March 20, 2012

The significance of 796.358

Many fans should immediately recognize its cricketing significance; if you can't, think a bit before you run to Google it

I have now written, on this blog, two posts on "curiously significant numbers." The first, on statistical landmarks; the second, on significant dates in cricket history.

Here is another very significant number: 796.358. (Many fans should immediately recognize its cricketing significance; if you can't, think a bit before you run to Google it.) When it comes to my relationship with cricket, I wonder if any other number has had as much significance as this one, in terms of the anchoring it provided to cricket's history; that number ensured I had formed a well-entrenched set of memories, images and romantic associations with the game before they were exposed to the blow-torch of mass media coverage.

According to the Dewey Decimal system this is the library classification code for cricket. And for that part of my life before I moved to the US, it was the set of numbers that worked as a set of navigational co-ordinates in any library I visited. When I moved to the US, I was disoriented in many ways. One of the most significant ones was switching to the Library of Congress classification system for libraries. Suddenly I was lost; the contours of that land of shelves became mysterious. And of course, even when I figured out the LOC system, there weren't any cricket books to be found.

But for many years before my move to the US, I had used 796.358, most notably, like many other urban Indians at the time, in the British Council Library in Delhi. That venerable institution, then located at the All India Fine Arts Council building on Rafi Marg in New Delhi, and now moved to considerably less impressive facilities at Barakhamba Road, had been a weekend destination for our family for many years, and on each trip, I ran up the stairs, entered through the doors, briskly walked past the curious librarians, and headed straight for the 796.358 shelves. (I also dimly remember 796.3582 but do not recollect which subject heading under cricket was covered by this code). Sometimes I think: What a cliché; public-school educated Anglophone middle-class Indian spends his weekends borrowing four books at a time from the British Council Library. (Let's see if I can break the mould.)

Of course, I was not alone in seeking treasures in The Land of 796.358; many other library patrons were too. We were in India, after all. So inevitably, puzzled, I would find many titles listed in the card catalog - remember those? - missing from the shelves, perennially out on loan. Thus did I discover the power of the library reservation: I would diligently fill out a card listing the title and the call number, asking to be notified when the book had been returned and kept on hold. When they came in, I made a trip to the library on the DTC 470 bus, and returned home, beaming, a stash of new books to be devoured and savored.

Slowly, I moved through the denizens of Area Code 796.358, all in hard-back, and which included, quite obviously, the usual suspects: Cardus, Swanton, Fingleton et al. This was the British Council library, and my mind was slowly attuned to a particular history with its particular narrative, its preferred locales, heroes and legends. As far as ideology-promulgating institutions go, the BCL was particularly successful: I grew up with a particular cricketing mythology central in my mind, one that would take some displacement. (This displacement is partially described in my last post.)

I still do not know the LOC classification code for cricket, and to be honest, I haven't tried particularly hard to find out. I don't associate libraries any more with cricket. When I think of cricket books, I think of visits to bookstores, during my travels, in India, England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Jamaica; I think of asking bookstore clerks, "Where is your cricket section?"; I think of asking friends, "Mind if I borrow this?"

So no more 796.358-aided navigation for me. But I won't forget, in a hurry, all those times, when that code guided my steps, unerringly, to the pot of bookish gold at the end of the shelved rainbow.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here