Beyond the Gates: The Anna Centenary Library


“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Jorge Luis Borges

That paradise is a few minutes away. It’s called the Anna Centenary Library. Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday, except public holidays.

    IMG_20150209_124806There are many things in Chennai named after C. N. Annadurai. This one’s surely the most impressive.

Run, don’t walk. Exit via the main gate, take left. Keep walking till the junction; then take the right turn. (Crossing the junction, admittedly, is a non-trivial task and the most significant hurdle in your short journey.) Stick to the left of the road and you’ll find The Library. It takes less than ten minutes; five if you walk quick or cycle. If you’re really lazy, you can even take a bus to and fro.

Right. I can hear all the excuses you’re cooking up.

Excuse #1: “If it’s so good, how come I’ve never heard of it?”

I don’t know. It’s a scandal. Possibly because it doesn’t have an app. Or a proper website. I went only after being persuaded by a friend.

Excuse #2: “Well…it’s a government library.”

Have you ever visited the public library in your hometown? You have my deepest sympathies if it doesn’t have one. For now, consider Chennai your hometown. And go to The Library.

Excuse #3: “I’m a member of the British and American libraries. They’re awesome. This can’t possibly be better.”

To use John Oliver’s words, that’s “repurposed bovine waste.” The Library has more good books than those sorry-excuses for a library can ever aspire to have.

Excuse #4: “I don’t have the time. You see, I have my assignment/quizzes.”

Look, my friend. Have you ever dreamed of Borges’ paradise? If you have, will you forsake this promised land for a piddling assignment/quiz? Exams come and go. They’ll follow you wherever you go in academia. The Library, on the other hand, can only be found here.

Excuse #5: “I can buy/download anything I want and read on my laptop/Kindle/tablet/smartphone, while sitting in my own room. Why walk to this place and read dead-tree-versions?”

I agree that e-books are good. (But please consider buying e-books; the authors also need money.) However – and I’m no Luddite – have you ever enjoyed the simple tactile pleasure of holding a fresh, new book in your hands? Have you observed how a product of U.S. timber smells different from the “paper from responsible sources” of the U.K.? And how the Russian Taiga smells different still? (Who knows, they might all be sourced from the Amazon – the rainforest, not the online store.)

Now, imagine what it’s like to have a whole library of six floors (seven if you can read Tamil) filled with such books that are crying out to be held and read. For free.


IMG_20150209_124535I wish I could take up residence in the A Wing of the 5th floor.


Excuse #6: “What good is a library that doesn’t allow one to borrow books?”

Before you enter a really good restaurant, do you complain that you don’t get to take the food with you and eat at home? Is it not enough, when you’re hungry, to eat the delicious food on the table then and there and be done with it?

And if you like going to a place with “ambience,” here’s one.


IMG_20150209_121547They might look innocent, but those recessed lights are spectacular when you turn them on after dark.


Not being able to carry away books from The Library is one reason why they’re all still intact and don’t have flecks of god-knows-what on them. No remark on page 49 which asks you to turn to page 398, which then eventually leads you to the half-torn penultimate page of the book, where you’ll find an enigmatic aphorism containing the scribbler’s contact details, or an unsolicited review, presumably in the sad hope that the amused reader will find it useful.

Excuse #7: “It’s so hot here in Chennai. How can I read comfortably?”

Right. And you have an air-con in your room.

The Library, all six floors, from the atrium to the toilets, is air-conditioned.

Excuse #8: “The section I want is on the sixth floor. I can’t climb all that way up.”

Use the lifts. There’s even an escalator to help you get started from the ground floor to the first.

Excuse #9: “I can’t take my laptop or my own books.”

You can take your laptop anywhere. And going there to read your own book is like coming to Chennai to eat pasta. Still, there’s a room on the ground floor where you’re allowed to sit and read your own books, although all the seats get occupied the moment the library opens in the morning.

The Library, of course, has an online catalog. But even otherwise, you’ll find the book you’re looking for – academic or otherwise – with no trouble at all, exactly where it’s supposed to be.



No one can misplace a book because you’re not allowed to place them at all. The library staff insist on doing it for you. And if you sit at a table with all the books you were able to lay your hands on, they’ll hound you, quite rightly, and take away everything except the one you’re reading, although the rule says three books.


Just head to the right floor and browse. You’ll find what you want. Whatever you want. Especially if they’re published by Cambridge University Press – The Library seems to have bought every book ever published by them.


IMG_20150209_120831One of the sections with seemingly untouched books that made me want to jump up and down in joy. Which I would have done, were it not for the people occupying the tables around and reading very seriously.


I found, for instance, a copy of Never at Rest, Richard Westfall’s highly-acclaimed biography of Sir Isaac Newton, which I’ve searched in vain for the best part of a decade. I nearly screamed in delight when I found a copy of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader. (Our library has a copy, according to the catalog, which I’ve never found.)

If you’re into philosophy, there’s an entire section on “Nonbeing and Nothingness,” one on “The Finite and the Infinite.” There’s even one on “Beauty.”

Okay. So now you say: “This is all very well. But (wo)man does not live on books alone.”

Quite right. Water there’s plenty of. The Library is close enough that you can come here for lunch, and go back again. There’s also an outlet of The French Loaf on the ground floor, which, as you’d expect, sells you junk food at not inexpensive prices.

Downsides? Well, ignore the magazine section which has lots of rubbish. Including more than one astrology magazine. But did you know the IIT Madras library has Scientology books?

If you’re still not convinced, give it a chance. Don’t leave Chennai without visiting it. Please?


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