When you have lived awhile in Tiruvannamalai, if people decide that you are basically all right, or anyway harmless, then someone will say at last -- after first quickly looking around, and lowering their voice, and leaning over to speak directly into your ear – Have you visited the library?
At this moment you become one of the elect: a richer existence opens to you. Because, if no one ever told you, you might live here for years without ever knowing the library existed. Indeed, many must live this way, grimly enduring their lives, never even imagining a library. Like the treasures of Advaita, the library is centrally located, it is convenient, and you’d never find it on your own. You could walk past its gate every day of your life and never suspect it was there.
Deemed worthy of trust, a friend leads you down the alley, through a dour and unpromising gate, across the littered grounds of a neglected temple, to what appears a very ordinary outbuilding, a simple sort of shed. Do not be fooled by rustic appearances: this is the secret library of Tiruvannamalai.
Most extraordinarily, the library is unguarded and unstaffed. It relies upon human integrity. Impossible! you say, but I am not a liar. The secret library of Tiruvannamalai actually exists. Like Arunachala itself, it possesses both vast spiritual power and a humble unassuming form.
Your friend must then demonstrate the function of the lock and teach you the secret code. There are many mantras in Tiruvannamalai and many secret practices, but there is only one secret which is guaranteed to function and that is the four digit code that opens the lock of the door to the library.
Inside the neglected grounds, within this corrugated shed, is a modest but resplendent library. It is an ideal library. It is as close as a library could ever be to a dream of a library. It is likely that Jorge Luis Borges, wizard of libraries, has chosen to be reincarnated simply to have the opportunity to visit this library.
The library consists of two rooms, entirely comfortable, with light and fan. Everything is clean and neat and demonstrates the care of the guardians. (One assumes the library has powerful invisible protectors as well. Certainly anyone who tries to harm the library in any way must inevitably suffer monstrously. The results of stealing books are less severe but nonetheless undesirable: book thieves forfeit all sexual potency until the books are returned. They become unable to eat without suffering curry stains. Patchy hair loss is also often observed.)
As you might expect, one room of the secret library consists of spiritual books, representing nearly every tradition and discipline, books left behind when their owners ascended to the heights of spiritual attainment – and thus no longer required them – or simply suffered back pain from hauling them around.
I must confess that the contents of the second room mean the most to me. The second room contains non-spiritual books. Non-spiritual books! Please understand that, after a few weeks in Tiruvannamalai, where one cannot walk down the street without bumping into a god, or a saint, or a cow, all synonymous and disgruntled, where one cannot enjoy a cup of coffee without hearing the extended discourse of a spiritual master, it is intensely delightful to come upon a treasure trove of non-spiritual books, books in which no one awakens. In these books, folks just open their eyes, wait for their heads to clear, and haul themselves out of bed.
It’s such a relief.
You have to be as spiritual as we are here, to fully appreciate non-spirituality, to savor the unexpected opportunity to read Marguerite Duras or Jeanette Winterson, to indulge one’s desire for a bit of mystery or science fiction.
Naturally I acquire a sense of safety and well-being, just knowing that I have the option to reread, for the umpteenth time, Mikhail Bulgakov. I feel more secure just knowing that, if my spirit is faltering, I may turn directly to Chapter 19:
Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar’s vile tongue be cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!
The library’s creator and caretaker are not seen. In this way the library is like a midnight banquet feast in a fairytale, presented by invisible hands. Though no one is seen, great care is everywhere apparent. Consider, for example, the library’s impeccable catalog, wherein new acquisitions have been listed, and losses crossed out with a ruler, and never mind that, in a library dependent on human honor, books must come and go like snowflakes.
Without knowing anything of the library’s creator or guardian except for the library itself, I can say without hesitation that I have the very greatest respect for this person and am, in fact, very fond of him or her. I would without qualm entrust my life to this person, knowing that, whilst my disorderly life could never meet with full approval of this divine librarian, my existence would doubtless be better organized and managed than it is now.
Greatness is not an effect of size. Arunachala is not less because it is not Everest. In the same way, it is possible for a great library to consist of only two small rooms. As I hope you are already aware, the universe is patrolled by invisible angelic librarians, who are forever trying to get the right book into the hands of the person who needs it. Therefore it matters not how many books are available, but only that you receive the book intended for you.
For the joy of libraries, one must inevitably resort to metaphor. Therefore: it is as if you are a lonely and discouraged gay man, arriving in an isolated rural area, a place where, it turns out, there’s only one other gay guy in the entire county – a man who just happens to be ridiculously good-looking and very anxious to go to bed with you.
Alone in the library, one could weep with gratitude and relief. The library exists. A balm to the enervated and worn human soul, exhausted by spiritual yearning and bus traffic in Tamil Nadu. Here is a secret library, where no one would ever have suspected it. Despair not. Give your soul a rest. Relax, please, your spiritual disciplines and shroud yourself in mystery, or sci fi, or suspense.
Long may it endure, with covert generosity, with sweet improbability, the great and small and secret library of Tiruvannamalai.