City Library – American Center Library, Kasturba Gandhi Marg
Sounds from silences.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
If you listen, the steady hum of a machine can be heard. Maybe it’s the air conditioner. Or rather a radiator, for this is the cold season. The sound is somewhat comforting, as any mild white noise would be. Occasionally, the air is pierced by muffled whispers, and if a person decides to get up from their seat, you will hear the sound of their clothes brushing against the chair as noisily as chips crackling inside one’s own mouth.
The American Library, in central Delhi’s Connaught Place, is like a small vessel for sounds and silences of great delicacy. These acoustic figments seem so fragile that if the door was suddenly to be opened, and the sounds escape into the busy KG Marg, one would fear for their survival in the city rumble — they would probably vaporise into the smoggy air, and be lost.
One might recall experiencing this kind of intense auditory experience in other public libraries too, but this reading room is distinguished by its peculiar location. It is situated in the basement of the American Center. Just entering the building feels like being transported to a different country. The encounter with the security team at the entrance takes place through a thick glass, like in the customs of an international airport. Upon entering, as you walk down the staircase, all you hear are the tap-tap of your footsteps. And then you step into the basement cave — with thousands of books lining the hall.
This afternoon, only half a dozen people are here. One woman is browsing at the poetry section. Another woman is sitting on the library’s comfortable table, without a book. A man is standing by the magazine section and checking his phone.
Typical library scenes. But it is the sounds of these few people walking, breathing and leafing through books that crowd the hall. Sometimes there’s a beep, like you hear in a hospital ICU. These sounds accentuate the silence, making it more real and precious. This state of soundlessness is so extreme here that you tend to “shhh” yourself while talking inside your head.
The room isn’t as big as it used to be. Until 2019, the library was on the second floor. Up there, the reading room was gigantic. The place used to be so popular in summer afternoons that you wouldn’t even find a spare spot to sit. At its new location, the library has fewer books. Even so, sitting here is more calm and meditative than before. The little sounds bring with them a feeling of utmost mindfulness. The only regrettable thing is that these days the library only opens twice a week — Tuesday and Friday. Membership is required, but its annual fee is less than a pizza treat with friends.