A matter of local history

Updated: Aug 26, 2019, 07:55 IST | Fiona Fernandez

As the suspense over the fate of the Bombay Local History hangs in balance, let's hope the city can come together to save this unique organisation and preserve its priceless archive

St Xavier's College is celebrating 150 years this year
St Xavier's College is celebrating 150 years this year

Fiona FernandezThe year was 2005. Like any young, slightly impatient writer-researcher, a sense of panic began to take over as a deadline loomed large. I was desperately seeking to get my hands on a rare title about the city of Bombay, or at least hoping to stumble upon extracts from it in a journal or research paper. Time was running out, as my publisher's mood shifted from pleasant to firm-but-polite. Countless trips to the city's public libraries didn't help. It's when a friend, an alumnus of St Xavier's College, suggested I visit the Heras Institute. Hesitatingly and hopeful, I made my way to the campus.

With a little help from the friend, I was able to get access to their collection of titles, and lo and behold, a few extracts from that book as well. When a kind soul in the office learnt that I was working on a book on the city's heritage walks, she allowed me to use the office space to take notes. Around that time, in the studiously quiet environs, I stumbled upon a note that announced the ongoing activities of Bombay Local History Society (BLHS). It opened up a whole new world about Bombay, one that I barely brushed the surface of. Established as an offshoot activity in St Xavier's College, I learnt that BLHS grew out of a seminar under the then director of the Heras Institute Rev. Fr John Correia-Affonso, SJ in 1978.

Years had passed, but whenever work would take me to SoBo or when a Saturday freed up that coincided with one of their talks or walks, I would make an attempt to attend. Helmed by respected urban historians, these sessions were truly special. I particularly recall this one walk centred on the Armenian Church in Fort. It began with an elaborate presentation by history students of the college, and a brief but informative introduction to the walk. Finally, the actual trail was an engaging time warp at this little gem in the heart of Fort. It was unlike any I had attended. And I have signed up for more than a few. Last year, to celebrate the sesquicentenary celebrations of the college and their 40th anniversary, BLHS had lined up several activities that received healthy attendance. Despite the mushrooming of media-savvy counterparts, this society was holding its own, armed with its journal, The Bombay Explorer, to preserve the city's local history.

It's reason why the recent news that the society might have to wind up their activities from the college premises after receiving notice from the college management, came as a bolt from the blue. The announcement was posted on their Facebook page last week, and sent shockwaves among Bombayphiles and urban historians. An emergency meeting has been called for, 'to consider the future of the BLHS' on September 28, where all members have been requested to attend and express their views.

What now? It would be tragic if this society had to move from its home turf, or worse, find no takers to give it a roof to continue its activities. With such a rich legacy and an illustrious set of members, it's critical that the college management and the BLHS find a middle path to keep the society afloat in its original home. For one, its members ought to show up in full strength at the meeting and offer logistically possible solutions to give a new, sustainable thrust.

In a city whose roots are being tugged at from all sides, and its origins getting phased out, one brick at a time, such platforms are our last link to join the dots, to connect the past with the present. It's imperative that this overarching thought unites keepers and custodians of this city's local history to help stop one of its vital voices from going silent.

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
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