Today I descended into the bowels of medical history - i.e. into the subterranean archives of the Colombo Faculty library. Dimly lit stairs lead down to a seemingly vast cavern filled with row upon row of old books, the air thick with dust, mould and an undefined sense of years gone by. A mezzanine divided the space into two levels, the floor of the upper level made of thin strips of wood, interspersed by wider strips of nothing. I walked, cautious and barefoot on the dusty boards as a shoe or even an ankle could easily be wedged in those spaces.
I have always felt a sense of awe when I see old books. The fragile pages, bound together in leather, cracked with age, the faded gold lettering on the spines only faintly readable. I thumbed through a copy of the Lancet that was printed in 1927, holding the pages up to the muted light that filtered in through windows that were possibly last cleaned around the same year. My fingers traced words penned by long dead doctors; one detailing the invention of a particularly intricate pair of forceps, another speaking of haemorrhage during childbirth and yet another emphatically stating the "hereditary nature" of tuberculosis.
Almost at the end of my exploration, on the very last shelf, I came across a tome that left me entirely breathless... the "Manual of Tropical Medicine" written in 1910 by Albert J Chalmers and Aldo Castellani. Dr. Chlamers was 2nd Registrar of the Ceylon Medical College and during his period of service did much to streamline the teaching of medicine and improve facilities. The Anatomy block which stands to this day, was his brainchild. Sir Aldo Castellani was possibly the most outstanding medical researcher ever to come to Sri Lanka. He discovered the causative organisms for parangi and sleeping sickness, and was the first to use combined vaccines. The book was huge... nearly two thousand pages and as I reverently turned them, I imagined the two great men, discussing the contents and then painstakingly penning their knowledge by the light of smoky oil lamps. At one quiet moment, I felt their presence beside me, displacing the space like the shimmer above roads on a hot day.
Terry Pratchett once said that written words distort time and space. The theory of L space is such that
Those old books may not have the magical properties of those of the UU library, but they did leave me affected, as if I had opened the gateway to literary hyperspace.
I think I have found a new love.