Another summer gone. Another opportunity missed. Every vacation, one hears parents, especially of young adults, rue about the lack of reading spaces and naturally, good reading content for this oh-so-impatient and impressionable age group.
Let’s face it — Mumbai is no Delhi, or even Kolkata, for that matter, when it comes to libraries and even book-related events. There’s the challenge of sky-high rentals, reticent promoters and sponsors and pseudo book lovers (and their kids) who’d rather pay a bomb and drive through insane traffic to catch a slapstick comedy at a multiplex than spend quiet time in the neighbourhood library (a diminishing feature, this).
Some time ago, while working on a story about the city’s public libraries, a thought crossed the mind. What if sections of these spaces were to be made open for school children for free access or even a nominal day fee during the summer and Diwali holidays? Imagine the duality of purpose it would serve — not only would these minds be exposed to some of the best, most diverse literary works from India and across the world but they would also be able to soak in the city’s rich history and identity that is otherwise, almost always, confined to few students, researchers and academicians. Imagine being able to rekindle all that’s entwined with the city’s growth and character, down the ages. Sadly, during that research phase, this journalist had to endure countless experiences of painful waiting hours lost to permissions from “higher-ups” and self-proclaimed custodians who derived pleasure in playing bad cop, despite the story being a positive take on Mumbai’s libraries.
Sample these gems that one managed to find: The centuries-old Shahnameh that weighs over 40 kgs and cost Rs 1,40,000 and took three months to conserve lies inside the JN Petit Reading Room. The Mumbai University Library might probably be the most frequented and yet one is sure that few would be aware of The French Traveller, circa 1490, believed to be the oldest titles on its bookshelves. Its cover hasn’t been located and hence the author remains unknown. Preservation has increased its longevity by 150 years, at least. This 3 ft x 2 ft, 25-kg tome needs two library staff to move it. The Bombay Natural History Society library stocks a book called Living Jewels from the Indian Jungle, which mentions a tiger spotting at Malabar Hill! Like its counterparts, The Asiatic Society Library, can easily double up as a museum. Apart from numerous rare titles including Captain James Cook’s Voyages to the South Pole and round the World (1777), it is home to rare coins from Akbar’s era (1564) and Sopara relics (8-9 AD). It also has a microfilming department that has painstakingly restored numerous books.
These intriguing facts are only a teaser. Today, our public libraries have become sleeping giants of information; dusty, no-entry zones frequented by silver-grey scholars.
This must change — if there’s any hope to get gen-next remotely interested in books and our city’s legacy; particulalry since these treasures lie inside some of Mumbai’s finest landmarks. One can only hope for better news to report on this front before the next holiday break.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY