The US Information Service and the Power of Air Conditioning

Shortly before my teen years commenced, my parents arranged a library membership for me at the American Library in New Delhi. (The library was administered by the United States Information Service; its membership rules only allowed adults as members, but my parents spoke to the librarians, signed up for two library cards, and handed them over to me). I was too callow to be anything more than an uncritical consumer of what I read and watched (the library featured an extensive video archive and it showed a weekly capsule of ABC news broadcasts). It was an ideal location for the concoction of elaborate fantasies about leaving India and heading straight for America’s shining shores. It all too quickly became another venue for learning another nation’s history, for processing its narratives about itself, all the while not noticing the absence of an Indian one.

The American library carried no cricket on its shelves, a fact that placed it one rank lower than the British Council Library in my mental peggings, but it did feature–among many other collections–elaborate histories of the Second World War and the American Revolution, tales of the American West (including, thankfully, many books on Native Americans), miles of American fiction and popular science, all of which I avidly consumed. I spent many summer afternoons there, reading books on American history and culture, watching videos—which provided little snippets of American life and thus made me privy to its details in glorious color—and looking through periodicals for a glimpse of the present-day US. The USIS could perhaps not have hoped for a more ideal purveyor of the information it hawked. During my reveries in the libraries’ spaces, it was all too easy to dream of a life elsewhere, perhaps on a sylvan campus, perhaps in a manicured suburb, away from India.

And nothing quite set you up for that indoctrination experience like walking into the American Library’s cool, air-conditioned interiors after a hot and sweaty ride through Delhi’s crowded buses; that change, as I walked in from Delhi’s loud bustle to the pristine silence of the library’s shelved spaces was a blessed relief; it hinted of the change that would presumably be introduced in my life once I left India and moved to the US. Outside was heat and noise, the bedlam of the street, the sounds of street vendors and honking traffic; and then, as you pushed open the glass doors, you felt the first blast of air-conditioned air, instantly settling on your perspiring skin, cooling and calming. You walked on, flashing your identification–the treasured library card–and then upstairs, up to the brightly lit main level, with its neatly arrayed shelves, its glass-top tables, its soothing tranquility. This didn’t feel antiseptic and colorless then; it felt like a balm to ease a soul made restless and agitated and eventually, inert in all the wrong ways, by the furnace outside.

Ideology promulgation takes many forms; sometimes it appears as a set of functioning air-conditioners, symbols of efficiency, power, and relief from the world’s troublesome afflictions.

 

 

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