As the 184-yr-old Central Library reopens, it's a golden chance for the powers to imbibe civic sense and create a buzz that draws in the citizen and the tourist alike
I never imagined that I'd be saying this aloud, and that too, in a column. It truly is a great time to be a heritage lover in the city. We're witnessing restorations of all kinds – from fountains and pyaus to churches, and the most recent addition to make it to the list, the Central Library housed in the Town Hall. There's more to look forward to, with the High Court and Flora Fountain on the preservation table.
As this column goes to print, the Neoclassical centrepiece of the city would have been inaugurated by Maharashtra's Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis. It's a great feeling to see the space being revived to, what many city historians would agree, its glory days of the 1800s and 1900s. Along with the hallowed offices of the Asiatic Society and the Town Hall, the landmark has been the breeding ground and the nucleus where ideas, visions and dreams for a city were conceived, debated and set into motion. Its hallowed interiors are steeped in historic legacy – from being the space that hosted the Governor's Ball to its steps from where the Queen's proclamation was read out in 1858 that abolished the East India Company and formally transferred the administration of India to the Crown, to become a colony of the British Raj.
We recall the time when as a student, we would intimidated by the enormity of the space — shadows of gigantic white marble statues of Montstuart Elphinstone and Bartle Frere would lord over us in the Central Library, as the evening sun would draw striking patterns across the grand hall. Like Alice in Wonderland, we would feed off the rows of titles; sometimes, managing a peek into the other world that lay beyond, in the members-only section inside the Asiatic Society library.
As the years passed, and we returned in our capacity as journalist and researcher, it began to resemble a sluggish giant that needed a massive shake-up. Tourists had dried up, users could be spotted treating the space with disdain, and a sense of general neglect had taken over. Though the sense of historicity and its envious repository kept indulging us back to the library and the public reading section, it was clear that the structure needed more than a temporary facelift.
Thankfully for the city, the intent to give it new life was met with favour, and restoration work commenced in 2009 by Abha Narain Lambah and her team of conservationists and the PWD Department. With the reopening of the Central Library, the lights have come on, literally. Now comes the tough part, as a senior official involved with the restoration told us. "It's a high point for us, but this is public property, and people should respect, not vandalise it." In a flash, grainy images of dusty rows and shelves, paan-stained corridors, unclean restrooms and pigeon-poop bookmarks came to mind. Can the powers pull it off, especially after the mammoth effort and funding? What about creating a buzz to get people back in?
Can weekend walks be introduced to show its treasures to the public? How about a visitor information desk, a café, an art gallery of rare photographs and collectibles? A souvenir shop? The possibilities are immense. It's time for a fresh start for a structure that has been witness to a city from its origins. We owe it to the Grand Old Man of Bombay.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org