosario's aches and pains vanished as she frenziedly compared attendance figures at her Library with those at the Imperial. She laughed and chatted with Mrs. Balendran at dinner party after dinner party. Mr. MacLean's bosses in Washington commended him on the vitality he had brought to the place, completely failing to read between the lines of the reports produced by Mr. Shiva Shankar. The Journal of Democracy and the Journal of Capitalistic Economics languished in a dusty storage closet, while People Magazine occupied its former place of honor. And, in Mrs. Rosario's happiest moment, Mr. MacLean approved an order for a set of six new sofas.