Yesterday I had the very great pleasure of sitting down with author Dr. Chitra Divakaruni, illustrator Susy Pilgrim Waters, and their editor Neal Porter. You may be aware of the remarkable collaboration these clever folks have concocted. The book is called Grandma’s Great Gourd and it’s a Bengali folktale of unparalleled loveliness.
Ms. Divakaruni is quite the author in the adult book world (you may have heard of her Oleander Girl) and it is a pleasure to see folktales from her. While speaking, she told me that she owed a turning point in her life to librarians. I asked to hear her story and she has kindly allowed me to print it here. Since it involves a Chicago librarian I think it’s a great tie-in to the upcoming ALA. It makes me think of my Chicago librarian peeps out there like Julie Jurgens who blogs at Hi, Miss Julie,Eti Berland, and Heather and Jennifer Norborg.
For the librarians.
Here’s To You, Mrs. Berenson
It was a blustery evening in Chicago, the sky colored like slate. As I waited for the bus, my eyes watered in the bitter, biting wind that was colder than I had ever imagined wind could be. The cold pierced through my bright orange coat—a coat that I’d bought with high hopes in Calcutta, my hometown, just a month ago. There, friends had exclaimed over its cheery brightness in admiration. Here, the few people waiting at the bus stop (dressed in sober browns and blacks) eyed it—and the sari I wore under it—with silent suspicion.
Finally, the bus appeared around the corner, its doors wheezing open. I climbed in and sank into a seat thankfully. The toddler whom I babysat had been cranky all day. At dinner, he had thrown his bowl of spaghetti-and-sauce at me, ruining my sari. When I’d remonstrated, he promptly flung himself onto the floor and indulged in a tantrum. A long one. But at least it was over. Soon I’d be at the apartment where I was staying with relatives. In a few hours, after dinner and dishwashing and comedy shows on TV with indecipherable jokes, I’d be able to pull out the sofa-bed and crawl into it.
Just then the bus shuddered to a stop. The engine rattled loudly. This was followed by an ominous silence. The driver fiddled with various mechanisms. Then he announced that the engine was dead. We would have to get down and wait for the next bus.
Hunched in my orange coat which miserably failed to keep out the freezing wind, I followed the others down the sidewalk. Maybe, I thought as I trudged along, coming to America had been a mistake. Maybe I should give up on my dreams of higher studies and go back. Agree to an arranged marriage like my cousin had done.
Then I saw the small building with its brightly lit glass walls, the American flag in front, the sign on the wall. Library, it announced. It looked so warm inside, I couldn’t resist, even though I knew I’d get late, that my relatives would worry. I walked in a little fearfully. In libraries back home, you had to buy a membership before you were allowed to sit at the reading tables or check out the two books each patron was allowed. And I had no money to spare.
But here no one stopped me. The woman at the desk—an older lady in a cardigan with her white hair pinned back in a neat bun–gave me a welcoming nod. I walked past her to the stacks filled with books, breathing in their unique smell. It struck me that I hadn’t been in a library ever since I’d arrived in America. I hadn’t read a single book.
I came back to the desk and asked the woman—a tag pinned to her cardigan said, A. Berenson, Librarian—if I could borrow a book. She asked me if I had identification. I produced it. She typed out a card with my name on it. It was that simple. When I asked her how many books I could borrow, she said, “As many as you can carry out! What are you looking for?”
There was such genuine interest in her voice, that I was emboldened to confide to her a dream that seemed to be slipping further from my grasp each day.
“I want to go to graduate school and study American Literature,” I whispered.
I had expected a look of disbelief, perhaps even pity. But she nodded as though what I said was entirely possible. She took me to the stacks where she paused, considering carefully, then handed me a book. The Great Gatsby, the title proclaimed. I had never heard of it, but already I trusted Mrs. Berenson. She picked out several other books. When I walked out of the library, hugging their sweet weight, the night had grown warmer. Or was the warmth inside my heart?
That night I opened The Great Gatsby and plunged into a fascinating world of affluence and excess, of desire and disappointments. My own problems receded as I participated in Gatsby’s drama and waited tensely to see if he would find love. I stopped reading only when exhaustion forced my eyes shut.
I took the book to work the next day and read it in between my duties. When my young charge threw his usual tantrum, I ignored him and kept reading. This novel response astonished him into silence. In three days, I’d finished the book. I took it back to Mrs. B, and expressed to her my outrage that Gatsby had been killed, that fiction could be as unfair as life. She listened with her calm smile, then said, “But it’s made you care. It’s made you want to do something about such things, if you get a chance. Isn’t that more important?”
I’d never thought about reading in that way before. A small, very small thought flashed in my mind for a moment: I’d like to write like that someday. Outrage my readers. Make them care. Make them do something about injustice.
Over the next months, Mrs. B gave me many other books. Native Son. The Woman Warrior. Sister Carrie. The Turn of the Screw. My Antonia. Fahrenheit 451. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Cat’s Cradle. Bless me Ultima. After I finished each one, she took time to listen to my responses. And in between, “because fun is important,” she introduced me to her favorite singers, from Billie Holiday to Simon and Garfunkel
Something happened to me in those months that I can’t explain. Though my outer circumstances hadn’t changed, my attitude was different. Perhaps it was because Mrs. B took my opinions seriously and encouraged me to think large. Perhaps it was that she chose for me books where characters struggled, like me, to achieve the American Dream—often under circumstances far worse than mine. Maybe it was the spirit of the songs I listened to on the portable cassette player she had loaned me: a spirit full of hope and compassion and joyfully aware of the fragility and beauty of human life. In any case, I became determined that I wouldn’t give up. I saved my salary, studied seriously each night, took the required exams, got accepted into college, put aside my pride and borrowed money for relatives to pay my fees. I got one degree and then another. I married, moved across the country, had children, started teaching, and slowly, tentatively, began to write. In all the busyness of my life, Mrs. Berenson slipped into the cracks of my memory.
Years later, when my first book of stories was published, I walked into our local library—a place my children loved as much as I did—and went to the stacks. There it was, nestled between Dickinson and Dybek: Arranged Marriage, by Chitra Divakaruni. I had to touch it to make sure it was real. And suddenly I was in that other library, those other stacks, and Mrs. B was smiling at me, handing me The Great Gatsby. A song she’d loved flowed through my mind, the words molding themselves to fit what I felt, what I never got a chance to tell her: God bless you please, Mrs. Berenson, I owe you more than I can ever say. And then, because fun is important: Hey, hey, hey.