Fiona Fernandez: Waking up the sleeping giant

Oct 09, 2017, 06:23 IST | Fiona Fernandez

More initiatives must be introduced to infuse new life and energy into the Asiatic Society Library

"Madam, you will need to remove your footwear before stepping in," a library assistant requested us, as we made our way towards one of the most hallowed spaces inside the Asiatic Society Library housed in the Town Hall.

It was the peak of summer, and we were delighted with the air-conditioned respite that awaited us. This was over a decade ago, when yours truly was a regular at the 213-year-old library to research for a book. This is what it must be like for eskimos, we told ourselves, partly distracted by the mind-numbing temperatures, as we entered the digitisation and microfilming section. The refrigerator-like zone was necessary to ensure restored treasures in the library's care remained in mint condition, the assistant informed, on noticing our surprise at the sudden drop in temperatures. For the next hour or so, we referred to books on microfilm; it was a special experience - the first of many that we had in the sanctum sanctorum of the library.

Yet, throughout our nearly three-month stint there, we felt something was amiss in the Neoclassical beauty that overlooked Horniman Circle. The historicity of it every square foot didn't seem to resonate any longer. We felt extremely lucky to have discovered its impact on a city, not in any school textbook, but from books stocked in the very same library. How ironic! Among its walls stood splendid life-sized statues of Bombay's founding fathers; its wooden floors bore witness to university graduation ceremonies and within its countless labyrinthine sections, sat rows and shelves of books, dusty, dotted with pigeon poop, and well, forgotten to the public eye.

It was a bittersweet time - to be enveloped in a sweeping space where the city's greatest minds had engaged in dialogue and discussion and eventually, the shaping of the city - and a reality that all of this had been lost somewhere.

Cut to the present. The magnificent structure is in the midst of extensive restoration in a phased manner. What about the books, we wondered. While private donations and nameless benefactors continue to do their bit, a community-backed thrust was missing.

A few weeks ago, buzz around a new initiative seemed to be making the right noises. Several city-based groups tied up with the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. They had floated an idea to save its rare books where kids would play a key role. Through a crowd funding festival, donations came in from India and beyond to preserve these priceless volumes. It's a start, and with the correct age group.

One can only hope that this acts as the catapult for bigger initiatives with more funds pumped into this sleeping giant. The possibilities are immense: We can showcase the city's premier reading space as a public and tourist attraction - walking and study tours, exhibitions of its treasures, opening up of sections within for interactions, book readings and children's workshops, an art centre, souvenir shops, a cafe and a Bombay corner to chart the timeline of the city that synced with this landmark itself.

It's important that we don't forget. After all, in a rapidly changing environment, such oases must be preserved to retain the spirit of the real 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 mailbag@mid-day.com

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