Last week a fellow city heritage buff (who didn’t fall in the above-50-years category) had posted on social media about a recent visit to the basement of the Asiatic Society. It was a gold mine, she wrote, of the Society’s rare collections of manuscripts and prints, including one which was printed in Greek, and dated back to the 1400s. The tiny group was shown the handwritten minutes of a meeting in 1804 that went on to establish the Asiatic Society, known as the Bombay Literary Society at the time.
It swung us into flashback mode, to over a decade ago, when research for a book project, had taken us to the same environs. As we made our way to the microfilm lab in the basement, we had no Hogwarts reference at the time but it sure came close. History was staring back at us from every section of the woodwork, the acquisitions and the life-sized statues of great minds and founding fathers of a city in the making. There was a sense of occasion and amazement. Sadly, this section was open only to members, researchers and their ilk.
Which is why we did a virtual jig when we spotted this post last week, which included photographs of youngsters poring over rare prints and manuscripts. The place was opening up, finally. Sure, it’s taken a while but we dearly hope that it is the start of a gradual change. For too long, we believe, have some of Mumbai’s most established educational institutions been shuttered for public viewing. Many, like the Asiatic Society Library and the Fort’s University Library complex are museums in their own right.
We’ve mentioned previously in this column about this need to throw open these doors to the public, to celebrate the treasures what lies within. It’s an entire fabric of Mumbai that is waiting to be showcased. School and college-going students, in particular, ought to have access to these corridors of learning. Discerning tourists will be amazed, the ones in search of the other Mumbai — one that isn’t just about Bollywood, the Gateway of India and bargains in Colaba or Bandra.
In fact, on several occasions, out-of-town acquaintances, especially from other countries, have enquired about visiting such landmarks, only to be told that it wouldn’t be possible unless prior permission was sought. But it is in these tiny steps that we are seeing around us where hope floats. Whether it is a city festival that opens up previously uncharted areas of the city to its citizens, or reading sessions inside over hundred-year-old libraries, it’s a plus. Hidden beneath those Gothic gargoyles, Neoclassical columns and Indo Saracenic arches, there’s a lot more that the Mumbaikar and the tourist can revel in, and explore. Here’s to more doors opening up.
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 email@example.com