Paromita Vohra: A roomful of books

Published: 28 January, 2018 06:33 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

In the 1990s, before one could define one's political position with the particular brittle confidence the Internet offers, like many young people I, too

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

In the 1990s, before one could define one's political position with the particular brittle confidence the Internet offers, like many young people I, too, was always searching for ways to improve myself, to expand my political and philosophical horizons. There are few things in our educational system and in our media that help us contextualise ongoing social and political events. In a time before the Internet, for many of us seeking to make sense of the world, the place that helped us was the indie library.

In Colaba there was the Centre for Education and Documentation (CED) where box files were diligently filled with newspaper clippings on different topics and events: textile strikes, land laws, farmers' movements. As a student, as a film assistant, as a young filmmaker, many are the afternoons I've spent at CED doing research and also getting lost in things that were not strictly part of my research — advertisements in older newspapers, a minor news item about something funny, an intriguing obituary that happened to be in the clipping by chance. I am not sure how much of that stuff ended up in my films, but it certainly made me understand the city and the world a bit better, and added to the sense that learning goes on all your life.

In Santa Cruz, there was Vacha, one of Bombay's first feminist libraries. Begun in 1987 by Sonal Shukla, Nina Haeems and Dineshwari Thondse in Sonal Shukla's house, it was meant to be a resource centre for women beginning to think about feminism, changing personally, organising politically, writing about women academically, when university libraries didn't even have these books. In 1990, Vacha formalised and moved to a BMC school as some educational trusts did then. I remember my excitement at getting a membership, climbing that step-ladder, scanning shelves of books in different languages. There were classics of the Indian feminist movement — The History of Doing by Radha Kumar, My Story by Flavia Agnes, and Recasting Women, to name a few. There were literary and detective novels by women around the world, biographies of movie stars from Madhubala to Hansa Wadkar. There were feminist books on labour, health, medicine, science, books of cartoons and poetry and photographs. It was a roomful of books but it was really a whole world, of desire, a chance encounter with a book, a thrill of possibilities. That's something.

Because it was in a municipal school, it was also many worlds intersecting: the school-kids, the feminist librarians, who also held classes with the students, us wandering middle class young women searching for a story of our own. The heritage of cities is also this kind of story of its people, who build the city in these ways, try to change something, including themselves. It is a commitment to possibilities, of chance encounters for a young girl, maybe from a flat, maybe from the basti to encounter an English writer called Virgina Woolf in translation and start dreaming of a room of her own, even if a notional one. A few days ago, I heard that the BMC is no longer allowing such organisations to function from municipal schools and the library will move to a smaller space and have to give away some of its books. The city seems poorer.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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